"The many children and families now benefiting from 'Sesame Street' are participants in one of the most promising experiments in the history of [television]."Over forty years since its inception, the Sesame Street experiment is alive and kicking. Though what then was mere conjecture is now becoming undeniable: watching Sesame Street is incredibly beneficial for children.
-President Richard Nixon
Scientists have labeled it the "Sesame Effect." Via numerous longitudinal studies, researchers have consistently shown that exposure to the program as a preschooler can translate into higher achievement in high school. In addition, frequent viewers of the program tend to have higher grades in math, English, and science, as well as higher overall GPAs than non-viewers. What's more, this effect bridges the socioeconomic spectrum. Researchers from the University of Kansas found that when watching Sesame Street, "children from disadvantaged backgrounds learned as much as advantaged children per hour of viewing."
If you think about it, the "Sesame Effect" makes perfect sense. Youth is a very sensitive time for all species, but this is especially true for humans. A child's brain is a work in progress, and it requires proper mental nourishment to ensure that it will develop and thrive. Scientists label early adolescence as a "window of opportunity" for learning, a time where the brain is "like a sponge." It's undoubtedly more beneficial to soak this sponge with wholesome entertainment like Sesame Street in lieu of say, "Spongebob Squarepants."
Curious if I could find some real-world examples of the "Sesame Effect," I called up my college roommate Sam. Now in medical school at Northwestern, Sam wants to make a tangible difference in the world. His life aspiration for the longest time has been either to cure cancer or AIDS. He often flip-flops on which one he'll dedicate his time to, but with his intelligence and work ethic, Sam could probably find time to cure both. Despite Sam's marble-man persona, the only thing that equals his genius is his modesty. To be honest, he's the kind of guy that you might love to hate, if you weren't too busy liking him.
Clued in by his adorable infatuation with Elmo, I hypothesized that Sam must have had a helping hand from Sesame Street in his adolescence. After inquiring, my suspicions were confirmed.
"When I was growing up, I think I watched Sesame Street on repeat for at least three years of my life," Sam told me. "Oh, and Thomas the Tank Engine."
After hearing his response, I told him about the "Sesame Effect." He immediately lit up with excitement.
"Is that true? Funny!" Sam exclaimed. "You know my friend Nikola swears by Sesame Street. He moved to the United States from Serbia when he was just a year old and his parents didn't speak a word of English, so he insists that he learned the language by watching Sesame Street. And if you try to tell him otherwise, he will adamantly disagree."
"What's Nikola doing now?" I asked.
"He just finished up his master's degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Melon."
Not too shabby.
If Nikola and Sam's examples are any indication, the "Sesame Effect" can persist well past high school. Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Oscar, Rosita, and the rest of the gang obviously do much more than just teach children how to count to ten. They help lay a foundation for success that can last a lifetime.