Sesamstraat Prepares Children for a Changing Cultural Landscape
In springtime, the Netherlands is covered in fragrant stretches of hyacinths, daffodils, and of course, world-famous Dutch tulips. People from all over the world flock to Keukenhof Gardens, south of Amsterdam, to see the 70-acre grounds that display more than 7 million flowers and 1,000 types of tulips. Not many people would associate these graceful flowers with a pig, but that’s exactly what happened in April 2006, when the Keukenhof Gardens named a new type of tulip after Purk, Sesamstraat’s baby pig Muppet.
The ceremony marked the first time that a tulip had been named after a character from children’s television show, and it was almost certainly the first time that any flower was named after a pig. Purk herself attended the naming along with Bert and Ernie and Sesamstraat’s cast member Sien. Little Purk is the newest addition to Sesamstraat, having joined the show in December 2003, and has quickly become a favorite among Dutch viewers.
The show’s other Muppet characters have become almost as much a part of Dutch culture as the tulip; the show has been broadcasting in the Netherlands since 1976, making it one of the longest-running Sesame Street co-productions. Sesame Workshop producer Basia Nikonorow says that the show “has as much of a classic status [in the Netherlands] as Sesame Street does in the United States.”
Helping children appreciate mutual respect and understanding
As the Netherlands experiences rapid growth among minority populations, most notably those from Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, and Suriname, modeling respect and acceptance is chief among the show’s goals. Sesame Workshop associate producer Estee Bardanashvili points out that the show “puts forward a positive image of a multicultural community.”
The cast itself is diverse, including cast members of different ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds (Dutch, Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, and Algerian), and the show seeks to break negative stereotypes through the Street’s diversity. Bardanashvili mentions one stubborn stereotype in the Netherlands that paints Moroccan and Turkish youth as troublemakers, and notes that Sesamstraat addresses this by presenting cast members of these ethnicities who are more interested in fixing problems than causing them.
Sesamstraat also shows Purk, Pino, Tommie, and Ieniemienie learning to express their emotions in a healthy way, including negative feelings like anger and fear. Bullying is a particular focus as it is a social concern that has long been on the Netherlands’ radar. At a European conference on initiatives to combat school bullying, attendees noted, “bullying is a real and major problem. Studies have shown that approximately 385,000 pupils in the Netherlands are the victims of bullying.”
In the bullying segments, the Sesamstraat Muppets learn how to communicate respectfully with one another. While adults occasionally step in to talk with the Muppets during these segments on disagreement, Bardanashvili says that it is generally the Muppets themselves who heal rifts and are shown communicating respectfully with others.
In one clip, Pino and Tommie upset Ieniemienie, telling her she can’t join their soccer game because she’s a girl. The two boys eventually return and apologize nicely to her, saying they didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. They invite her to play and she joins their game.
Another segment shows how everyone benefits when neighbors work together to achieve a common goal. When Pino, Tommie, and Purk are all banging on different pots and pans, their neighbor gets annoyed and tries to get them to quiet down by making his own racket by playing a horn. Gerda, an adult Surinamese cast member, steps in and offers to act as a conductor to help them turn all their noise into music. The scene ends with them happily making music together -- an apt metaphor for social harmony.
A bold new look for the classic Dutch show
As the country’s ethnic landscape has evolved over the years, the show’s visual landscape has also gone through some changes. When the show launched back in 1976, co-producer Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (the Dutch public broadcaster) constructed a set resembling a town square. This gradually took on more life and began to feature several town buildings, a tree house, a store, and a nest for Pino, a large light blue bird who is Big Bird’s Dutch cousin.
In 2004, Sesame Workshop and Nederlandse Omroep Stichting decided to give the set a complete overhaul, and asked designers to submit new and imaginative set ideas. The winning design came from Erly Brugmans, who suggested an abstract look that broke completely from the traditional set and presented a highly imaginative and playful concept. Each part of the set is built to look like a bunch of giant wooden children’s building blocks, and on the inside, each “block” contains a little house for the Sesamstraat residents.
Nikonorow explains that these blocks “are stacked in disarray across the set. They’re all movable and can be rearranged.”
She describes the set as highly dramatic, noting that the set includes a lot of sky, which is interesting because it represents the look and feel of the country’s long horizon. There are sand dunes that represent the coastline and signal that the ocean is nearby. Broccoli trees scattered around the block provide greenery and a playful imaginary quality.
Elmo puppeteer and Sesame Workshop senior creative advisor Kevin Clash describes the set as being “like a puzzle that you can move around any way you want.”
His reaction to the set also applies to Sesamstraat as a whole.
“It’s a child’s imagination, and it’s gorgeous,” says Clash. “I don’t know how they did it, but it works beautifully.”
Nederlandse Programma Stichting (NPS)
N1 + N3 (Zappelin)