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Big Bird Hits the Church

Lisa Newman

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. Don't believe me? Log on to's back issue archive to give it a try!

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.

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