From the era of broadcast to the internet age, Sesame Street has mastered the way to use humor to both educate and entertain children.
Humor is a subjective thing. And for kids, sometimes all it takes is freshly baked cookies.
“All we have to do is put Cookie Monster sitting with a plate of cookies. And Cookie Monster says, ‘Oh no! Me not supposed to eat those cookies! Me need your help!’ That’s a really funny situation, but it doesn’t require a lot of exposition,” said Miles Ludwig, managing director of the Content Innovation Lab at Sesame Workshop.
“Kids immediately get that Cookie Monster really needs their help.”
Ludwig’s lab is the digital arm of Sesame Street. It develops educational and entertaining content used online and in several apps that aim to tickle kids funny bones in order to make learning fun.
Over the decades Sesame Street has evolved through the advent of many technologies, from TVs going mainstream to the popularity of personal computers and tablets, to remain relevant and influential for generations of young children.
“The Innovation Lab was formed to try and stay ahead of new emerging technologies,” said Ludwig. “It’s not about the technology that’s at the top of everyone’s mind just because it’s cool and buzzy. It’s about whether or not that technology will become ubiquitous over time, so that it is available and accessible to all children across the full social and economic scope.”
To educate children while entertaining them usually means humor. Sometimes it is a funny character that a child has become attached to, like Cookie Monster or Elmo, or it is a silly situation that grabs kids’ initial attention and challenges them to keep playing.
“If you think about the Sesame Street television, humor is such a key part of it,” said Ludwig. “The jokes are part of the draw, the humor and the fun of the storylines and the characters. We tend to use humor more as a payoff, for having successfully helped Elmo. Or we can do humor through the setting and bring in the satire or parody people associate with Sesame Street.”
When Sesame Street first aired in 1969, television was a luxury item that many homes didn’t have, according to Ludwig. But even then, the show’s founders envisioned the show as a powerful tool to entertain and educate.
“Getting that balance of entertainment and education right is critical,” says Ludwig. “Children are going to choose Sesame, most of the time for entertainment reasons and maybe sometimes for education reasons.” He says people like to master things, even when they are toddlers.
“Hopefully we are using the stories and the narrative, the magic of our characters and our themes, to really help kids learn how the world works in a way that feels really entertaining,” said Ludwig. “But also, at perhaps some unconscious level, gives the buzz of learning.”
When content is done in a very organic way, there is little distinction between being entertained or being educated, said Ludwig.
“There are plenty of grown-up video games we can point to. Assassin’s Creed might be one example, where there are both factors at play and that is part of the reason for its success. And it feels good; it’s another level of reward.”
One of the tools that the Innovation Lab has embraced is the tablet and its ability to provide interaction anywhere. The Sesame Street Family Play app helps empower parents to entertain, educate and play with their kids.
“A parent might say to the app, ‘I have three children under seven; I’m under a bandshell in the park and it is raining; I have three dixie cups and two umbrellas.’ The app will make up a game that everyone can play together right there in that moment,” says Ludwig.
He said the app is actually about getting families off the screen to create meaningful quality time.
With the mainstream adoption of tablets, the Lab has even greater access to children, wherever they are, said Ludwig.
“We really need to be everywhere that kids are. And we need to be there in ways that are capitalizing on whatever those moments and platforms are. If kids are in the back seat of a car, are we able to create experiences that are really tailored to that moment.”
The nonprofit Sesame Workshop helps others stay innovative by partnering with startups on research projects.
The Content Innovation Lab worked with San Francisco-based startup Toytalk, which has released several apps that use speech recognition for interacting with characters, including SpeakorTreat and SpeakaZoo. While these skew toward older kids, the lab has been working with them to create experiences for young children where they actually talk to Sesame Street characters.
Whatever the technology or whomever the partner, Ludwig and the Content Innovation Lab are trying to find the best and most fun way to get children thinking and laughing.
“Laughter is so fundamentally at the heart of engaging with children, and it’s so much of what Sesame is about,” said Ludwig.
He believes laughter makes kids smarter, stronger and kinder.
“Making that connection in the brain between positive, joyful experiences and learning is such a great thing that stays with human beings for their whole lives.”
Photos by Richard Termine.