Scholars have often criticized mass media for reproducing oppression through the dissemination of images reflecting cultural, structural, and direct violence (Harris and Morrison, 2003). In recent years, however, activists, artists, and others have harnessed media to create content designed to empower viewers to enact social change (Bandura 2001; Cole, Labin, and Galarza 2008; de Block 2012; Gesser-Edelsburg and Singhal 2013; Singhal 2013). Particularly in conflict and post-conflict zones, educational entertainment is increasingly used to change attitudes and behaviors, especially among children.
Sesame Workshop produces the American children’s television show Sesame Street and over thirty locally created coproductions around the world. Much of Sesame Workshop’s programming emphasizes school readiness and basic skills, a focus motivated by studies showing that interventions in the early years produce long-term positive outcomes, including better grades, improved classroom behavior, and lower probabilities of incarceration (Levine 2005; Nores and Barnett 2010; RAND 2005). Unfortunately research also indicates that young children are susceptible to messaging encouraging them to fear and exclude others based on identity categories such as gender, faith, class, and ethnic group (Bekerman, Zembylas, and McGlynn 2009). For example, research with preschoolers in Northern Ireland suggests that children as young as five years old identified with a specific community, were aware of and showed preference for specific cultural symbols, and made sectarian statements (Connolly, Smith, and Kelly 2002; and see also Chapters 2 and 3 in this volume). Similarly, Rhodes (2012) found that children as young as three years old exhibited preferences for individuals defined as in-group and showed suspicion of those associated with out-groups. Consequently, as Cole et al. (2008) have argued, early childhood is a key time for exposing children to peace education content that Sesame Workshop calls “mutual respect and understanding.”
The goal of Sesame Workshop’s peace education programming is to empower children between the ages of three and eight years old with the skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary to promote nonviolence (Brantmeier and Bajaj 2013; Hantzopoulos 2011b). The term “peace education” encompasses a variety of topics supported in Sesame Workshop’s programming, including human rights, women’s (and girls’) rights, emotional regulation, respect for differences, multicultural education, and environmental conservation (Harris and Morrison 2003; Reardon 2000; Zembylas and Bekerman 2013b). Keeping in mind that preschoolers show basic political and cultural awareness—and thus, prejudice—that, if left unchecked, can continue throughout a lifetime, Sesame Workshop has also honed a developmentally appropriate approach to reconciliation, defined by Vrasidas et al. (2007: 133) as helping students critically evaluate negative feelings toward a population they have been “taught to hate.” Although the examples in this paper focus on conflict-affected zones, including Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Northern Ireland, almost all coproductions include a curricular area called “mutual respect and understanding”: after all, children do not have to live in war zones to come face to face with hate.
One of the defining characteristics of Sesame Workshop’s content development model is the creation and continued use of a Statement of Educational Objectives, or curriculum, for each coproduction (Sesame Workshop 2014). Most curricula are based on the same whole-child framework, with a range of educational objectives related to children’s academic success, critical thinking, physical and emotional health, and social skills (see Figure 12.1 for an example of how this framework is actualized for peace education). In addition to this foundation, local advisors and teams often choose to focus different seasons of production, and sometimes the entire project itself, on specific content areas, including those related to peace education.
At the onset of a new coproduction, Sesame Workshop typically collaborates with educational specialists from the local partner organization to plan and convene a Content Seminar (Fisch and Truglio 2001). The Content Seminar is an advisory meeting with: experts from government ministries; educators and teachers from government and private institutions; academics with expertise in education, health, and other child-related fields; non-governmental organizations working with young children and their families; and media organizations. Discussions with advisors provide the New York-based Sesame Workshop and locally-based coproduction team with essential information on the educational, health, and socioemotional status of children; highlight critical issues that may be of special importance; and identify those educational objectives that can be best addressed through a Sesame Street program. Additionally, advisors recommend culturally acceptable approaches to sensitive topics.
Next, the coproduction’s educational specialists, in collaboration with Sesame Workshop New York, draft the curriculum using feedback received at the Content Seminar. Teams typically revise the curriculum every season, incorporating the latest research and the changing needs of children in the country. This revision is facilitated either through another Content Seminar or through correspondence and meetings with select advisors.
