I have mentioned before that, for young children, television is not one-way communication. No matter the form, even with traditional stories, kids love being involved and the more you can do to help them feel involved the better.
In an early segment of Sesame Street, James Earl Jones recited the alphabet at a slow, deliberate pace. The letters appeared before he spoke each one. Heavily studied (as always with Sesame Street), the producers identified what they then called “The James Earl Jones Effect”, which was a result of the beautifully clear, powerful voice combined with the long gaps. Watch the segment below…
What the team found was that children would readily take up the invitation to join in as James Earl Jones recited the alphabet and, on first watch, would say the letters along with him. But as children got more familiar with the segment and the alphabet, they would say the letters before James Earl Jones could. So it was clear that the segment did its job and children were learning the alphabet but what also came from that is that children love knowing what’s happening and they love getting in there first and getting it right.
There is a real sense of empowerment that comes from knowing what the next letter is and that’s a thrill for kids. It is one of the reasons young children love a favourite story or will happily watch a favourite episode over and over. They adore knowing what comes next. They love the repetition. And it really engages them in communication. They aren’t just watching – they are taking part.
This is the James Earl Jones effect.
You can apply this no matter what form you are creating. For example in Planet Cosmo we engaged the audience directly and asked them questions, making them a part of the experience. Fluffy Gardens had a much more traditional straightforward narrative but, right from the first episode, there were sections written in that would repeat so children would begin to know the rhythm and know what’s coming. Even on first watch, there would be parts of an episode where the young audience already knew what was coming because we set it up deliberately for that to happen. And I knew those episodes could run and run. Far from getting boring, within our target age group, each repeat would become even more enjoyable.
This is something that comes with audience awareness. It happens when you’re not asking ‘what story do I want to tell?’ but instead asking ‘what experience do I want children to have or be a part of?’
It’s another one of those phrases we hear a lot these days: Education by stealth. I heard it most recently at the Children’s Media Conference last week (which was fantastic) and sometimes it just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t help feeling that there is another phrase we should be using.
So what’s wrong with education by stealth? Well first let’s look at how it is used. I usually hear it in two contexts:
1) When someone wants to dress up a non-educational product as educational. They reverse-engineer some sort of educational aim into their description. For example, making all these children smile in this game where you feed them Happy Meals helps your child’s hand/eye co-ordination! It reminds me of Josh Selig‘s term, to curriculate – to retrofit your content with education. To me, I rarely buy that this does anything for actual education.
2) Much more positively, I hear it used by people who genuinely want to give children content that will be good for them but they appear to doubt that their audience actually wants to be educated. So the idea is that you hide the education among entertainment and slip it to children that way, so they don’t even know they’re learning stuff.
Now chances are if you have ever used it you have done so in the second context. And there is something to be said for the idea when you have content that is not meant to be educational but you’re hoping to add value in some way.
But let’s examine it further.
Education by stealth makes the actual learning out to be some undesired ninja that must stalk your children and find a way into their brain when they least expect it. It denies the idea that the educational material may actually be interesting. It’s like it says the last thing we would want to do is have a child realise they are learning something, as if it would turn them off completely.
I reject that idea.
Firstly because how can we possibly inspire a love of learning that will stay with children if we make it our business to hide from them any knowledge of that learning? And secondly, because some of the best shows on the planet don’t hide their educational content. They put it right out there in front and let kids soak it up and love it. Do they entertain? Absolutely they do. But it’s not education by stealth because they don’t try to slip in that education without anyone realising.
Sesame Street does not hide its educational material. Deadly 60 does not hide its educational material. Horrible Histories does not hide its educational content. Quite the opposite. These shows revel in what they can give to children. By embracing the educational content, they don’t have to hide it because they can work with it to make it fun, make it exciting and make it interesting. These are some of the most entertaining children’s shows and they all inspire a love of learning in their own way. This is not education by stealth. It is something else entirely. These shows all embody the phrase I think we should be using instead:
Education by total awesomeness.
Learning is not something to be hidden. It is something to be celebrated, made exciting, presented as an adventure. Because that’s exactly what it is. The truth is, children love to learn. We just need to want to teach them. Not all children’s content needs to be educational but, if that’s what you’re going for, then really go for it.
Education by total awesomeness. It’s what the top shows do and it works.
