SALT LAKE CITY — 2019 marks 50 years since the cheerful strains of "Sunny Days” first played from TV sets across the country, and "Sesame Street" introduced kids to Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and all the rest of the colorful cast of muppets and humans that appeared on the PBS children's show.
Over the course of its 50-year history, "Sesame Street" has grown far beyond its New York City street set, going on to reach countries, cultures and children far removed from that initial setting. The groundbreaking children's show is now available in 150 countries, which, according to KUED education coordinator Elise Brimhall, is especially remarkable because PBS makes shows specific to each of those countries, instead of simply dubbing U.S. episodes.
“They're actually creating muppet shows that are relevant to those countries and to the children in those countries," Brimhall told the Deseret News. "The issues that we're discussing here in the U.S. or in Utah are definitely going to be different than issues discussed, perhaps, in the Middle East. 'Sesame' has been very aware of that and has really grown over the years to make their program available and accessible to every child.”
For example, in the South African production, "Takalani Sesame," show creators introduced an HIV-positive puppet named Kami to address the AIDS epidemic in their country.
Along with creating shows for young viewers throughout the world, "Sesame Street" is also dedicated to educating the parents and teachers through "Sesame Street in Communities," an online resource that offers activities, videos and other "bilingual multimedia tools to help kids and families enrich and expand their knowledge," according to the website. With a focus on early childhood development, the website provides resources for parents and educators that teach adults how to talk to children about topics such as divorce, trauma, homelessness, autism, incarceration and family bonding.
Amanda Stout, who teaches at The Avenues Preschool in Salt Lake, said she uses "Sesame Street's" resources, especially the songs, in her classroom, and makes a point to recommend them to parents to help their children learn outside of school.
"It’s a good learning resource for parents and teachers alike, to try to teach them the alphabet, colors, letters and about how they’re feeling," Stout said.
"Sesame Street in Communities" works in tandem with the TV show, highlighting characters that the show's young audience has come to know and trust. In recent years, the show's cast of muppets has widened to include characters who struggle with things that their audience can relate to. In 2011, "Sesame Street" introduced a bright pink muppet named Lily whose family was experiencing homelessness; in 2013, Alex, a young boy muppet whose father was incarcerated came aboard the show; and April of 2017 brought Julia, the show's first muppet with autism. All these muppets and others have found a safe place and friends on "Sesame Street."
Brimhall and Stout agreed showing kids programs and characters they already recognize is helpful getting kids comfortable with whatever subject they're learning about. Stout said mentioning certain characters always gets students excited and interacting with her.
"I start talking about them and the kids are like ‘Oh yeah, I know them!’ and they start talking about them, too," Stout said.
KUED uses "Sesame Street in Communities" resources while doing community activities and training educators. When KUED produced the autism documentary "On the Spectrum," they shared "Sesame Street in Communities" resources on the subject with viewers. Brimhall said KUED also partners with Salt Lake City homeless resource centers such as Family Promise and shares "Sesame Street's" curriculum with them.
"We love using these resources because they introduce topics that a lot of our kids are facing here in Utah and in the U.S., as well," Brimhall said.
After working for 50 years to build trust with its audience, "Sesame Street" is well-positioned to help its vulnerable viewers. Brimhall thinks kids' familiarity with the characters is especially helpful when they are dealing with something hard, like homelessness. It helps to see characters they know to recognize they aren't the only ones.
"Kids, whatever they're experiencing, don't feel alone. And that's what these resources strive to do," Brimhall said. "The kids are getting to experience the fact that they're not alone through a familiar program like 'Sesame Street.'"