Many coproductions, especially those in countries emerging from conflict and/or with highly diverse populations, prioritize educational objectives encompassing the knowledge and skills necessary to nurture peaceful attitudes. Given Sesame Workshop’s holistic, child-centered approach, this is usually reflected in educational objectives designed to address children’s socioemotional health, build critical thinking, nurture pro-social attitudes and skills, and break down harmful stereotypes by exposing viewers to positive images of the other (see Figure 12.1). Some of these objectives are shared across almost all Sesame Street curricula, while others are more specific to post-conflict or sectarian societies. The latter can be divided into two core areas. The first consists of objectives promoting resilience and the ability to positively interact with others. The second consists of those designed to transform children’s attitudes by enabling them to question forms of structural and cultural violence, including the oppression of marginalized groups like women, ethnic and religious minorities, or people stigmatized by conditions such as living with HIV/AIDS.
Zembylas and Bekerman (2013b) argue that definitions of peace are contextually determined and culturally rooted (see also Chapters 1 and 3 in this volume). In the following sections, we elucidate how coproductions adapt peace education objectives so that they fit with local ideas about peace, justice, and childhood.
Coproduction curricula almost universally include objectives focused on socioemotional development: examples include identifying and expressing emotions, managing emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, and disappointment), developing self-confidence, and optimism. Local educational teams have honed and reframed these “universal” objectives to address challenges posed by the specific political instability and violence affecting a given society, and to promote locally determined definitions of peace.
The Afghan coproduction Baghch-e-Simsim, for example, emphasizes children’s ability to express emotions within home and school settings. This objective was developed based on the local team’s recommendation to combat the marginalization of children’s voices within family contexts by promoting positive interaction between generations. The team also wanted to focus on task persistence and optimism. While in other coproductions these objectives might be related to school readiness, in the Afghan coproduction they are an effort to nurture resilience, a critical quality for young children facing insecurity and violence (UNICEF 2012). These objectives are presented through child-friendly examples such as tying shoelaces or flying kites, relatable scenarios that empower children to connect with, and peacefully express, complex and intense emotions. The objectives also speak to aspirations, exploring possible professions and positive roles within the community that, at times, trouble entrenched gender roles.
Additionally, coproduction curricula usually include a range of objectives related to children’s perceptions of, and interactions with, others. Skills like developing and expressing empathy, appreciating similarities and differences, resolving conflict peacefully, cooperation, turn-taking, and sharing are reframed in the service of developing the core pro-social skills that children need in specific contexts. The coproductions in Israel, Palestine, and Northern Ireland, among others, have focused on these objectives to provide children with models for conflict resolution that are different from those they may see around them. These objectives reflect a proactive conception of peace education, wherein the aim is to help children learn behaviors and strategies that they can employ in challenging situations, thereby moving toward “education for co-existence” (Bekerman, Zembylas, and McGlynn 2009: 215), as well as echoing Zembylas and Bekerman’s (2013b) call for peace education focused on action. Furthermore, these pro-social objectives teach children to value similarities and differences related to identity categories, thereby fostering abilities to critique negative stereotypes and maintain tolerant attitudes toward individuals outside their identity group.
Brantmeier and Bajaj (2013: 141) describe Galtung’s (1990) concept of cultural violence as informal structures and beliefs, including “in-group norms,” that make space for other types of violence to occur. Keeping in mind that media can be a powerful tool for changing attitudes, Sesame Workshop’s curricula couple objectives that promote pro-social interaction with objectives designed to counter negative stereotypes and foster beliefs in equity. Since attitudes toward nonviolence and reconciliation are rooted in local contexts (Zembylas and Bekerman 2013), many teams debate how to promote reconciliation and “push the envelope” without erasing structural inequalities and power asymmetries that often characterize intergroup conflicts.
Curricular approaches to social inclusion build on goals that promote positive interactions between individuals, such as entering social groups, conflict resolution, and appreciating similarities and differences (e.g. my friend and I like different things, or my neighbor’s family speaks a different language than mine, but we all like to play together). Teams then layer objectives related to identity groups that may be marginalized. For example, in South Africa, the Takalani Sesame program focused on de-stigmatization as part of their HIV/AIDS curriculum, sending the message that children living with HIV/AIDS deserve respect and friendship. The Bangladeshi coproduction Sisimpur devoted a section of the curriculum to building understanding and respect between people with different physical or cognitive abilities to combat severe discrimination against people with disabilities.