Today I present four more recommendations from the bookshelf that should be of interest to anyone developing or producing content for children –
Creating Animated Cartoons with Character by Joe Murray
I first bought this book back when it was an ebook PDF direct from Joe Murray’s site and instantly bought the book again when it got a proper print run. From the creator of Rocko’s Modern Life and Camp Lazlo, this book is another that goes through every part of the process from creation all the way to the screen. Yes, this is full of practical advice, basic steps and lists of “dos and don’ts” that any content creator needs to know but it has more than that. What makes this book different is Joe Murray’s personal point of view. This book in many ways is like the grounding voice of reason that we all need to hear sometimes and that just comes through in how it is written.
Being very much on the small independent side of things, I have actually had an easier time than most but let’s never kid ourselves that this is an easy business. It is not. It can feel heartbreaking at times. Joe Murray knows this and part of the book almost feel like a reflective part of his older self is writing a letter to his younger self – there is much we can learn from this Joe Murray.
G Is For Growing by Shalom M. Fisch and Rosemarie T. Truglio
G Is For Growing summarises thirty years of Sesame Street research. Sesame Street tests EVERYTHING and has done from day one. With testing and how they chose to use the information that came from that research, they managed to create a wonderful balance of entertainment and education that set the template for just about every educational show that followed. While this book, being written by academics seemingly for academics, doesn’t quite achieve the same level of balance, it contains a wealth of information that will be of use to anyone making children’s shows. So much can be gained by looking at the research that led to great shows like Sesame Street rather than just looking at the shows themselves and trying to reverse engineer them. G Is For Growing is like the Sesame Street source code.
Anytime Playdate by Dade Hayes
Offering a look, as the full title states, Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or, How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend, this book is a great read both from the perspective of a content creator and as a parent. A parent himself, Dade Hayes makes it his mission to find out just what goes on behind the scenes in the children’s television business – the story behind the content his young daughter seems so hooked on every day. This book explores the good, the bad and the ugly of the industry and, even though written from a very personal viewpoint, feels very open-minded, inviting the reader to come to their own conclusions about what he finds out.
And even for those of us in the industry (at least for those of us on the more European side), there is the odd surprise here and there, and not all of them good ones. For the content creators, his exploration into the development of Nick’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan is of particular interest as it, like so many other shows over the last ten years, aims to repeat the success of Dora the Explorer. A very well-written and enjoyable read.
Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years Of Life On The Street by Louise A. Gikow
This is a wonderful celebration of Sesame Street, packed full of information, stories and fantastic pictures. It is a real treasure, exploring the show from its creation all the way to today (well, 2009). Beautifully designed and laid out, it is one of those books that is just a treat to pull down from the shelf and open up on a random page.
And for those of us in children’s television, it is an inspiration. I put Sesame Street up there as the best children’s television show of all time and it still has so much to teach those of us producing content for children. While there are other books on Sesame Street of great value, such as G Is For Growing above, in my view this book is the most enjoyable.
That’s it from the bookshelf for this post. As always, aim to learn and get better at what we do. Our audience will benefit and, if they benefit, we do too.
Muppet puppeteer Jerry Nelson (The Count, Mr.Snuffleupagus, Robin the Frog, Floyd Pepper and more) passed away last week. That sad news got me thinking about just how much Sesame Street has meant to me.
In the mid-Seventies, I spent a significant chunk of my preschool years living in Singapore where I was exposed to much more US television than was being broadcast in Ireland. So I grew up with Sesame Street, The Electric Company and others and those influences have stayed with me to this day. When I think back, it becomes easy to understand ‘ few around me spoke English and my parents had completely different accents, so my Sesame Street friends actually outnumbered any constant English-speaking influences at that time.
And they were friends. That was one of the real successes of Sesame Street. It was a real place, populated with real people and, in every episode, they invited me to join them. Made me feel part of the family. The format worked perfectly for me, with the main street sections tying everything together while the show mixed in so many repeated segments that became familiar and more fun each and every watch. I would never tire of Bert trying to get to sleep with the sound of Ernie counting fire engines, or the baker falling down steps, or the mysterious Number Painter. I think some of my all-time favourites were the segments with the musician, Don Music, and Kermit and of course Grover serving the blue man in the restaurant (also Jerry Nelson).
