In 1969, Sesame Workshop started with a single bold question: could television be used to educate kids? With a barrier-breaking cast, deep early childhood education expertise, and the unforgettable Muppets of Sesame Street, our founders set out to do just that. We’ve been asking the big questions—and reaching inspiring milestones—ever since.
Revisit the iconic moments you remember and discover the innovative ways that we’ve delivered on our mission through the years.
November 10, 2019 marked the 50th Anniversary of Sesame Street. A yearlong celebration honoring the longest-running children’s show in American history included a road trip across the U.S. with free events for families, a landmark Sesame Workshop study on personal identity, and a celebrity-filled primetime special on November 9.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared May 1, 2019 to be “Sesame Street Day” as he unveiled the city’s newest street sign and proclaimed that West 63rd Street between Central Park West and Broadway will now officially be known as Sesame Street. The event featured Sesame Street Muppets Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Elmo, and friends, plus Sesame Street cast members of yesterday and today and Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who sponsored the street naming resolution. Inspiring remarks were delivered by Mayor de Blasio, Sesame Workshop president and CEO Jeff Dunn, and Council Member Rosenthal, with a large crowd of onlookers joining a spirited sing-a-long of the Sesame Street theme song, “Sunny Days.”
Less than 3% of global humanitarian aid is dedicated to education, with only a small fraction benefitting young children. The LEGO Foundation, building on the bold philanthropy of the MacArthur foundation, granted Sesame Workshop $100 million to provide children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian crises with the chance to learn through play and develop the skills they need to thrive. Working in partnership with BRAC, the International Rescue Committee, and New York University’s Global TIES for Children, our play-based curriculum will foster engagement between children and their caregivers, nurture developmental needs, and build resilience, helping to set children on a path of healthy development
Nationwide, more than 2.5 million children go to sleep without a home of their own every night—and that number is on the rise. In response to this growing problem, we launched an initiative to engage and support children and families who are experiencing homelessness in 2018. Starring in videos, storybooks, and interactive activities, the resilient and relatable Lily is the face of this Sesame Street in Communities program.
With Sesame Street in Communities, a multimedia initiative that brings our educational resources directly to children and families who need them, we’re helping teachers, doctors, social workers, and caregivers give children a strong and healthy start.
In 2018, we partnered with Nelvana to create Esme & Roy, Sesame Workshop’s first new animated show in over ten years. The program follows a young girl and her best friend on their adventures as the best monster babysitters in Monsterdale. Aimed at children ages four to six, it offers a creative new approach to teaching “learning through play” and mindfulness strategies.
Met with an enthusiastic critical response, Esme & Roy was part of a new wave of innovative content. Today, working for new platforms and with new partners, we have more shows in development than ever before.
An estimated one in 59 children in the United States is on the autism spectrum. While the diagnosis is common, public understanding of autism is not. Through the See Amazing in All Children initiative, we help support families of autistic children and reduce the isolating misconceptions that still surround autism with the help of Julia, the first Sesame Street Muppet with autism. Julia’s 2017 television debut was greeted with hundreds of media stories and millions of social media impressions, but the biggest marker of our success was the overwhelming response from the autism community and beyond.
Over 30 million children have been displaced in the global refugee crisis, losing homes and loved ones and enduring the kinds of trauma that puts them at risk for lifelong impairment. Children are remarkably resilient—we know that if we reach them early, we can help change their trajectories. But we also know we can’t do it alone—we need partners who understand the plight of refugees as well as we understand the needs of young children. So, with a historic support from the MacArthur Foundation, we teamed up with the International Rescue Committee to build the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response.
In Afghanistan, Sesame co-production Baghch-e-Simsim stars our first Afghan Muppet, Zari — an energetic six-year old girl who loves to go to school and play sports. Zari promotes gender equity, serving as a role model for young girls and showing boys that it’s okay for girls to go to school, play cricket, and aspire to a career. Zari’s younger brother, Zeerak, joined the cast the following year. Zeerak looks up to his big sister, promoting the idea that women’s place in society extends beyond the home.
2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in state or federal prison, but few resources exist to support young children and families coping with that reality. To help children with an incarcerated parent cope, we launched an initiative to equip adults and children with strategies and resources to help them feel comforted and connected through this difficult time.
