“Sesame Street” premiered 50 years ago this year, and from the start, its mission has been to make quality early education accessible for every child. The show’s idea of education isn’t limited to just letters and numbers: It means empathy, kindness, resilience and the other social and emotional skills kids need to thrive.
To celebrate the milestone, “Sesame Street” and the nonprofit behind it, Sesame Workshop, are hosting a yearlong celebration filled with celebrity cameos, social media campaigns and even a nationwide road trip. Over the last five decades, the Peabody Award-winning show has tried to put kids first with its purposeful writing and direction that tackle tough topics in the life of a child.
There was the “Sesame Street” special in 1983 when the show grappled with addressing the sudden death of Will Lee, the actor who portrayed the neighborhood’s beloved Mr. Hooper.
The Sesame Workshop team met with child psychologists, religious leaders and other experts to create a special so the show’s little viewers could say goodbye to Mr. Hooper. In it, the other characters had to teach Big Bird that his friend wasn’t coming back, but that he’d still have his memories of him.
“And we can remember him, and remember him, and remember him as much as we want to,” Big Bird said in the episode. The special aired on Thanksgiving, when Sesame Workshop knew many parents and caretakers would be home to talk with their kids about the episode.
That same decade, the show changed one of its characters’ plots amid a growing cultural awareness of the problem of child sex abuse. Originally, Mr. Snuffleupagus was a character who would enter and exit the scene before anyone but Big Bird could see him. That meant other characters didn’t believe Big Bird when he’d tell them about his friend. Not wanting to discourage kids from coming forward for fear of being doubted, the show decided to introduce Mr. Snuffleupagus to everyone else, and Big Bird’s friends assured him they would believe him from then on.
And then there was 9/11. After the terrorist attacks in New York City, where “Sesame Street” is filmed, the show aired an episode in which Elmo becomes traumatized by a fire at Hooper’s Store and is frightened by the firefighters. He then visits a fire station where he learns more about their jobs as well as fire safety tips. The interaction served as a way to help kids struggling with the real-life events, and as a nod of appreciation to the FDNY for its indispensable help during the attacks.
According to Sherrie Westin, president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, it’s this effort to see the world through the eyes of a child that has helped “Sesame Street” become one of the longest-running shows in history.
“One of the most impressive things about Sesame to me is that we’ve always stayed true to our origins, our basic DNA in terms of addressing the needs of young children,” she said. “And I think the reason we stay relevant is because by always focusing on what those needs are, as the needs change, we step up.”
Throughout its five decades, the series has not been without its controversies. It’s also been the site of the occasional culture-war battle: In recent years, there’s been an ongoing debate in the fandom about whether the characters Bert and Ernie are gay, an idea many people reject and plenty of people argue passionately for. (Brown Johnson, executive vice president and creative director at Sesame Workshop, shrugged off the question in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. “People can think whatever they want” about Bert and Ernie, she said. “You want to think they’re gay? OK. You want to think they’re not gay? They’re not gay.”)
Still, the show has remained a favorite in many homes, even after a move from PBS to the subscription-based HBO in 2015 (new episodes air on PBS nine months after they originally run on HBO). For parents who grew up with the series and now get to watch it with their kids, the 50th anniversary season is a reminder of what their families have learned together.
Courtney Leonard told HuffPost that watching “Sesame Street” is “a family event” in her home. She loved the series as a child, and her son now enjoys it, too. She said the show has helped her tackle common parenting struggles like picky eating, sharing and going to bed. She also appreciates the show’s dedication to creating a world that reflects the one she’s raising her son in.
“The show and its characters are so diverse ― Abby has a stepdad, Rosita speaks Spanish to her abuela, Julia is autistic ― but everyone is friends,” she said. “So for my son to see that, I think, has a profound impact on him, and it will continue as he grows up.”
Leonard said she thinks the show is setting her son up “to be a person who celebrates diversity later in life.”
Denise De Robles credits “Sesame Street” with teaching her English as a child. When she started kindergarten, she knew only Spanish, and at the recommendation of a teacher, her parents had her start watching the show. She told HuffPost the series proved to be an education in all kinds of ways.
“I’m sure I would have learned English regardless, but somehow I feel that learning through ‘Sesame Street’ taught me more than the language,” she said. “It taught me about being caring and compassionate. To this day the show continues to help parents help their kids understand the changing world. Like the whole Julia storyline. It helped me understand how I could explain autism to my daughter.” De Robles said she’s “grateful” her daughter can enjoy “Sesame Street” as much as she did as a kid.
Sesame Workshop now has a presence in more than 150 countries. Its South Africa co-production features a Muppet with HIV, and the nonprofit’s first original Afghan Muppet promotes girls’ empowerment and education. Sesame Workshop is also working on content for refugee children around the world, thanks to a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and another $100 million from the Lego Foundation.
Across the globe, the value of “Sesame Street” and its sister productions doesn’t only lie in its colorful characters and entertaining songs. As Westin said of Sesame Workshop’s mission for its young viewers: “‘Smarter, Stronger, Kinder.’ It’s not just a clever tagline. It’s literally true.”
Clarification: This post has been updated to expand on the show’s move to HBO.