Every element of the show contributed. I know when most people think Sesame Street, they think Muppets first, but it’s important to acknowledge the role of the real live human beings, who grounded everything and I think made children feel more secure when watching the show. You knew you were safe when Gordon was around, though you did have to behave. Maria, Bob and David were so charismatic ‘ adults with all the authority that comes with that, and yet as fun and innocent as any child. Sure, Mr. Hooper could be a bit grumpy sometimes but that was a strength of the show ‘ it wasn’t always sugar-coated. It felt honest. It was just like a real family.
And on top of all that, there was the animation and live-action snippets and, so important, the songs. Has there been a show since that demostrated that much creativity and experimentation? I don’t know. Some of those sequences were pretty out there (Daddy Dear, for example) but so many worked brilliantly ‘ the two little dolls sequence, for example, or even the little glimpses into US life, which differed so much from my own. And throughout the show, Joe Raposo’s songs were so special. Beautiful, fun, childlike and yet never patronising to children or their parents. He set the tone for that show.
Sesame Street entertained on just about every level.
But we all know it did so much more. The show educated. It didn’t hide it. It didn’t try to sneak a lesson past a kid without them knowing. It wasn’t embarrassed by it or compromised by it. The show embraced it.
Sesame Street celebrated learning.
There are a huge number of stars behind the scenes who helped make that show what it was ‘ educators, writers and researchers who were all of vital importance to the show. Joan Ganz Cooney and her colleagues demonstrated beautifully that education and entertainment can work hand in hand, each enhancing the other and coming together to become something greater.
And so, back in Singapore in the mid-Seventies, I felt like one of the Sesame Street family. The result was that I came home to Ireland with a mish-mash of accents, a Singapore dialect mixed with a combination of my parents and a large helping of American. And with the help of Sesame Street, I came back able to read, count and with a healthy desire to learn.
Years later, when I was well outside the target age group, Channel 4 in the UK aired the show and I met new characters like Telly and eventually that favourite of children everywhere, Elmo. But unfortunately, over this part of the world, Sesame Street ceased airing and dropped out of my life.
But Sesame Street hardly ended there. The television world changed and Sesame Street had to evolve and change with it but it still airs in the US and so many of our favourite characters are present and accounted for. It spread in many other forms internationally, including Northern Ireland’s own Sesame Tree with Sixteen South. As I wrote on this site a couple of years ago, Grover and friends now help my new generation learn to read and count. Just last week, I was on holiday and the one thing the girls watched during that time was the Elmo in Grouchland movie. About five times. Sesame Street is back in my life after all these years.
So what does Sesame Street mean to me? Sesame Street is family. It is honesty. It is a celebration of learning. An honest acceptance of life as it is today while striving for a far better tomorrow. More than anything, Sesame Street represents my faith in good television. The show is indisputable proof that entertainment can educate without one element trampling over the other. Television can be great thing. It can even change the world. And when anyone doubts that, I just point them to Sesame Street. Sesame Street showed me that we can do something special with television.
And now I try to do just that.
Jerry Nelson will be sorely missed. He taught children to count, millions of children. That is incredibly special and something to be celebrated.
And to everyone involved in Sesame Street over the years, thank you.
My daughter Daisy learned the letter ‘D’ from classic Sesame Street DVDs. Okay, so she now knows all her letters but learning ‘D’ was a big deal back in the day.
Couldn’t I have taught her ‘D’ myself?
It took Grover for her to retain it. Grover is apparently a better educator to my daughter than I am. Regular Grover, that is ‘ that’s what he’s called in our house to distinguish him from Super Grover. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I do just about everything that lovable blue guy tells me to. But it’s a real indicator of the power of television. A power not always used for good but, in this case, was very positive.
As a fan, it seems odd to me that Sesame Workshop are sitting on years and years of fantastic educational television, thousands of episodes, and are only releasing the odd special or classic set here and there with very few episodes. Or unconnected clips on their website.
I know whole seasons are too much to hope for given the volume but how about a full 26-episode set, Sesame Workshop? Featuring every letter of the alphabet? Or 31 even, giving the vowels twice the importance, as you did on the show?
If anyone knows anyone at Sesame Workshop, please tell them to sort it out and get back to me when the set is coming out. Thanks!