Some coproductions use an approach to reconciliation that explicitly acknowledges identifying factors of groups in conflict. For example, a past season’s curriculum for Rechov Sumsum in Israel focused on “mutual respect and cooperative living values” (Walden et al. 2009). The curriculum states that the program must include Arabic, Russian, and Amharic languages in addition to Hebrew. In other countries, it is not possible to name the conflict or any specific involved group. In Afghanistan, for example, doing so might create dissonance among stakeholders whose support is necessary for the program’s survival. Instead, the Afghan coproduction team chose to focus on cultural diversity, heritage, and national identity as a means toward reconciliation and social inclusion. As a result, the Baghch-e-Simsim curriculum explores traditions and lifestyles of different identity groups and depicts the everyday lives of children. Though the marginalized groups are not explicitly stated in the curriculum, the team strives to create content that features ethnic, religious, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity to strengthen messaging for these objectives.
While the curriculum outlines a coproduction’s approach to peace education and guides content creation, these objectives are ultimately given meaning through narratives. The curriculum represents the foundation but not the limits of what can be achieved.
Sesame Workshop’s coproductions harness the power of stories to challenge dominant narratives of hate and to imagine a more peaceful world. Sesame Workshop’s scripts include live-action films (LAFs), or documentary-style pieces; animations produced locally or dubbed from other coproductions; and street stories featuring Muppets and human cast members.
Characters are designed in anticipation of potential stories. Human characters are useful for challenging culturally violent narratives that erase and otherize (Brantmeier and Bajaj 2013). Examples include Jugadoo, a wheelchair-bound mechanic on Galli Galli Sim Sim (India); and Salim, a Muslim neighbor on the Israeli coproduction Rechov Sumsum.
Muppets have more flexibility in terms of identity, and are therefore useful for discussing difficult or taboo topics, a process Solinger, Fox, and Irani (2008: 7) call rendering stories “speakable.” Muppets can be marked with certain identities that allow them to disrupt stereotypes, such as those associated with gender. From Haneen in Shara’a Simsim (Palestine) to Hilda the Hare in Sesame Tree (Northern Ireland), coproductions feature female characters that are smart, feisty, and educated. Similarly, male characters like Googly on Galli Galli Sim Sim (India) and Kareem on Shara’a Simsim (Palestine) enjoy solitude, love to read, and are nonaggressive, thereby troubling entrenched ideas about masculinity. Perhaps the most famous example of a Muppet designed to challenge stereotypes is Kami, the South African Muppet who is openly HIV positive (Segal, Cole, and Fuld 2002). Kami was carefully designed to be a racially and ethnically ambiguous girl so as to avoid reinforcing ideas that certain classes, races, ethnicities, or genders are more prone to the disease than others. Kami’s character (who is now also featured in other African coproductions) has opened discussions about loss, inclusion, and disease prevention (Health and Development Africa 2005).
Sesame Workshop’s characters are the backbone of the most important elements of television programming: the stories themselves. Peace education scripts are designed to empower children to “redesign” their realities (Zembylas and Bekerman 2013b: 207), a process that involves reimagining worlds and acting on alternative visions. For LAFs, this means exposing children to different ways of life. For example, an LAF in the multicountry, multimedia project Panwapa told the story of a Guatemalan student at a well-resourced private school who started an educational program for working-class laborers’ children after they formed a friendship playing soccer. These narratives challenge the divisions and limitations children encounter, encouraging them to consider more prosocial possibilities.
LAFs are key elements of coproductions in countries experiencing conflict or its immediate aftermath, where security concerns and inadequate infrastructure make it impossible to hire studios, build sets, or even hold regular writers’ meetings. The coproductions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, for example, are almost entirely supported by live-action films where producers feature children from backgrounds that are linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse, carefully balancing perspectives from all sides of conflict. In Kosovo, LAFs featured children from formerly warring faiths and ethnicities celebrating traditional holidays in their homes, exposing viewers who live in segregated neighborhoods to alternative views of their supposed enemies. Simply humanizing the invisible enemy went far to challenge children’s attitudes. Whether LAFs or street stories, Sesame Workshop’s programming provides children a window into alternative possibilities for peaceful interaction.
Some of Sesame Workshop’s most successful peace education street stories (meaning those that have most clearly imparted their meaning and have spurred children to reflection and action), tend to have three elements: (1) they are child centered; (2) they feature actionable steps; and (3) they involve children solving problems themselves.
