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Study: Sesame Street boosts early childhood learning

Abby Cadabby blows bubbles in “Bubblefest” as part of Sesame Street’s 42nd season. Photo credit: Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop.

Watching international versions of Sesame Street has a positive impact on early childhood learning practices and learning outcomes among children in other countries, according to a forthcoming meta-analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Lead researchers Dr. Marie-Louise Mares and Dr. Zhongdang Pan examined 24 studies of more than 10,000 children in 15 countries and found that watching Sesame Street helped children achieve a variety of learning outcomes, such as increased health and safety knowledge.

The study pulls from various studies that mention the academic and economic advantages and learning outcomes associated with early childhood learning programs.

(Next page: What does Sesame Street help children learn?)“The significant, positive effects of cognitive, learning, and socio-emotional outcomes observed in the current meta-analysis represent real educational benefits for the millions of preschool-age children around the world who visit Sesame Street via their televisions,” said Dr. Mares.

“Various international teams of scholars from across disciplines have concluded that initial cognitive delays translate into life-long inequities of achievement and opportunity and foster the intergenerational transmission of poverty, thereby reducing the efficient use of public spending on primary or secondary education,” the authors state in the report.

Some studies “found positive relationships between amount of viewing of Sesame Street at age 5 and subsequent high school science grades, time spent reading books for leisure, and attitudes toward achievement.”

Additionally, researchers set out to discover if Sesame Street teaches some content areas better than others, and they grouped learning outcomes into three categories:

  • Cognitive outcomes: Includes “traditional” preschool concepts such as size and distance
  • Learning about the world: Focuses on physical and social environments, health, different cultures
  • Social reasoning and attitudes: Social and political emphasis

The study also mentions past research indicating that early exposure to educational programming is beneficial, and states that its purpose is to discover if other countries experience the same benefits and learning outcomes among young children.

“Watching Sesame Street was associated with learning about letters, numbers, shapes, and sizes — the elements of basic literacy and numeracy that remain fraught for millions of children globally. It was also associated with learning about science, the environment, one’s culture, and health and safety-related practices such as washing one’s hands or wearing a bike helmet. Finally, it was also associated with more pro-social reasoning about social interactions and more positive attitudes toward various out-groups, including those that were associated with long-standing hostilities or stereotyping.”

The authors point out that watching Sesame Street should not replace early childhood learning programs, but noted that this more immediate form of educational programming can prove effective in reaching certain populations that traditionally do not always have access to high-quality preschool programs.

“This is not to undercut the vital importance of investing in high quality preschools or providing caregiver training to improve the quality of early childcare. However, UNICEF and various international teams of researchers have pointed to the urgent need for effective, scalable, and affordable interventions to provide enrichment to children in low-income regions before developmental delays accumulate,” according to the report.

“Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries” will be published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology in its May/June issue, Volume 34, Issue 3.

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