Since it first hit the airwaves in 1969, Sesame Street has successfully wooed preschoolers with its mix of puppets, humor, and simplicity. In fact, many parents and Sunday school teachers grew up on Sesame Street themselves. Who doesn’t know Oscar the Grouch? Numerous long-term studies prove that the show excels at preparing children for school. Students who watch regularly before first grade outperform classmates all the way through high school.
How do the pros at Sesame Street do it? Perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from them that we can use in our Christian education programs?
You face challenges similar to those the writers and producers of Sesame Street face: how to reach irregular participants along with regular attendees, and how to teach children who vary in age, experience, and background. Consider these building blocks and adapt them to your ministry.
1. Puppets as the Smart Ones-Early demos of Sesame Street featured the Muppet characters and people separately, but testing showed that children lost interest when people scenes started. So along came Big Bird, bringing puppets onto the street! Interestingly, kids recall what the puppets say more than what the people say. So writers quickly learned to give teaching lines to the Cookie Monster, Elmo, and their furry friends.
Building Block: If you have a puppet ministry, use those characters to pass on key Bible lessons. Or use a costumed human character to capture and hold kids’ interest.
2. Use of Children’s Voices-Similarly, children watching the show pay closer attention to the voices of other children than of adults.
Building Block: Why not have elementary kids read the Bible story to preschoolers? Or have kids act out key parts in a skit.
3. Beyond the Rhyme-The use of rhyme for teaching is older than the Greeks. But Sesame Street hones the use of rhyme to perfection. When producers analyzed a segment for the letter “J,” they found that kids recalled the rhyming pattern more than the letter itself. So they rewrote the segment to make “J” stand out in the rhyme.
Building Block: If you’re teaching a rhyme about God’s love, consider putting the word “love” at the end of a line — as a key rhyming word — rather than buried in the middle of the line. The same goes for other concepts as well.
4. Physical Humor-Children just don’t get verbal humor as easily as they do physical stuff.
Building Block: When writing skits for preschoolers, skip the jokes and have someone fall down or get food on his face if you really want to make them laugh.
5. Using Drama to Teach-Sesame Street producers cut a Bert and Ernie sketch about nightmares on the show when kids recalled more of Ernie’s bad dream than Bert’s peaceful song that followed. The volume and intensity of the dream sequence overshadowed the gentleness of Bert’s comforting song.
Building Block: When you tell Bible stories, vary your voice to give the greatest drama to the parts you want to emphasize. With the story of Jesus calming the sea, for example, you might be tempted to raise your voice and quicken the pace for the storm. You’ll make a stronger teaching point for preschoolers if you emphasize Jesus calming the storm instead.
6. Magazine Format-Lecture preschoolers for longer than three minutes and get ready for squirms. So why can Sesame Street captivate the same kids for a whole hour? The secret is the program constantly changes scenes.
Building Block: Changing scenes in Sunday school is easier than you think. With the multitude of resources today, you can probably find a story, song, puzzle, game, craft, video, puppet show, and more for nearly any story.
7. The Familiar-Children give attention to new information, so they seem to learn best from segments where the new thing is the teaching objective itself. Obviously, they’ll learn sharing better in a segment with a familiar scene of two kids passing a doll back and forth than one where teenagers share a car.
Building Block: In Sunday school, you can make use of the familiar in two ways. Draw similarities between a Bible story and what children know. “Peter was a fisherman. Have you been fishing? Peter fished every day.”
Or after telling a Bible story, retell it in a modern-day setting. The story of Joseph and his brothers becomes a story in which a child gets pushed around on the playground, but finds comfort in knowing God is with him.
8. Positive Examples-Showing a child how not to do something usually backfires. Sonia Manzano, Sesame Street’s “Maria” for 25 years, explains, “If we want to teach how to cross a street safely, we’d never have a character cross against the light to show how dangerous it is. The child would only remember and emulate that part of the scene. They wouldn’t remember Maria saying, ‘Make sure you’re holding the hand of a grown-up.’ ”
Building Block: Keep things positive. If you do tell a story with wrong behavior, follow with what is right. Make sure the positives outweigh the negatives.
9. Same Old Lesson-For Sesame Street’s letters of the day, vowels appear three times more often than consonants. Because vowels are so important to the English language, they require extra emphasis. This also increases the odds that an occasional viewer will see them. Re-running certain segments also allows kids to focus more closely on the main objective each time, less distracted by the novelty of peripheral details.
Building Block: Repeat the same activities from other seasons. And instead of focusing on a different memory verse each week, choose four or five simple verses for preschoolers to know, and repeat them over and over all year long.