Peace education scripts address educational goals like conflict resolution, valuing diversity, questioning stereotypes, and coping with difficult and complex emotions through conflicts that occur in child-friendly settings such as schools, playgrounds, and homes. In the episode “Share Necessities,” for example, Hilda and Potto of Sesame Tree (Northern Ireland) argue when Potto finishes the grapes Hilda was waiting to eat. The Muppets fight, drawing a line across the middle of the room dividing their space and resources. In the end, they realize life is much more fun when they share. The episode models forgiveness and questions segregation, all issues tied to the political realities of reconciliation in Northern Ireland (as Chapter 2 in this volume also discusses). Situating the conflict in children’s worlds—focusing on a conflict about grapes rather than disputed territory—renders abstract concepts tangible.
The second characteristic of peace education scripts is an actionable conclusion. In several episodes of Shara’a Simsim (Palestine), for example, children face fear, loss, and anger, all of which tempt them to engage in the same type of direct violence that surrounds them. The show models coping strategies ranging from talking to an adult to expressing feelings through the arts to releasing kites to symbolically “let go” of pain. Rather than ignoring the difficulties of living in a war zone, these scripts acknowledge children’s realities, and provide them with concrete ways to break cycles of violence.
Finally, in successful peace education scripts, children solve problems without adult intervention. Such modeling positions children as empowered change makers, a comforting possibility for viewers who may often feel out of control. For example, in the Takalani Sesame (South Africa) script “The Train Game,” Kami is sad because her classmates refuse to interact with her because they believe doing so will expose them to HIV. Kami’s Muppet friends tell her that tomorrow they will accompany her to school, where they will jointly help her classmates understand that you cannot catch HIV from playing with someone. The segment ends with the characters making a train by putting their hands on each other’s shoulders, modeling the educational message that HIV is not transmitted through touch. In this segment, children (in this case, Muppets of a young age) demonstrate that they have the power to combat stigmatization.
Promoting positive behaviors and attitudinal change is one of the great challenges of entertainment education (Bandura 2001; de Block 2012; Singhal 2013). Television is just one piece of a holistic program that includes opportunities for children to interact with the “text” of scripts even after they are done viewing. This is the intention of community and school engagement (also called “outreach”) initiatives that accompany the television programs, described in the next section.
Sesame Workshop’s educational outreach programming has been a consistent component of its model since the show began in 1968 (Lesser 1974; Yotive and Fisch 2001). Kress (2003) argues that transmedia messaging—or messaging that occurs across various media platforms—improves children’s academic outcomes and communication skills. Furthermore, while the penetration of radio and television is generally high, it often remains inaccessible to the neediest children. Even when available, programming is frequently in languages or dialects that may be unfamiliar to children in rural areas and situated in contexts that do not resonate with their experiences. To this end, Sesame Workshop’s outreach content reinforces educational messages from the programs in developmentally appropriate and engaging ways; targets neglected, at-risk populations (such as orphans and vulnerable children); draws adults to co-engage in and reinforce the media experience; and localizes to fit the country context.
The producers of outreach materials consider both the availability of various media platforms and the human agents that directly or indirectly mediate children’s educational experiences. Outreach materials are designed to be tactile, appropriate for distribution in formal and informal environments (including areas where families congregate, such as schools, community centers, libraries, or health clinics), and accessible to caregivers whose literacy levels may be relatively low.
Designed with these principles in mind, Sesame’s outreach initiatives extend the reach of coproductions through community-based activities; classroom educational materials; and teacher development/instructional guides.
Community-based activities are intended to incorporate caregivers as agents of change and active participants in children’s learning. They are implemented through collaborations forged with local partners whose missions are similar to Sesame Workshop’s and whose talents and resources are complementary to the Workshop’s programming.
Promotional events—another type of community activity—inform adults about local projects. In addition to increasing viewership, these activities serve as opportunities to communicate educational messages. These activities include:
Awareness-building workshops, where the outreach team engages with communities to promote the importance of early childhood education (which unfortunately remains marginalized on most education agendas) and raise awareness about the day and time of the local coproduction’s airing.
Public Service Announcements (PSAs), which are short, concise messages delivered through TV or radio about specific topics, such as road safety or malaria prevention. PSAs are also produced during crises and emergencies. For example, the team at Plaza Sésamo (Latin America) created and aired PSAs about recovery and emergency preparedness after the Chilean earthquake in 2010.
