March 06, 2013

By Susan Tofte

Reaching Out to the Families Who Need Sesame Most: A History

Fire Safety, disaster recover, serious illness, healthy eating habits, and divorce. All of these topics have been covered as part of Sesame Street’s long and diverse history of outreach initiatives. When Sesame Street first aired in 1969, there were significant obstacles to Sesame Street reaching children in poor communities – the very children the show most wanted to reach. Meeting this challenge became the Workshop’s first outreach program.

Many low-income families did not own a television set and were barely even aware of public television in 1969. Before Sesame Street could be introduced to these families, there needed to be televisions. The Workshop distributed donated televisions to daycare centers, housing projects, libraries and churches throughout New York City. Mobile viewing units brought the show to inner city neighborhoods, to Appalachia, the Choctaw and other Native American communities and to the children of migrant workers. The mobile classrooms offered facilities for fifteen children at a time to watch the show and participate in playful learning activities directed by volunteer teachers from the community.

Soon after Sesame Street aired, there was an overwhelming demand from parents and teachers for information on the show. To meet this demand, the Workshop partnered with local public television stations to produce and distribute promotional materials. Time, Inc. produced a set of parent-teacher guides to help identify the show’s curriculum goals and provide lesson plan guides for the classroom. By the second season, the Workshop created an outreach division called Community Education Services (CES) and set up 10 small satellite offices. The offices were staffed with 2-3 dedicated workers to work with populations in need in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, Oakland, L.A., Dallas, and Biloxi.

Even the Sesame Street Muppets and cast got involved in the outreach efforts. A touring cast including Gordon, Susan, Bob, Mr. Hooper, and Big Bird went on a seventeen city cross-country tour performing free shows for children. The tour included a stop at the Nixon White House to perform for the children of ambassadors from around the world. Jessie Jackson and his PUSH coalition in Chicago organized four shows in two days and reached over 10,000 kids in the Chicago area in 1970. In three years, the touring show was estimated to have attracted half a million children.

Bringing televisions to communities through television drives and mobile units, touring Muppets with the cast of Sesame Street, and operating field offices around the country were original, creative ways to bring Sesame Street into communities. Today, in Bangladesh, our outreach means that kids in rural areas can watch the show delivered by rickshaw in the country. In the United States, recent educational initiatives such as science education and military deployment, economic uncertainty and oral health are available for free download on the web. Each outreach effort is a simple extension of our mission to reach and teach children.

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