10. Kids’ Ability to Learn-A myth of preschool education is that it’s glorified baby-sitting. Yet research shows that we learn more by age 5 than we do the rest of our lives. The results of this kind of research led to the beginnings of Sesame Street. Educators realized they could prevent the need for remedial work in early grades if they intervened before kids even reached school.
Building Block: The same is true in your preschool ministry. You aren’t baby-sitting or just filling time until kids get older. Your ministry is a critical foundation for all the other Christian education children will receive. Believe in the eternal value of what you’re doing!
11. Fundamentals-Critics of Sesame Street in its early years derided the show’s goals as simplistic. After all, most children learn their ABCs and numbers with little trouble. Why make these the main objectives of a show?
The producers stuck to fundamentals, certain that by forming a solid foundation in the early years, children would have a better experience in elementary school. Studies show that regular viewers of Big Bird and pals grow into more proficient readers and have better grades than non-viewers.
Building Block: We might think that children will learn “God is love” or “God created the world” so easily that we can quickly move on to more sophisticated theology. But what happens long-term if we don’t lay a solid foundation of basic truths? Major on the fundamentals with preschoolers.
12. Range, Not Averages-Theoretically, good marketing targets an “average” consumer or an “average” family. But Sesame Street recognized from the beginning that very few people are average. The producers realized that continually aiming for the middle would mean always landing over the heads of some children and under the heads of others. To hold their audience of 2- to 5-year-olds, Sesame Street needed to provide segments for varying levels. A mixture would keep all kids’ interest over time.
Building Block: In a Sunday school of different ages, be brave enough to include activities you know will work for some children and not for others — or you might not reach some of them ever!
13. Prioritized Goals-With high expectations of what children can learn, the creators of Sesame Street put together a massive list of educational goals. Producers knew, however, that trying to reach all these goals in one season would mean achieving none of them.
So they work to prioritize their goals; they emphasize primary goals every season but present only a few secondary goals each term.
Building Block: Pull together your children’s ministry leaders and list the goals for your programs. Agree on primary and secondary goals, and plan your classes accordingly.
14. Sharing With Parents-It’s no secret that parents will always have the greatest influence on preschool children. Sesame Street uses this positive influence by providing resources for parents. Starting with a newsletter in 1981, Sesame Street now publishes a magazine for parents.
Building Block: Do you have a regular newsletter or take-home paper that communicates to parents what you’re teaching their children and how they can emphasize those lessons at home? The reinforcement at home will better ensure that children learn the lesson of the week.
15. Listening to Parents-Sesame Street sees parents as allies, and the show’s producers depend on their feedback to develop programming. Volunteer parents share their children’s reactions to various shows and segments, helping the producers understand how their programs affect the kids emotionally.
Building Block: The nature of Sunday school topics makes it all the more important for you to know what impact certain lessons have on kids when they leave church. Are you giving parents an opportunity to give you vital feedback?
16. Collaboration-At its inception, Sesame Street brought together researchers, psychologists, educators, writers, parents, musicians, and animators to work together at every stage of production. At the root of Sesame Street’s success is the checks and balances this array of professionals provided.
Building Block: While we usually make use of school teachers and musicians in our Christian education programs, what about other gifted individuals in your church who could make a valuable contribution-even if they only helped with planning?
17. Constant Evaluation-What keeps Sesame Street successful after all these years? Constant evaluation-before programs air-and a willingness to admit when something doesn’t work.
If the problem is a flawed presentation, then it might mean tweaking the show. Or if the problem is a faulty concept, it can mean dropping segments entirely. For example, Sesame Street wanted to address divorce, an issue faced by a large percentage of the audience. The producers showed test programs to select groups. What they learned — despite the show’s deliberate, concentrated efforts to emphasize that the parents loved the child as much as ever — was that young viewers believed that the parents loved their child less as a result of the divorce. So the show dropped the idea.
Building Block: If something doesn’t work, don’t keep doing the same thing because it’s easy or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Shake things up by introducing new elements. Find out what your lessons and words are really saying to preschoolers by asking them at the end of lessons what they learned.
18. Participation-Sesame Street engages viewers through games where the children answer questions or correct mistakes that the puppets make. It uses “lag time” when counting or reciting the alphabet; this helps kids learn in a fun way when they beat the actor or puppet to the punch.
Building Block: As a Christian educator, you have an obvious advantage over television. Not only can you ask questions and make silly mistakes for kids to correct, you can answer children’s questions and develop relationships on the spot. You can involve other senses, such as serving snacks that reinforce the story. You can put crayons in hands and give hugs.
With direct access to children, your potential for teaching exceeds that of any TV show. And your goals have eternal implications — all the more reason to employ every possible tool to foster these kids’ relationships with Christ!
Lisa Newman is a Christian education director in Birmingham, Alabama.