Community viewings provide audiences who do not have access to the broadcast television program exposure to the show. Relying on local volunteers, government and NGO partners, and support from community leaders, teams use inventive methods to enable these viewings, ranging from attaching televisions to rickshaws in India and Bangladesh, to organizing screenings on portable projectors in Nigeria, to staging regular showings in relief camps in post-earthquake Haiti. Trained facilitators conduct pre-viewing activities that are designed to prepare children for the show, pausing the video during an episode to reinforce specific messages, and engaging children in multiple activities post-viewing ranging from simple questions to arts and crafts activities aligned with themes from the episode.
Although primarily focused on mass media, the Workshop also produces classroom materials that reinforce programmatic messaging and combat cultural violence in institutional settings like schools. Sesame Workshop’s high-quality print materials visually, pedagogically, and qualitatively enliven and improve under-resourced classrooms. Materials like posters, activity books, flash cards, educational games, and story books, feature characters and, at times, storylines from television episodes and contain images reflective of children’s communities. These are coupled with letters, words, or numbers that extend learning and provide children with extra content to supplement their television experience.
Sesame Workshop has worked extensively with local partners to develop classroom materials fostering mutual respect and understanding, and addressing direct and cultural violence through educational themes such as cooperation, conflict resolution, and appreciating diversity. Like the television shows, outreach materials encourage children and their caregivers to celebrate diversity while simultaneously recognizing commonalities. In Northern Ireland, for example, the education team worked closely with local teachers and members of the Education and Library Boards to create two educational outreach kits, one on “Emotions” and another on “Diversity and Inclusion,” aimed at preprimary and primary school students. Both kits were aligned with the statutory curriculum and could be used by teachers to fulfill curricular requirements related to socioemotional skills. Each Emotions kit included a set of durable flash cards that presented children with an opportunity to explore their feelings and celebrate the similarities and differences of their classmates. Ranging from “surprised” to “lonely,” each card provided a pictorial representation of a feeling on the front and child-centered scenarios, discussion points, activities, and useful outside resources for teachers on the back. Similarly, the Diversity and Inclusion materials included flash cards with different behaviors designed to foster empathy and acceptance.
Recognizing educators as essential mediators of children’s development, Sesame Workshop has developed a series of teacher-training video modules and print guides—most notably in Ghana, Indonesia, and India—to help adults improve their pedagogical practices. Using teachers or actors playing teachers and aided by a Muppet, video modules are short segments that introduce materials, highlight educational aims, and model how the material can be used in a classroom setting. These resources both ensure that outreach materials are delivered effectively, and contribute to the improvement of formal and informal educational systems.
Particularly in unstable political situations or in the wake of environmental disaster, the distribution of these materials poses serious challenges. Materials are designed to be lightweight and evergreen, so as to be easily portable and durable in trying conditions. At a nascent stage, decisions are made regarding the size, paper weight, packaging, and storage of materials. In Bangladesh, for example, materials have been waterproofed so they can survive flooding. When the political situation in Gaza made it impossible to deliver storybooks and posters, they were converted into compressed files that could be printed locally. As these situations demonstrate, partnerships are vital to outreach.
The success of the outreach activities and materials lies not only in their quality and cultural relevance, but also in the global and local partnerships created for distribution. Consequently, Sesame Workshop begins every coproduction process by building relationships with the ministries that administer early-childhood care and education. Because working with children involves a degree of trust from parents and caregivers, teams cultivate a bond with public and private organizations, governmental and non-governmental organizations, to understand the local context and values of families and public systems. Additionally, teams identify like-minded foundations, corporations, individuals, and government agencies as potential partners for community activities and material delivery, and advocates for systemic change. Long-term partnerships foster the sustainability of projects beyond the course of a grant, the scaling up of outreach programs, and continued research, development and distribution of education programming across multiple platforms. Because proof of Sesame Workshop’s efficacy is important to these stakeholders and the development community, our approach to research is described in the next section.
Sesame Street’s impact on fostering positive perceptions of the “other” and reducing prejudice was documented as early as its second season in the United States, when researchers found that African-American and White children who watched the series expressed more positive attitudes toward African-American and Latino children than those who did not (Bogatz and Ball 1971). (This is similar to the stated outcomes of Gordon Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis about intergroup encounters reducing prejudice as discussed by Zvi Bekerman in Chapter 3 of this book; in the Sesame Street case, though, no actual human contact between groups takes place and yet similar positive outcomes are found through exposure to this type of educational media.) Since then, Sesame Workshop has collaborated with researchers around the world to evaluate projects in regions that have experienced protracted conflict and focused on promoting mutual respect and understanding, including Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland.
