Study: 'Sesame Street' Improves School Readiness

Iconic show has "a positive impact on performance throughout elementary school"

Sesame Street has positive impact on a child's school readiness
Researchers studied whether groups of preschool children exposed to Sesame Street when it first aired in 1969 continued to experience improved outcomes.. Sesame Workshop

Think Sesame Street -- and the menagerie of muppets, animals, birds, people, and snuffleupaguses that live there -- are just about entertaining preschoolers? You may want to adjust your tv set. A new study finds that the iconic television series helps kids get ready for preschool, and eventually elementary school.

University of Maryland economist Dr. Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College economist Dr. Phillip B.

Levine, found that kids who watched the show did better in preschool and elementary school than those who did not watch. They also discovered that in many cases, Sesame Street prepared kids for elementary school just as well as preschool does.

“It is remarkable that a single intervention consisting of watching a television show for an hour a day in preschool can have such a substantial effect helping kids advance through school,” said Levine.

Kearney and Levine started their research by looking at groups of preschool children who watched Sesame Street when it first aired in 1969. They found that Sesame Street had a very clear impact on how a child did in school. And the more a child watched the show, the better they did. When the show first began to air in 1969, it was broadcast on both UHF and VHF channels. According to the study, "UHF broadcasts were weaker, which meant that children growing up in areas where Sesame Street was broadcast on UHF had limited access to the television show."

“Children who were preschool age in 1969 and who lived in areas with greater Sesame Street coverage were significantly more likely to be at the grade level appropriate for their age through school. The effect on grade-for-age status is particularly pronounced among boys and black, non-Hispanic children,” said the authors.

“Living in a location with strong reception instead of weak reception reduced the likelihood of being left behind by 16 percent for boys and 13.7 percent for black, non-Hispanic children.” These percentages mirror the benefit that many preschoolers get from Head Start, a preschool program for low-income families.

The authors compare the show to a popular trend today -- MOOCs, or massive open online courses. When the show first aired, millions of kids would watch, much as they do today. Levine says this is important, because it is a cost-effective way to help large groups of children early on.

 “Our analysis suggests that Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there, at a cost of a just few dollars per child per year, with benefits that can last several years.”

Kearney adds, “With so much emphasis on early childhood interventions these days, it is quite encouraging to find that something so readily accessible and inexpensive as Sesame Street has the potential to have such a positive impact on children’s school performance, in particular for children from economically disadvantaged communities.

These findings raise the exciting possibility that TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged to address income and racial gaps in children’s school readiness.”

The folks at Sesame Street reacted positively to the study.

“Sesame Street was born in the late 1960s during a time when the importance of early childhood experiences began gaining more traction," said Dr. Jennifer Kotler Clarke, Vice President, Research and Evaluation, Sesame Workshop. "Since our founding, Sesame Street has revolutionized early learning by using media to make educational opportunities accessible, helping children grow smarter, stronger and kinder. Drs. Kearney and Levine’s research reaffirms the intention Joan Ganz Cooney and the team that created Sesame Street set out to accomplish. We are thrilled to see the positive effects of Sesame Street as a population-based intervention – especially for those less privileged,”

The study, “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street,” will be published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Interested in reading more about Sesame Street? Check out A Sesame Street Tour and Lessons from Sesame Street.

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