It’s the first day of Spring. You know what that means? It’s Big Bird’s birthday! In order to celebrate Big Bird’s special day, we spoke with Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird, as well as Oscar the Grouch, on the show for 42 years. During his time on Sesame Street, Mr. Spinney has touched the lives of millions of children. We want to thank him for taking the time to tell us about how he first got started on Sesame Street, how the character of Big Bird evolved and what his favorite memories from the show are.
Sesame Workshop: Tell me how you first got involved with Sesame Street.
Caroll Spinney: Jim Henson saw me doing my own puppet show and came backstage afterwards and asked if I wanted to join the Muppets. As a puppeteer I felt the Muppets were the Beatles of the puppet world. Jim said he wanted to build a goofy bird and also Oscar the Grouch, which was going to be a goofy purple thing that lived in a pile of trash.
Our mission at Sesame Street isn’t just to teach children numbers and letters. Encouraging socio-emotional development is also a major part of our curriculum. In particular, our goal is to encourage “self-regulation.” It’s a term our early childhood education experts use to describe a person’s ability to control his or her thoughts, actions and emotions.
Happiness, sadness, anger: These are all emotions that children feel. But they need to be taught to identify what they’re feeling if they’re going to respond productively. For instance, if a child has a toy taken away by another child, he needs to recognize what he is feeling – anger – before he can decide how to respond. Instead of, say, hitting the child who took his toy, if he knows he is angry he can realize that he has options for his behavior. One option would be to take a deep breath and ask for his toy back. Recognizing and labeling his emotions is a critical “skill” for a child to develop if he is going to think and then act instead of merely reacting.
Anger is a simple emotion, but self-regulation is also about identifying more complex emotions: pride, excitement, frustration, etc. At a Sesame Workshop curriculum seminar, an educational advisor once told a story about when her daughter came home and said she was angry. Her mom asked why and the girl said because a friend at school had a pink, sparkly coat that she wanted. Her mom told her she wasn’t angry, she was jealous. Identifying subtle differences between emotions like anger and jealousy is critical if a child is going to learn to be self-regulatory.
Identifying and managing one’s emotions and having self-control is just one aspect of self-regulation, but it is important when helping children develop social-emotional competence and achieve academic success. If a child learns self-regulation skills at an early age, it can help them be better prepared for school and for life. That’s why, when teaching children the building blocks of numeracy and literacy, we also help them learn social and emotional skills.
It’s Pi Day! We’re not sure how the mathematical constant is celebrating, but for us here at Sesame Workshop it’s a great opportunity to look back at Philip Glass’ “Geometry of Circles,” an animated short from 1979 set to the music of the famous minimalist composer. Using interesting animated shorts like “Geometry of Circles” to explain mathematical concepts is just one of the ways we help prepare children for their primary and secondary education. The origins of a child’s ability to understand complex concepts like pi (when you think about it, the notion of a number with an infinite decimal representation is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome) lies in the introduction to numeracy and basic mathematics that Sesame Street strives to provide.
Happy Pi Day! There ain’t no party like an irrational number party because an irrational number party don’t stop (literally).
It’s March, which means the country is about to come down with a serious case of basketball fever and here at Sesame Workshop, we’re not immune. Since the show’s second season, basketball players have stopped by Sesame Street to shoot hoops on the basket next to Hooper’s store and instill in young children a love of learning. In anticipation of March Madness, Sesame Workshop archivist Susan Tofte dug up photos of some of the basketball players who’ve hung out with Big Bird, Oscar and the rest of the gang over the years.
It’s critical that children learn the importance of oral health early in life. That’s why Sesame Workshop was so excited for last week’s launch of “Health Teeth, Healthy Me,” our new bilingual oral health outreach initiative that helps teach kids, parents and caregivers why it’s never too early to start learning how to brush your teeth. Please take a few minutes to watch some highlights from the “Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me” launch, but don’t blame us if you find yourself singing the “Brushy Brush” song for the rest of the day.
Another week, another birthday to celebrate here at Sesame Workshop! This week it’s the birthday of Abelardo, the big, curious green parrot who appears on Plaza Sesamo, the Latin American version of Sesame Street. Although Abelardo has been on the show since 1973, he’s only 4-years-old. He shares the optimism and happiness of his cousin Big Bird, but he’s also very interested in the world around him and loves to learn. He’s still learning how to read, but like kids his age he does know the letters of the alphabet. Despite his size, he’s very agile: Abelardo loves to dance, exercise and even roller skate. And did you know that, unlike most of the Sesame Street and Plaza Sesamo MuppetsTM, Abelardo has a last name? His full name is Abelardo Montoya.
To learn more about Abelardo and all the ways Plaza Sesamo MuppetsTM are bringing the building blocks of education to millions of children across Latin America, click here.
