Lessons from Sesame Street

How to apply teachings from the iconic show to your preschooler's daily routine

© 2009. Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved.
Makeda Mays, director of edcuation and research for digital media at Sesame Workshop. © 2009. Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved.

For Makeda Mays, it doesn't take a village to help raise her nearly 5-year-old son, simply a street.

Of course, we aren't talking about any old street.

Mays is the director of education and research for digital media at Sesame Workshop.

Oh, that street.

In her role, Mays creates content and conducts research across Sesame Workshop's interactive platforms -- online, as well as on portable devices and consoles.

She spends hours of her time, reading and studying, questioning and analyzing the methods of how to effectively communicate to young children -- what will reach them best and why. She knows what she does is important -- she lives with her target audience after all. Mays said her son is a "huge fan" of the show and like many of the children who watch, it helped him to learn his letters and numbers and a legion of other important lessons. But while Sesame Street has guided her son on his social and academic path, her son, in turn, has helped Mays in her job at Sesame Street.

"It's a great opportunity to go home and see first hand what he is gravitating towards and the approaches that he takes," she said. "It's all the more rewarding when I think that the content I'm helping to create is impacting a child in my own home."

And while Mays has tons of facts and statistics and research at her fingertips about children and learning methods and education that help her not only to succeed at her job, but in parenting her son, she says there are plenty of easy ways to incorporate learning into a child's every day routine.

Screen Time Should Be Family Time

Although it is tempting to plop your little one in front of a television or computer while you get something done, educational experts agree that if you do give your kids some screen time -- even that with a purpose -- they'll reap more benefits if they watch it with you.

"I'm an advocate for co-viewing," Mays said. "Educational programs can reinforce other educational moments we are having. I'll never say that a child should be doing 'x' or have a specific amount of screen time," she continued, "but for me as a mom, it is all about striking the right balance. At Sesame Street we do our best to create engaging content that will educate and entertain, so kids are entertained and learn at the same time."

At the Sesame Street website, Mays said the goal is to take the television show a step further, making kids (and their parents) true participators, giving them the chance to interact and engage with what is happening. The site is designed for preschoolers ages 2-5 years old.

"The site is similar to the TV show in design," she said. "Ideally it is for a co-usage experience."

Like the show, the website offers what Mays says is central to the Sesame Street philosophy -- a whole child curriculum -- with plenty of opportunities for preschoolers to learn basic academics -- letters, numbers, shapes and more. The games take a scaffold approach to learning -- children are guided to the right answer by being given more and more information with the hope that they will figure out the answer on their own.

"If a game asks a child to click on a triangle and they click on a square, the game doesn't say 'no'," Mays said. "Instead, it gives more clues on what a triangle is. We try to guide and challenge the child in a way that eliminates the frustration and makes the payoff more rewarding."

That's a good method to employ when you are home with your little one. You don't have to set aside formal time to teach, just incorporate it into your daily routine. Ask her to find three circles in your kitchen. If she has trouble, assist her with hints -- "One circle in our kitchen has numbers on it. It hangs above the sink."

Some of Mays' favorite games on the website include "Elmo's Keyboard-o-rama," an activity for younger children that encourages letter recognition; "Zoe's Pet Shelter," a sorting game; and "Big Bird Gets a Letter," where kids have to help Big Bird find items on his shelf that start with the letter that he got in the mail.

You wouldn't think that visiting a web site can help a child physically, but even a simple task like clicking the mouse can build important motor skills. Mays says that for 2 and 3 year olds, games are designed so kids can use the mouse with parent help or the child can point and the parent can click. Other games encourages kids to do it all themselves. And in this day and age, familiarizing your little one with a computer is more important than ever.

"Some games for toddlers have such rich content that we don't want to deprive them of a chance to interact on their own," she said. To that end, there are some games where kids simply have to press keys to play. (A feature called "PlaySafe," allows parents to lock the keyboard so kids can literally bang on it without causing unwanted downloads or visits to unapproved web pages.)

The learning isn't on the site isn't limited for the kids. A special section on parent tips offers advice, not only on using the website with little ones, but one parenting in general -- ideas for healthy eating, sharing and potty training. Advice is paired with video clips that you can show your preschooler and help drive home whatever lesson you are trying to teach.

"It offers parents tips to encourage what they are doing online and how to extend learning offline," Mays said.

Be Your Child's 'Trusted Guide'

Mays said one of the things her department found when they were doing research for the website is that kids learn better when they have a trusted guide. So they added a muppet host to the site, who carries throughout the web experience, introducing the games and basically just being a consistent presence. As your child grows and learns, it's our job as parents to serve as that trusted guide.

By setting a tone that learning can be and is fun, your child will be welcoming when educational opportunities arise. Preschoolers are naturally enthusiastic and curious, so by playing on those two attributes, it's easy to incorporate learning basics -- math, vocabulary -- into everything you do.

Learning Beyond Sesame Street

When it comes to parenting, Mays says her "training" at 123 has proven to be invaluable.

"I find that I try to create learning moments out of our everyday routine," she said. She and her son will look for things that start with the letter "B" at the grocery store or hunt for items that are shaped like a rectangle. Even a trip outside becomes a learning opportunity when they come across a stop sign and start counting the number of sides and its shape.

Mays says that she and her son do something called "Writer's Workshop" where they talk about letters and their sounds. Most important, they read together, something she says she feels helped her son, who is reading now, tremendously.

"I started off reading to him very young," she said. "I was reading to him in utero. It is never too early."

A great tips from the "Parent Section" of the Sesame Street site suggests practicing letters and sounds together by saying a letter and then linking it to a word, a sound and a movement -- like saying the letter "S", linking to the word "snake" and then slithering like a snake while saying "sssssss." (See, these games really are fun!)

Life on Sesame Street

For millions worldwide, Sesame Street is a part of childhood. For Mays, Sesame Street started off that way, but soon became a way of life.

"I used to watch it," she said. "But since I've been working here, I went to graduate school, got married, had a child. Sesame Street has been a part of my life in the most meaningful ways -- for all these important milestones."

Now it seems like her son might be following in her footsteps. In his room you'll find lots of plush dolls who he refers to as his "friends." He's been to the set and even had a chance to appear on-camera as extras at the laundromat.

"As a mom, it's a dream come true!," Mays said. "To be there with a child and see all his excitement -- he got to check out Oscar's trash can and see his friends like Telly and Grover. It was amazing for him, but I don't know who was more excited!"

Sesame Street -- The Gold Standard for Children's Television and Beyond

When the show first debuted in November 1969, the only way to get to Sesame Street was to watch it on television. Now, decades later, in the middle of an influx of children's media -- 24-hour networks, countless websites, MP3s, CDs, DVDs, books and myriad others -- Sesame Street is always available for visiting.

But for all the research and technology that is behind Sesame Street, its success can be boiled down to one thing -- the people (and muppets) who live, work and play there.

"This is a group of people who truly care about helping children reach their highest potential," Mays said. "So many people here have kids, but even those who don't -- our atmosphere to to embrace all children as our own and do our best to help them succeed."

Spoken like a true parent.