In 2006, military deployments were at record levels, but existing resources often overlooked the youngest members of military families. Sesame Street reported for duty with a multimedia initiative that equipped families with child-friendly tools to tackle the unique challenges of military life. Topics include deployments and homecomings, grief and loss, military-to-civilian transitions, and how to stay healthy as a family.
In September 2001, Sesame Street was in the middle of production. Following the terror attacks on 9/11, we knew we had to address children’s emotional needs in the aftermath. We created a special series of Sesame Street episodes to give kids tools for coping with fear, loss, and culturally-motivated bullying—including one starring real New York City firefighters. In 2005, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we aired a special episode about Big Bird dealing with the aftermath when his nest is destroyed in a storm. We also created a series of resources that families still turn to during natural disasters.
In South Africa in the late 1990s, an estimated 1 in 4 children were affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, either orphaned by the disease or infected themselves. Working with South Africa’s Department of Education, we developed the first-ever preschool curriculum to address HIV and AIDS, and created our groundbreaking HIV+ Muppet, Kami. Today, Kami and her friends still help reduce the stigma surrounding AIDS in the region.
In the mid-1990s, a Sesame Street co-production in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza introduced original characters who modeled cooperation and mutual respect to the youngest generation of Israelis and Palestinians, earning a letter of commendation from President Bill Clinton. Throughout the mid-2000s, Sesame Workshop produced other empathy-building co-productions in high-conflict areas, including Sesame Tree in Northern Ireland and Rruga Sesam and Ulica Sezam in Kosovo.
As part of a race-relations initiative, Whoopi Goldberg and Elmo compared and celebrated the colors and textures of their skin and fur in a now-classic segment. This tradition would continue through the years with “I Love My Hair,” “Lupita Nyong’o Loves Her Skin,” and other segments that promote empathy, cultural competence, and mutual respect and understanding.
For many years, the adults on Sesame Street thought that the shaggy, elephant-like creature called Mr. Snuffleupagus was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. But Snuffy wasn’t imaginary. Big Bird knew he was real, but his grown-up friends didn’t believe him. That changed in 1985. In the wake of a string of high-profile child abuse cases, we wanted to show children that the caring adults in their lives would believe them. By acknowledging that Big Bird was right about Snuffy all along, Sesame Street validated children’s feelings, encouraging them to share important things with their parents and caregivers.
Everyone’s favorite furry red monster was once an unnamed background character. Before long, Elmo’s signature voice and cheerful attitude began to emerge. In 1984, he made his first appearance as “Elmo.” He would go on to be a Sesame superstar —one of the most recognized children’s characters in the world!
Will Lee, who portrayed beloved shopkeeper, Mr. Hooper, passed away in 1983. The decision was made not to replace the actor, or have the character “move away.” Sesame Workshop’s curricular experts and script writers carefully planned how to tell young children about death. The program won an Emmy Award and struck an emotional chord with a generation of viewers.
The success of Sesame Street in the United States sparked interest from broadcasters around the world. The first international co-productions—Vila Sésamo in Brazil and Plaza Sésamo in Mexico—premiered in 1972, followed by Germany’s Sesamstrasse in 1973. Through this process, we developed a model for creating co-productions that reflected the educational priorities and cultural sensibilities of individual countries—a model that’s still in use today.
Once Sesame Street found its preschool audience, Sesame Workshop—then known as the Children’s Television Workshop—asked how we could serve other populations and meet other educational goals. In 1971, we launched The Electric Company to combat the literacy crisis facing children ages 7-10. Throughout the years, we created other classic animated and live-action shows like 3-2-1 Contact, DragonTales, and GhostWriter to meet kids’ changing needs.
Sesame Street’s first episode opened with Gordon showing a new child around the neighborhood, telling her she’d “never seen a street like Sesame Street.” With celebrity guests, catchy songs and animations, and the beloved Muppets of Sesame Street, the show was an instant hit with children and parents alike. By the end of its first season, Sesame Street had reached millions of preschoolers.
Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sesame Street founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett had a simple but revolutionary idea: television could help prepare disadvantaged children for school. They tapped educational advisors, researchers, television producers, artists, and other visionaries to create what would become the longest-running children’s show in American television history.
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