Sally Hall: Sesame Street played a huge part in early educational life

Big Bird and the Sesame Street gang. PIC: TM and � 2014 Sesame Workshop
Big Bird and the Sesame Street gang. PIC: TM and � 2014 Sesame Workshop
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Stripy jumpers, dungarees and a giant yellow bird.

So beloved are they to me that it’s hard to imagine a world without them.

This month Sesame Street celebrates its 45th birthday.

Yet the progressive values and diverse cast that made the programme so special still feel fresh and valuable today.

As a child of the Seventies, I was introduced to the programme in its audacious heyday, when it stood out as truly unique and ground-breaking.

To me, the brownstone stoops of New York seemed just as exotic as a giant blue furry creature with a prodigious propensity for munching cookies.

To be fair, I was closer to New York when I first started watching Sesame Street than I am now.

My parents moved to Canada for a couple of years when I was four and my brother just a baby.

I can still remember the delicious routine of sitting down to watch Sesame Street with a glass of grape juice, sprawled on a squidgy cushion my mum lugged all the way from West Yorkshire to Manitoba.

What I didn’t know then was that the programme makers were overtly deploying educational research to formulate the content and storylines of the show.

Of course as a four-year-old, I just thought it was hilarious when Cookie Monster got caught eating a forbidden snack in the shape of the letter ‘O’.

Sesame Street was the first show to structure each episode specifically to capture kids’ attention and interest.

Because, as one of the programme’s advisory board members observed: ‘If you can capture children’s attention, you can educate them.’

The programme-makers’ overt intention was to teach literacy and numeracy skills to pre-school kids.

They also hoped to model positive behaviours such as conflict-resolution and altruism; playing out scenarios between its human actors and Jim Henson-created puppets to embed values like kindness and tolerance.

The intention was to ‘level the playing field’ so that middle class children didn’t start school with an unfair advantage.

Our trip to Canada meant I didn’t start school until I was six and had already missed a year of formal education.

Despite this apparent setback, I was ahead of most kids in my class on literacy and numeracy – and could speak French too.

I must credit my mum with the bulk of the glory for my nascent educational achievements. But Sesame Street is a close runner-up; especially for the French as much of the content of the Canadian version was French-speaking.

In a country where 9.5 million people (almost one-third of the population) are primarily French speakers, this bilingual approach was imperative.

On our return to England, there was an aching gap in my life where once there had been Big Bird, Ernie and Bert.

Eventually, Sesame Street was broadcast here too. By then, there were new characters (Elmo emerged at some point; a bit TOO cute for my liking) and guest stars from Benedict Cumberbatch to Michele Obama became a regular feature.

As children’s TV boomed in the Eighties, Sesame Street became just one of many shows to offer an educational approach and model positive values.

But none can recapture the purity of spirit that launched Sesame Street; its innovative involvement of women and ethnic minorities, its aim to level the playing field - and the sheer audacity of asking a man in his forties to converse with a green fluffy crosspatch who lives in a bin.

Alexandra Shulman. PIC: PA

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