While some normed measures assess children’s cognitive or academic skills across the globe, we do not know of any standardized measures that specifically focus on the knowledge and skills necessary for effective peace education among young children. Unlike tools that assess how many letters or words a child can identify, for example, evaluations of children’s understanding of concepts such as prejudice, inclusion, exclusion, and respect are more complex (Cole and Lee 2014). Researchers most often use structured interviews prompted by vignettes or scenarios (accompanied by illustrations or photos) to investigate young children’s knowledge and attitudes—a method that is well established for measuring children’s social and moral reasoning (Brenick et al. 2007). Consequently, researchers evaluating the impact of coproductions have created assessments that build on prior studies while simultaneously reflecting the specific educational objectives of each project.
A study evaluating Rruga Sesam/Ulica Sezam (Kosovo) examined children’s receptiveness to those who are different from them in various respects: a child who is foreign (of Asian descent), a Roma child, a child who does not speak the same language, and a child who speaks Albanian (for Serbian-speaking children) or Serbian (for Albanian-speaking children). In these cases, researchers asked participants to respond to pictorial prompts of individual or groups of children, providing them with a narrative background explaining specific aspects of the imaginary characters’ identities. Researchers also assessed different degrees of receptiveness, including whether children would want to meet the child in the picture, play with him/her, befriend him/her, have him/her come to the child’s house, and go to his/her house (Fluent Research 2008). (For these questions, children typically respond to a picture of a same-gender child so that gender does not confound children’s answers.) Researchers in Northern Ireland have employed a similar approach (Connolly et al. 2008; Larkin, Connolly, and Kehoe, 2009a, 2009b), asking children to imagine that the child had started his/her first day in their school; researchers asked children whether they would go up and say hello, let him/her play with their friends at lunchtime, share things with him/her in class, invite him/her to their house to play after school, and share a secret with him/her.
In addition to focusing on differences, evaluations also address whether children recognize that they share many similarities with children who may look different from them. For example, in the Kosovo study (Fluent Research 2008), children saw a picture of a same-gender African-American child and responded to a series of questions about whether the African-American child likes to play and have fun, likes to spend time with family, and tries to be good and do the right thing. The degree to which children thought that the African-American child did these things indicated whether children thought a child who looked different from them could still have similar preferences and behaviors—an important educational objective in the project.
Other sets of questions focused on scenarios that closely reflect the projects’ educational objectives, such as helping, sharing, empathy, and cooperation. In studies in Israel (Fisch and Oppenheimer 2012) and Palestine (Fluent Research 2011), for example, children saw illustrations of scenarios that were similar to conflicts or social dilemmas that they encounter in childhood (e.g. sharing a toy, helping others) and were asked what the characters should do and why. In one scenario, a child refuses to share a balloon with a second child and teases the second child about it. The first child then falls and gets hurt and asks the second child for help. Researchers asked if the second child should help the first child and why (Fisch and Oppenheimer 2012). Children were assessed on both their decision and the sophistication of the rationale provided.
Similarly, others have examined the impact of Sesame Street projects in the Middle East (Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim, an Israeli–Palestinian coproduction; and Sesame Stories, a coproduction that included Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian partners) from the perspective of children’s moral reasoning, looking in detail at the justifications that children provide for their social judgments in vignettes (Brenick et al. 2007; Cole et al. 2003). In these cases, researchers examined whether children offered explanations based on cultural membership, selfish motives (e.g. avoiding punishment), fairness (e.g. appealing to moral principles of fairness, turn taking, etc.), rules and conventions, maintenance of friendship, prosocial reasons, and others (Cole et al. 2003).
While these approaches generated important findings about the effectiveness of media interventions such as Sesame Street coproductions in inculcating respect and understanding in young children, they most often rely on children’s ability to verbalize their responses—an exercise that can be difficult for the younger children in the target audience (three to four years old), for children who are less skilled in this type of communication, or for children who may simply be shy, especially in a novel situation where they are being interviewed by a strange adult. In addition, these interviews tend to measure the underlying knowledge and attitudes that are important for successful peace education, but do not effectively assess whether these attitudes translate into real-world behaviors, and how or whether these attitudes or behaviors endure over time. The extent to which a child’s environment impinges on these effects is also poorly understood (Brenick et al. 2007).
