Sesame Street is no Preschool

Entry By: The Ottawa Child and Youth Initiative 


Recent media reports have covered the topic of school readiness as it relates to the famous children’s show, Sesame Street. While an important topic to discuss, this messaging has been highly contradictory at best and very harmful at worst. In an era where early childhood advocates are struggling with the unprecedented challenges raised by children growing up in the digital age, the media appears to be telling parents: Don’t worry; it’s OK to put your child in front of the TV! In fact, it may even seriously benefit them.


Two recent articles [i] discuss the educational benefits of Sesame Street for toddlers, and go so far as to say that in some regards, it is comparable to preschool as an educational tool. One eventually notes that it could not replace preschool in terms of social, emotional and interpersonal learning, but this statement is buried at the end of a piece which is by and large highlighting that when parents stick their children in front a TV,  the kids are learning something!


While Sesame Street does touch on some important topics related to child development, the issue here is one of common messaging. Children these days have access to computers, laptops, tablets, cellphones and so many other screens which keep them isolated from human interaction, and away from the outdoors and the physical activity recommended for little ones.


On average, a child in Ottawa spends over 7 hours of their day in front of a screen, which affects their development, and will likely result in negative habits and outcomes. Early childhood service providers and advocates have been working tirelessly to get the message out to parents that children should be stepping away from the TV, especially children under the age of two, for who we recommend zero screen time.  And yet the media is touting the educational benefits of more television.


The findings as discussed in these articles are especially concerning for children from disadvantaged families. These families are already the hardest to reach in terms of helping them to understand the benefits of having their child attend preschool. While early childhood service providers are waging a battle on this front, both of the Sesame Street articles affirm that the show is almost like a cheap alternative to preschool, and even go so far as to wonder why we are putting so much money into the early childhood sector, when our children could simply watch Sesame Street.


This message is daunting for service providers: is harmful to the progress that has been made with some of these families, and will likely hamper their future efforts in this area.


While we are in no way discrediting the research project that was carried out on Sesame Street and its educational components, we would like to highlight that this study’s findings were based on the early years of the show’s broadcast, in the 1960s and 1970s before children had widespread overexposure to television, and screen time in general.


We are not taking a stance against the findings of this research, but rather saying that the media has taken them grossly out of context in their presentation of the facts in a way that is sure to confuse parents, to erode the hard work of the early childhood service sector around common messaging, and ultimately, that is harmful to our children and their development.

[i] http://globalnews.ca/news/2044611/how-sesame-street-helps-kids-do-better-with-school-interpersonal-skills/ AND http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/06/10/kids-can-learn-much-sesame-street-preschool-study