Lessons From Sesame Street for Makers of Early-Education Technology

What's to come?
Aug. 6 2012 1:45 PM

Can Video Games Unite Generations in Learning?

What makers of technology for early education can learn from Sesame Street.

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What if we viewed the digital deluge as a new opportunity to tap into the potential of interactive technologies to help reunite generations in playful learning together?

Photograph by James Woodson

This article emerges from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies and their effects on policy and society. On Thursday, Aug. 9, Future Tense will host an event called “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader: What Kids’ Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming, and Sharing Tells Us About the Future of Elementary Education” in Washington, D.C. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.

Whether you’re at a restaurant or on an airplane, you can’t miss changes in adult-child interactions from just a generation ago. Everyone is plugged in. It seems almost quaint to see kids and adults engaged together in screen-free play. Four-year-olds now consume three hours of media per day, and fourth graders more than five hours. And it is not just youth—adults are also increasingly finding it difficult to turn off their digital lives. This has inspired a tremendous amount of philosophizing about how smartphones, iPads, and gaming consoles may be hurting both childhood and parenting.

But given that the number and variety of digital options will only increase, wouldn’t it be more productive to explore how we can effectively transform media consumption into quality family time? What if we viewed the digital deluge as a new opportunity to tap into the potential of interactive technologies to help reunite generations in playful learning together? In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the potential of video games for good—President Obama has even appointed an expert adviser who is fashioning the first national policy initiative on video games’ role in education, health, the environment, and numerous other areas. But a vital component of games in the public interest has remained largely overlooked: intergenerational gameplay.

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To understand why intergenerational gameplay is so important, let’s go back a half-century. In the 1960s, a generation of parents worried that children were being hypnotized by the television. Policymakers, educational psychologists, and parents were all concerned that the “boob tube” was hurting kids’ development. FCC Chairman Newton Minow famously referred to television as a “vast wasteland” when challenging broadcasters to embrace programming in the public interest.

This call-to-action prompted pioneers such as Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett to pursue a simple but revolutionary idea: use TV to teach the basic skills and values that children would need to begin school. Their response to Minow’s challenge was Sesame Street. World-class creative talents like Jim Henson joined leading educators to create television content that would engage both the child and the parent. In addition to providing great entertainment grounded in research, the programming fostered “co-viewing.” Children who watched Sesame Street with their parents learned more from the show than those who watched it alone. Parents encouraged their kids to apply their own background knowledge to what they saw onscreen—so when they saw a word or a number they might count further or recite the alphabet.

Now, more than 40 years later, Sesame Street remains a preschool staple, positively impacting youth throughout the world. In fact, the success of the format has stimulated an entire media industry sector with tens of thousands of engaging educational programs on various platforms that parents and children enjoy together.

In many ways, today’s video games are analogous to television in the 1960s. The perception of many policy makers, educators, and parents is that video games are “a vast wasteland.” Certainly video games have become ubiquitous; 80 percent of 5- to 8-year-olds regularly play games. The number increases to 97 percent for teens. 

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