Bob Shilkret on 40 Years of Sesame Street

Questioning Authority celebrated Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary by asking Bob Shilkret, Norma Cutts DaFoe Professor of Psychology, for his thoughts on the impact and significance of the popular PBS children’s television show.

QA: Is it an overstatement to say that Sesame Street revolutionized children's television?

BS: I think it's fair to say that Sesame Street revolutionized children's television. Forty years ago, the most popular children's program was Mickey Mouse Club. Sesame Street certainly took programming to a different level. It was probably the first children's program to have an explicitly cognitive focus, which is interesting when you consider that Piaget and Chomsky were extremely influential then in the "cognitive revolution" in developmental psychology, with easy extensions to education.

QA: Has the show been a significant educational tool, or simply good entertainment?

BS: Sesame Street is probably the best-researched television program ever. It's been found to be very effective in helping children in areas it is designed for: the more children watch it, the higher they score on cognitive tests. Given some related research, I would think it would be particularly helpful in homes where the primary adult language spoken to children is in the so-called "expressive" style: words and phrases about actions and social routines, including prohibitions. Many children in working-class homes hear primarily this style; so do later-born children in any socioeconomic class home. It will still be helpful for children who hear primarily "referential" speech (naming things and events), but somewhat less so--they already hear a lot of adult language naming things and events, the kind of things Sesame Street is designed to do.

QA: Has the show been effective in socializing young children?

BS: This is a very interesting question. Sesame Street, in contrast with a program like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, is not really designed for socialization goals. If excessive television watching actually decreases the amount of parent-toddler communication, it might actually hinder language development slightly. No television program, however well designed, can replace parent-child communication. This is true for the "Baby Einstein," "Baby Mozart" videos, too. Disney recently lost a class-action suit for these products. It can no longer claim those products give youngsters a cognitive boost because there is no evidence at all to support that proposition. The take-away message: Talk with your child early and often; and talk about Sesame Street! Now, that will facilitate socialization.

QA: Some people have criticized the show for the choppy, quick segments, which they claim have exacerbated attention deficit problems in children. Is there any merit to this claim?

BS: This is pop psychology; at least I hope it isn't so prevalent to be regarded as an urban myth. The rapid-pace format of Sesame Street was designed to grab the attention of preschoolers, and it does well at doing that. More recently, Sesame Street has decreased its rapid format, favoring slower pacing and clear story lines, similar to the pacing of Mr. Rogers. Look elsewhere in the family environment of young children for more powerful correlates of attentional difficulties.

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