Marie-Louise Mares
Zhongdang Pan
Publication Date
April 1, 2013

University of Wisconsin-Madison

"...Sesame Street is an enduring example of a scalable and effective early childhood educational intervention. The significant, positive effects on 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."

This meta-analysis of children's learning in 15 countries, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, draws upon 24 studies focusing on the impact on learning outcomes of viewing the television series Sesame Street. It is based on studies of the programme's effects, conducted with over 10,000 children as part of an effort to examine the extent to which children outside the United States (US) may learn from viewing Sesame Street on TV in diverse social, political, and economic circumstances - including in some of the world's economically poorest regions. Shaped by formative research, Sesame Street aims to create entertaining yet educational (edutainment) programmes with characters, sets, and content specifically designed for young children. Although many countries simply air Sesame Street dubbed into the local language, there are numerous versions of the programme that are created specifically for a particular country, co-produced with companies in that country. In 2011, there were 39 different international co-productions of Sesame Street.

Sesame Workshop uses summative research to examine the educational impact of the programme once it is broadcast. That summative, proprietary research forms the core of the current study, together with a few other studies located through online databases. The authors examined outcomes across 3 outcome categories: cognitive outcomes, including literacy and numeracy; learning about the world, including health and safety knowledge; and social reasoning and attitudes toward out-groups [groups to which a person does not psychologically identify as being a member].

In short, the effects were significant across different methods, and they were observed both in high-income and low- and middle-income (LAMI) countries. [An effect size may be defined as a descriptive statistic that conveys the estimated magnitude of a relationship without making any statement about whether the apparent relationship in the data reflects a true relationship in the population]. Specific selected findings:

  • Watching Sesame Street was associated with learning about letters, numbers, shapes, and sizes. 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 associated with more prosocial reasoning about social interactions and more positive attitudes toward various out-groups, including those that were associated with long-standing hostilities or stereotyping. "The fact that over 90% of estimates contained some control for the child's initial performance on that outcome considerably enhances the plausibility that these were causal effects on those children who were selected to participate or who chose to watch."
  • Researchers found an overall effect size of 0.29. This translates into an 11.6 percentile gain (in terms of education). That is, an average child who does not watch Sesame Street is at the 50th percentile, whereas a child who watches is at the 62nd percentile.
  • Moderation by methodological features:
    • Effects by outcome category: There were significant positive effects for each of the 3 outcome categories: d [unbiased estimate of the average effect size] = .189 for social attitudes, d= .284 for cognitive outcomes, and d = .339 for learning about the world.
    • Effects by country income: 82% of whole-sample effect size estimates came from studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries. The average effect size from these countries was significant and positive (d = .293). Most effect size estimates from low- and middle-income countries came from experimental or quasi-experimental studies (74%).
    • Effects by sample SES (socio-economic status): There were 9 studies in which researchers explicitly reported sampling children exclusively from low-SES populations. Overall, the effect of exposure to Sesame Street in low-SES samples was positive and significant (d = .413).
  • With regard to scalability and access, millions of children watch the programme. For example, in Bangladesh, nearly 7 million children aged 4-7 had watched Sisimpur (Khan et al., 2007). In Indonesia, 7.5 million children aged 3-6 had watched Jalan Sesama (Synovate, 2009). In South Africa, 2 million children aged 3-9 had watched Takalani Sesame (Nielsen, 2003). In Egypt, nearly 12 million children aged 2-8 had watched Alam Sim Sim (Synovate, 2007). Even in India, where only 58% of children are estimated to have access to television, 21% of children aged 2-8 had watched Galli Galli Sim Sim in the week prior to the survey, and over 20 million children were watching on a regular basis (GyanVriksh Technologies, 2008).

Email from June Lee to The Communication Initiative on April 8 2013. Image credit: © 2013 Sesame Workshop. "Sesame Street" ® and associated characters, trademarks, and design elements are owned and licensed by Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved.