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How Sesame Workshop tackles tough issues

It’s not all child’s play. Over its 50 years, Sesame Workshop has addressed everything from racism to terrorism.

How Sesame Workshop tackles tough issues
[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

Since its debut 50 years ago, Sesame Street has been an imagined home-away-from-home for children around the world. Alongside friends like Elmo and Cookie Monster, they learn how to count, read the alphabet, and wiggle and dance to silly songs. By design, children watching Sesame (and its international coproductions) also learn how to cope with darker and more challenging ideas and experiences. Here are a few of the ways that Sesame has expanded its reach and fulfilled its mission over five decades of videos, books, and more.

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1969

The first episode of Sesame Street airs on public television in November. The show’s founding team includes producer Joan Ganz Cooney; educational psychologist and Carnegie Corporation vice president Lloyd Morrisett; Captain Kangaroo executive producer Dave Connell; and Muppets creator Jim Henson.

[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

1970

The Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television bans Sesame Street. “Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” one member of the commission tells the New York Times. The commission reverses itself 22 days later, after national attention.

[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

1972

Sesame launches in Brazil with a Portuguese-language version and Mexico with a Spanish-language version.

1975

Sesame opens children’s centers in prisons in order to facilitate visits with incarcerated parents. The centers include toys, books, and child-friendly furniture.

1975

Actor Jason Kingsley, who has Down syndrome, appears in his first Sesame Street episode. He will go on to appear in more than 50.

[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

1983

Sesame airs “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper,” a groundbreaking episode in which Big Bird grieves the death of his friend. (Actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, died of a heart attack the prior year.) “Why does it have to be this way?” Big Bird says on the episode, giving voice to sadness and anger.

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[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

1998

Rechov Sumsum/ Shara’a Simsim, an Israeli-Palestinian coproduction, debuts after the Oslo Accords. “Muppet Diplomacy” becomes a model for future programs in Kosovo and Northern Ireland.

[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

2002

Sesame airs an episode on dealing with trauma in the wake of 9/11, featuring an FDNY firefighter who comforts Elmo and explains the purpose behind the equipment he carries. The episode became a model for future content dealing with natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

2006

Sesame launches a content initiative called Talk, Listen, Connect for children with parents deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military zones. In the first episode, Elmo’s dad, Louie, creates a way for them to stay connected before his deployment by saying goodnight to the moon each night before bed.

[Illustration: Drue Wagner]

2011

Grover is named a road safety ambassador by the United Nations.

2016

A coproduction in Afghanistan, Baghch-e-Simsim, stars Zari, a Muppet who wears a hijab as part of her school uniform. The show had a positive effect on how boys and girls view gender equity, according to a study conducted by Glevum Associates.

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2017

Julia, a Muppet with autism, makes her debut. Sesame worked with 14 autism organizations in order to ensure that Julia would both help families with autism manage their daily lives and address stereotypes held by the broader public.

2019

Content for refugees from Syria and Myanmar launches following $100 million grants from the MacArthur and Lego foundations.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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