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What You Can Learn From Sesame Street

Christine Yount Jones

A critical look at what Big Bird and Sesame Street are teaching your kids.

"Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, Oscar, Tully and Grover! Happy birthday to you!"

Sesame Street has been around for over 25 years. How has this ground-breaking educational show influenced children?

According to a recent report from the American Psychological Association: "Children who watched Sesame Street regularly learned more than those who did not. Children learn vocabulary, letters and number skills from such programs."

But not everyone agrees with this assessment. Whatever Sesame Street has given kids, some educational specialists say we should give it back. Here's how you can learn from Sesame Street's strengths and weaknesses.

SESAME STREET'S SECRETS TO SUCCESS
Almost half of all American preschoolers watch Sesame Street on a weekly basis-over 5.8 million children between the ages of 2 and 5 watch an average of three episodes per week. What keeps them watching?

Sesame Street uses these two effective elements, among others:

*Puppets-Preschoolers love puppets. To them, Muppets Kermit and Elmo are real. That's why puppets make great learning tools.

So capture your kids' attention by using colorful puppets. For puppeteering ideas, check out Instant Puppet Skits: 20 Stories From People Who Met Jesus (Group Books).

*Visual Field Trips-Sesame Street viewers learn about recycling, crayon factories, construction workers, families of varied races and cultures, and much more. The show's producers know that kids long to discover their world.

So why limit your ministry to the walls of your church? Show kids how God is at work in their neighborhoods, in all kinds of people and throughout the world.

BUT WHY CAN'T BIG BIRD READ?
Despite its successes, some say Sesame Street just doesn't make the grade.

*Unmet Goals-One of Sesame Street's strongest critics is Dr. Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It (Simon & Schuster). She writes: "It is truly amazing that everyone seems to have bought the notion that this peripatetic carnival will somehow teach kids to read-despite the fact that the habits of the mind necessary to be a good reader are exactly what Sesame Street does not teach: language, active reflection, persistence, and internal control."

Healy says one of Sesame Street's goals is to prepare kids for reading, but its researchers have produced no evidence that viewers' reading skills are improved.

Likewise, don't assume kids are learning what you think you're teaching them. Evaluate your program, talk to children and parents, and ask tough questions to determine if kids are learning what you want them to.

*Passivity-According to Healy, watching Sesame Street develops passive brains. She says: "The rapid, minute-by-minute alterations in context-from a pirate ship...to a cartoon of letter symbols-defy sequence or logic and make it impossible to see relationships, understand the sequence of cause and effect, or keep a train of thought in motion."

Yale psychologist Dr. Jerome Singer says of Sesame Street, "too often the children simply failed to follow the material being presented from one sequence to the next."

Watch out for this pitfall in your ministry. If kids repeatedly don't understand something, they may quit trying to understand it. You don't want your kids checking out mentally because they don't comprehend what's going on. Speak slowly, ask questions for clarification and provide meaningful transitions from one activity to the next.

*Learning Without Meaning-Kids may learn to identify letters and numbers from Sesame Street. But do they know what these symbols really mean?

Not necessarily, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC states: "Children's responses to rote tasks do not reflect real understanding of the information. For children to understand fully...the information must be meaningful to the child in context of the child's experience and development."

It isn't enough for children to memorize scripture verses, either, if they don't know what they mean. What 4-year-old child knows what "begotten," "propitiation" or "atonement" mean? Teach kids Bible verses in simple translations of the Bible and help them understand the meaning of what they're memorizing.

Copyright© 1992 Group Publishing, Inc. / Children's Ministry Magazine

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