The Lilac Pilgrim – Yet Another Blog

Um, UK? Where Exactly IS Sesame Street?

Posted on: April 16, 2011

As a small child, I adored Sesame Street. The US version was shown, if I recall correctly, on Channel 4 here in the UK, and I was enamoured by the colourful characters and catchy songs. In the primary school I first attended (gone now, thank goodness), the teachers hadn’t any idea where I’d learned the Alphabet Song, but wanted me to sing it to older children who still were unable to grasp the concept of the alphabet. This was, of course, not a good thing to me, a painfully shy child, but I so loved Sesame Street that it never put me off happily chirping the songs I’d learned over and over and over and over and over…

As I grew, Sesame Street became irrelevant to my interests and I moved on, still holding fond memories of the wonderful characters and the music and the hilarious scenarios. I hoped other children got as much out of Sesame Street as I did. It was more than a silly colourful kids’ show. Unlike Barney the Dinosaur, the characters taught us about true compromise (there’s an excellent essay on the differences between Barney and Sesame Street here), about acceptance, about how we are the same, but how we are also different. Unlike Teletubbies, there were segments in Sesame Street that reached out to infants to teach them how to speak properly and learn their letters and numbers. Unlike most of the slop we show to kids every day here in the UK, it was designed for children of nearly all ages to enjoy and learn from. For children who were impoverished and otherwise unable to learn to have another chance at an education. It was silly at times, but it was also educational, and my love of the show as a child stays strongly with me into adulthood.

I didn’t have an enchanted, middle-class childhood like many of my friends did. I lived in a not brilliant area where kids were bullied for being smart. My mother didn’t exactly want to just have the TV babysit me, but she let me watch Sesame Street and she could see how well it affected me. I reckon it’s one of the things that helped me start reading so early.

How wonderful would it be if there were other children who, like me, may not ever have stood a chance of learning properly in their area had a show like Sesame Street to watch which helped them regain that chance? Better yet, what if the UK had Sesame Street?

Sesame Workshop have helped to found, over the years, several different Sesame Street projects around the world. My personal favourite is Takalani Sesame, the South African production. In TshiVenda, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, Takalani means “be happy”. The production tries (and I hope succeeds) to convey the ideas that Africa is communicating, that people can live in harmony together no matter what they look like or who they are. Kami, a little yellow Muppet with a shock of bright orange hair, was introduced in 2002. She was and is HIV positive, and serves to teach young children in Africa about the disease many of them will grow up affected by in some way or another. Though it didn’t really make much of an impact where I live beyond a BBC report, it seemed that America didn’t like it. Even though it didn’t affect them at all. Weird.

In Russia, Ulitsa Sezam promotes the arts, and encourages children to be creative, rather than held back by what they think a painting should look like. Instead, the children are encouraged to draw and even send in any type of art they like, and they are praised for their creativity through the art gallery segments. Because Russia’s culture is so focused on art, the local version of Sesame Street reflects that.

Local versions aren’t all about promotion and education; Kosovo’s Rruga Sesam (Albanian) and Ulica Sezam (Serbian) aim together to create tolerance and awareness amongst the children  in the recovering conflict areas.  The show encourages both Albanian and Serbian children to look upon one another, not with the learned hatred of their parents, but with understanding. The children learn that they are each different, and that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps in the future, Kosovo will be a more united place, aided in some part by the local Sesame Street, which, from a very early age, is designed to show a wide audience how to learn about one another, including traditions.

So, we know that, across the world, Sesame Workshop are helping different countries to create a specialised TV show for the local children. Even Northern Ireland is in on it with Sesame Tree, which aims to teach small children about all of the diverse groups of people living in Ireland, including sectarian groups and immigrants. This is a spectacularly good idea. For a brief while, maybe two years ago, they did show Sesame Tree over here. At about four in the morning when no child was up to watch it. How is this fair?

An article stated that no channel would want it now. Children are looking for different things, and the hour-long Sesame Street does not fit into schedules anymore. Which is utter rubbish, of course. Children will always be enchanted by the Muppets. I’ve seen very small children cry out “Kermit!” at cute green frogs, tiny toddlers snuggling up to their Elmo toys.

So why do we really not have a Sesame Street of our own? Are we just too lazy? Has British media become sloppy and uncreative? We could call ours Sesame Road, and have a red fox Muppet and a squirrel Muppet as best friends. We could let our children learn that the immigrants coming in are not scary evil folk with funny voices who want to steal our jobs and our houses (again, I’m looking at you, Daily Mail; for shame) but industrious people who can be our friends and our support. We could have children of all types, shapes and sizes and races, lots of accents to represent our wonderful diversity and segments in each show about Scotland, Wales and England. We could have tartan and poppies and beautiful countrysides. We could show children what it’s like coming into the country you want to love and call home, and how it feels when people have to move away (looking at you again, Daily Mail). A Scottish variant could have segments in Scots Gaelic or a Welsh one could have, well, Welsh. There are worlds of possibilities, and with the UK becoming an ever more closed off, uncaring, unwelcoming nation, a Sesame Road or Avenue or Crescent would be such a wonderful thing for the next generation and the next.

But it will probably never happen, much as I would love to see it. Instead, shut up, watch this and do what we tell you as with every other show on TV right now is apparently more important. Even if songs like those the colourful Muppet characters sing have been shown to help people learn, Barney’s “I love you” crap seems to be more urgent for kids to learn than the wonderful ideas put forward by Sesame Workshop around the world.

I can still dream, though.

Play us out, Count von Count.

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