Why Sesame Street is So Good For Underprivileged Kids

June 9th 2015

Laura Donovan

"Sesame Street" gives children more than just laughs and silly voices to imitate, according to a new paper. Study authors Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College found that the beloved program can be as helpful to a child's learning as preschool, especially for low-income kids.

According to the findings, children who watch the show are more likely to remain at the appropriate grade level for their age, and this is especially true for males, those from disadvantaged neighborhoods, and African Americans. The researchers also found that "Sesame Street" has such a positive educational influence on children that the benefits of watching the show are the same as attending preschool. The academics who wrote the paper say that this could be the result of "Sesame Street" incorporating scholarly material into episodes.

In the segment below, for example, Elmo is chosen to participate in the Amazing Alphabet Race:

Mila Kunis also did a learning video about verbs for "Sesame Street" several years ago:

The study observed a nearly 15 percent decrease in the likelihood of kids falling behind if they had easy access to "Sesame Street."

Though the researchers don't believe these findings mean "Sesame Street" should replace preschool altogether, they do feel that this could indicate a bright future for massive open online courses (MOOCs). The study authors, after all, say "Sesame Street" was the pioneer MOOC.

“If we can do this with ‘Sesame Street’ on television, we can potentially do this with all sorts of electronic communications,” Kearney told The Washington Post. “It’s encouraging because it means we might be able to make real progress in ways that are affordable and scalable.”

The authors reiterated the "bang for your buck" quality of "Sesame Street" education in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

"Sesame Street satisfies the basic feature of electronic transmission of online educational material," they said. "Both Sesame Street and MOOCs provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings."

Jennifer Kotler Clarke, VP of research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop, told The Washington Post that children respond well to storytelling, which could explain the show's immense success.

“Storytelling is critical,” Clarke said. “If you organize information in storytelling, children are more likely to learn it. And adults are, too.”

"Sesame Street" has always been effective at making unexciting yet important things look like fun and not just with regards to schoolwork. In a 2012 public service announcement, "Sesame Street" highlights the value of dental health with a viral video featuring big name celebrities such as Bruno Mars and Naomi Watts. The clip has almost 25 million views:

One of the show's characters was even a player in the last presidential election when Mitt Romney's proposed cuts to public broadcasting triggered this ad from the Obama campaign about Big Bird: