Sesame Street and its colourful troupe of puppets have been breaking down social barriers, teaching maths and having fun for more than 50 years.
In recent months, the groundbreaking US TV show and its characters like Elmo and Cookie Monster have been helping spread a new message – how to stay safe from COVID-19. Its programmes about the pandemic have been broadcast in multiple languages, on platforms ranging from YouTube to CNN.
And Sesame Workshop – the nonprofit behind the TV show – has helped take these lessons to some of the places where children’s learning is most at risk. These include parts of Afghanistan and the world’s biggest refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Sesame Workshop’s Sherrie Westin joined the latest episode of the Forum’s Great Reset podcast to talk about the organization’s work, the pandemic, and her hopes for the future of education. And Grover had an exclusive message for podcast listeners.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation.
What can Sesame Street teach children about the challenges of 2020?
When you see Elmo going to the doctor to get a shot, that helps a parent reassure a child why this is so important, and why it’s OK.
The power of our Muppets wearing masks and modelling the importance of vaccinations – these are all opportunities for us to increase health education, particularly in developing countries, and do so in a non-threatening way.
Away from COVID-19, we created the first Muppet for Afghanistan, a little girl called Ari. She wears her headscarf and her school uniform. It’s a local production and it gives us an opportunity to inspire young girls about going to school, to help them think big and dream big.
How has COVID-19 impacted children’s learning?
The COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt been the greatest disruption to education that the world has ever seen. I think right now the figure is 1.6 billion children in more than 190 countries that are out of school or don’t have access to learning centres.
Unfortunately, it also impacts people in different ways based on where they live and their socio-economic condition. We often said that the virus has no bias – there’s no discrimination, it affects all of us. Well, it’s true that we’re all susceptible to the virus. But it’s not true that it affects us equally.
Even in the United States, it varies between private school and public school. Sadly, around the world there hasn’t been a lot of investment in flexible educational systems that can be mobilized in crisis. There’s a huge digital divide.
Unfortunately, the most vulnerable children, those who are in crisis settings, or who are displaced or in poverty, are impacted the greatest.
You’ve worked with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Tell us about that.
Both in Bangladesh and in the Syrian response region we are doing humanitarian work with local partners on the ground. What we’ve done is create educational content that is local, culturally sensitive, produced in their language, reflecting storylines that children can relate to.
It’s an opportunity to combine broadcast media, digital media, mobile apps – all sorts of ways to reach children at scale – with educational content, using partnerships on the ground to provide direct services.
Have COVID-19 restrictions and limited digital media access made this task harder?
We’ve had to suspend in-person contact. But it actually speaks to the critical importance of media, and digital, because fortunately, that’s our other means of reaching children.
In Cox’s Bazar [where an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees are camped] we used to have battery-powered projectors to show Sesame content that’s created specifically for that community in learning centres or play labs, as they’re called, with our partner BRAC.
We are now forced to be even more innovative about how we can reach children and families. There’s radio, there’s mobile, there’s WhatsApp. In the Middle East, many displaced children do have access to television, even in camps and in host communities. So then our ability to reach them there is much easier to do at scale.
What have you learned from COVID-19 – and could it help reset attitudes to children’s education?
As an organization, we’re being forced to be more innovative. That’s one of the things I hope that post-COVID we will have learned: how we can be most effective in reaching children and families when we can’t be there in person. I think that’s going to be valuable learning for the future.
More broadly, children are not the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not affecting children in the same way that it is adults in terms of health. But children are actually those who are going to be affected most in the long run, because of missing out on education.
Less than 3% of all humanitarian aid goes to education. And yet we know from research that has the greatest return on investment.
My hope is that we will now realize that we already had this serious gap. And that as we’re looking at how to respond to COVID-19, more of us will recognize how critical it is that we invest in education.
Harry Kretchmer is senior writer, Formative Content.
This article was first published at The World Economic Forum.