Researchers sometimes uncover ceiling effects in the studies, where almost all children provide the “correct”/pro-social response even before exposure to the program and there is therefore no room for improvement (e.g. Fisch and Oppenheimer 2012). Without further information, it is difficult to tell whether this is a reflection of children’s attitudes or because children simply provide what they know to be the socially desirable, “correct” answer. Therefore, it is important to continue to build on this research and develop multiple methods that triangulate sources of information such as parent or teacher reports of children’s behaviors, observations, and other qualitative or ethnographic approaches.
Despite these challenges, a body of research affirms Sesame Workshop’s approach to peace education in many conflict affected countries. Compared to those who did not, children who watched coproductions were:
more likely to demonstrate positive attitudes toward other children from a different background (in Kosovo; Fluent Research 2008);
more likely to take someone else’s perspective (in Israel; Fisch and Oppenheimer 2012);
more likely to express the need for sharing, cooperation, and helping others (in Palestine; Fluent Research 2011);
more likely to say they will use dialogue or discussion to solve a problem rather than turn to an adult for help (in Israel; Walden et al. 2009);
more willing to be inclusive of those from a different background and be more interested in participating in cultural events associated with their own and the other community (in Northern Ireland; Larkin, Connolly, and Kehoe 2009a).
Studies also found that watching Sesame Street coproductions contributes to empathizing with those who have often been stigmatized in society. Viewers held less stigmatized attitudes toward those with HIV/AIDS (in South Africa; Khulisa Management Services 2005) and showed a greater appreciation of the abilities of people in wheelchairs (Fisch and Oppenheimer 2012). Effects were also evident in outreach projects. In Northern Ireland, children who were exposed to outreach kits in their schools were more able to recognize emotions, more willing to be inclusive of others, and more interested in participating in cultural events than those not exposed (Larkin, Connolly, and Kehoe 2009b).
These results, however, can be complex and nuanced. A study that investigated the impact of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim in Israel and Palestine revealed that Palestinian–Israeli and Jewish–Israeli children had more positive perceptions of the “other” following exposure to the series, but Palestinian children living in Palestine did not show analogous gains (Cole et al. 2003). The authors suggested that this could be due to differences in versions of the series viewed: the Israeli version (Rechov Sumsum) was longer (thirty minutes per episode), contained more episodes, and contained more Palestinian content, whereas the Palestinian version (Shara’a Simsim) was shorter (fifteen minutes per episode), had fewer episodes, and contained only minimal Israeli content (Cole et al. 2003; Cole, Labin, and Galarza 2008). In addition, the findings suggest that the contexts in which children lived may have impinged on the success of peace education efforts. Palestinian children lived in segregated areas more directly impacted by inter-group conflict and with less exposure to the “other;” whereas the reverse is true for Israeli children (Brenick et al. 2007). Therefore, children’s personal experience of conflict (either direct or indirect) and their exposure to diversity in their peer relationships may have influenced their understanding and reception of peace education messages. Nonetheless, researchers concluded that Sesame Workshop’s peace education programming did, in fact, successfully promote mutual respect and understanding, a trend Brenick et al. (2007) attribute to the strength of the shows’ educational objectives. From the curriculum seminar to the assessment phase, each element of the Sesame Workshop process works towards the same goal: the empowerment of children to cope with and, ultimately, end cycles of violence.
Sesame Workshop’s approach to peace education is rooted in the belief that the world’s youngest children are capable of critically analyzing their contexts and becoming change makers. As Zembylas and Bekerman (2013b: 204) recommend, Sesame Workshop encourages coproductions to focus on changing how children “act” by modeling alternative ways of approaching conflict and violence. This is reflected in the expectation that children will take what they learn from the shows and apply it to their daily lives.
While it is difficult to confirm whether children are, in fact, transformed to the point that they take action after viewing peace education programming, results indicate that it moves viewers in this direction. The awareness of dialogue as a tool for peacefully resolving conflict, the ability to critically evaluate (and, eventually, reject) othering and stereotyping, and the capacity to recognize the need for pro-social behaviors all suggest that coproductions are helping young children develop the skills and attitudes necessary to be agents of nonviolent change.
As media platforms, as well as viewing and listening habits, rapidly change, so too must our approach to producing and distributing pro-social programming. One thing, though, we hope will not change: our faith in children to develop the skills and attitudes necessary to resist and undo violence perpetrated by adults and, in time, to build a more peaceful world.