Dr. James Crall is a pediatric dentist and a professor of pediatric dentistry and public health & community dentistry at UCLA. He has served as a member or consultant on numerous national panels concerning oral health and advised Sesame Workshop on the development of our new oral health outreach initiative. We spoke with Dr. Crall in order to learn more about the general state of children’s oral health in this country and ways parents can help encourage an emphasis on oral health.
Sesame Workshop: First and foremost, tell me about the general state of oral health among young children in this country?
Dr. James Crall: Looking at the big picture over time there have been significant improvements in children’s oral health in this country. However, the first ever U.S. Surgeon General’s report on oral health in 2000 noted that there remains a “silent epidemic of dental problems.” Nationally things have improved since then, but despite those improvements there is still disparity in children’s oral health and millions of children still face significant problems accessing dental care, especially young children.
Evan Cheng, associate art director of character design, draws on his digital tablet.
When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, the term “digital pen tablet” didn’t exist. It would be years before the use of personal computers and similar technology became widespread. But nowadays digital tablets are one of the primary tools used by our Creative Resources team, the talented people who take Grover, Elmo and Big Bird and create the vivid two-dimensional images that go in educational books, on clothes and on any other item where Sesame Street MuppetsTM can be found.
Often they’ll begin drawing an image with a pencil and paper, but the advancements made in tablet technology now allow them to complete a drawing in a small fraction of the time it formerly took. Unlike previous tablet technology, the Wacom tablets Sesame Workshop uses allow an artist to draw directly on the screen, as opposed to a separate touch sensitive pad. They also respond to the pressure of the pen, giving the artist crucial control of the thickness of lines. Whether furry or feathery, every Sesame Street MuppetTM is incredibly textured. The artists on our Creative Services team need that level of control to render them accurately.
The tablet also allows the artist to view the drawing from a variety of angles and distances. If the artist zooms in on a particular section of the image in order to add small details, his pen strokes will affect a zoomed-out version of the image as well. That way he or she can see how the details are changing the entire drawing.
The digital pen tablets used by the Creative Resources team are just another example of the ways Sesame Workshop is using technology to encourage laughter and fun, while educating children all over the world.
To learn more about the digital pen tablet technology, watch this video in which Sesame Workshop artist Diana Leto explains how she uses it.
Tomorrow – February 28th – we’ll be trying something new here at Sesame Workshop. A few of us are going to be tweeting about what we’re up to, giving others a glimpse into the work we do here at Sesame Workshop. We’re visiting potential funders, working on handwashing habits in Indonesia, preparing for an event Thursday (stay tuned!), and a few other things. If you follow us on Twitter at @SesameWorkshop, we’ll be retweeting some of the updates from:
Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, @srwestin
Patrick Key, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Development, @PatrickKeySW
Dan Donohue, Senior Director, Global Education, @DJD007NYC
Giao Roever, Director, Marketing and Creative Services, @GiaoRoever
And me, Dan Lewis, Director, New Media Communications, @DanDotLewis
Matt Robinson, Hal Miller, and Roscoe Orman, who have all played Sesame Street's Gordon.
Thursday was the birthday of Gordon, the beloved father figure to the children and monsters that live on Sesame Street. Over the years Gordon has been played by different men: Matt Robinson, Hal Miller and, currently, Roscoe Orman. In addition to their warmth, kindness and strength, they’ve all had one thing in common: Matt, Hal and Roscoe are all African-American. This is hardly a coincidence. The character Gordon was conceived with the intention of presenting a more positive, dignified image of African-American masculinity than many children were exposed to at the time. In honor of Black History Month and Gordon’s birthday, we’re taking a look back at the social significance and impact of the character Gordon.
When Joan Ganz Cooney conceived of Sesame Street, she did so in the wake of 1965’s Moynihan Report, a report by Assistant Secretary of Labor and future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The report claimed that, in the black community, a combination of out-of-wedlock births and absentee fathers were creating a cycle of poverty. If the show was going to fulfill its mission of providing early childhood education for underserved communities, it was going to have to tackle the questions surrounding the black family head on.
Gordon Robinson, who was named after photographer, filmmaker and civil rights activist Gordon Parks, and his wife Susan were the answer. As Roscoe Orman, who has played Gordon on Sesame Street since 1974, wrote in his memoirs, “what the character most significantly symbolizes, his most distinguishing and praiseworthy attribute, may lie in the simple fact that he is a man of African descent who for over three decades has been a respected and beloved father figure to young people of all races and all social classes all across America and beyond.” When the show began, many portrayals of African-American males in television, film and media were largely negative, whereas, in the words of Orman, Gordon “provided a model of patience, understanding, and civic responsibility.”
Michael Davis, the author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, even suggested that Gordon may have served as a model for President Barack Obama when he worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
Meanwhile Susan, Gordon’s wife, served as an exemplary model of African-American womanhood and together they created an enduring image of a black family that is loving and stable.