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To 'Reach Kids Where They Are,'Sesame Street Goes to Preschool

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For 23 years, parents and young children have known how to get to "Sesame Street'': They turned on their local public-television station and the award-winning educational show was on the air several times a day.

But in recent years, a growing proportion of the show's target audience of 2- to 5-year-old children has had a harder time tuning in. As more mothers entered the workforce, they placed their children in day care, where television use has often been limited.

In response, the Children's Television Workshop, the producer of "Sesame Street,'' launched a project aimed at reaching children in private child-care centers, family home care, and Head Start and school district pre-K and kindergarten programs. The C.T.W.'s Preschool Educational Program, now in its second full year, actively encourages child-care providers to make regular use of video segments featuring Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and other characters from "Sesame Street.''

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' the venerable Public Broadcasting Service children's show featuring the soft-spoken Fred Rogers, has embarked on a similar project.

"We have to reach kids where they are,'' said Pamela Green, the vice president of community educational services for the C.T.W. "Sixty percent of mothers of preschoolers are now in the workforce. By the year 2000, that figure is expected to increase to 80 percent.''

On Nov. 9, "Sesame Street'' will begin its 24th season on PBS. The new episodes will once again stress race relations, with the emphasis shifting this year from African-American to Latino culture. The show will feature the first major overhaul of its opening and closing credits since it first aired in 1969.

Some 11 million households nationwide watch "Sesame Street'' at least once a week, according to the show's producers. But when the new season premieres, C.T.W. officials expect a significant number of young children will be viewing it under the direction of a child-care instructor.

A Focus on Reading

The PEP project works through local PBS stations, who help sign up and train child-care providers. About 73 PBS licensees are promoting PEP, and the C.T.W. has trained more than 5,000 providers, who in turn serve more than 50,000 children, Ms. Green said. Last week, the federally-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced a $1 million grant to help expand PEP even further.

Ms. Green said that the C.T.W. is not trying to push every provider in the country into using the show.

"But we know that many family day-care homes are using television,'' she said. "Most don't have a day-care curriculum.''

Child-care workers who undergo training receive a monthly list of upcoming shows and their themes to help them plan which episodes to tune in or videotape for their charges.

The organizers do not want care providers to simply plop their children in front of the television set for an hourlong episode of the show. The PEP project trains teachers to watch the show interactively, asking children questions or stopping the videotape to discuss a point.

A key component of the project is an emphasis on storybook reading. A "play and learn'' activity book offers reading suggestions based on the themes of "Sesame Street'' episodes, such as self-esteem.

"We know that if you can only do one thing to get a child ready for school, it would be to read to him or her every day,'' said Becky Sykes, the PEP coordinator at public-television station KERA in Dallas, where the "Sesame Street'' child-care project was piloted two years ago.

The idea of reaching children in child care with the show was spearheaded by Ralph Rogers, a Dallas philanthropist who had helped launch Children's Television Workshop in the late 1960's with its founder, Joan Ganz Cooney.

The Dallas station has trained more than 2,200 child-care providers, who are serving more than 20,000 children in North Texas, Ms. Sykes said. Last year, the PEP project began to expand nationally as more public-television stations signed on. Eighteen new stations joined last week, Ms. Green said.

The stations often raise money locally to subsidize the training sessions for child-care providers and to provide centers with the handbooks for the shows.

A Visit to a Center

At the U.S. Labor Department's Child Development Center in Washington, which serves the children of government employees, several teachers have been using PEP since last June after being trained by local PBS station WETA. ("Sesame Street'' is broadcast year-round.)

One recent weekday, Beverly Wilborn, a teacher at the center, prepared her class for a videotape of the show.

"Today on 'Sesame Street,' we are going to talk about a great big word called 'cooperation,''' she said. "That is when we help people. We are also going to do the letter E, for elephant. And we are going to do the number 15.''

"That is a big number,'' a 4-year-old replied.

About 15 minutes into the episode, Ms. Wilborn's dozen pupils, ages 3 1/2 to 4, began to get antsy. Luckily, a music-video segment appeared, and the children were encouraged to jump and dance around. Then, the television monitor was turned off.

"We don't use it for a long period of time, and we don't even use it every day,'' Brenda Neal, the director of the center, said of the show.

She added that her center has begun to train parents on how to watch television interactively with their children.

Once the project is explained, parents have generally been supportive of the use of the show in their children's centers, Ms. Sykes of the Dallas station said.

"For the most part, parents are delighted because they know 'Sesame Street,''' she said. "It is such a natural bridge between home and school. It gives parents something to talk about with their children.''

Interactive Viewing Urged

Of course, "Sesame Street'' has not escaped criticism from some educational researchers. Some prominent critics have argued that the show teaches children to love television more than learning or that it has overemphasized letters and numbers at the expense of teaching more meaningful verbal and reasoning skills. (See Education Week, Oct. 4, 1989, and Sept. 19, 1990.)

Thus far, it seems that no critics have come forward to suggest that "Sesame Street'' PEP and similar projects are inappropriate for child care.

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said the organization has taken no position on the PEP initiative or on the project promoting the use of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.''

The association has appointed an advisory panel on the use of technology in child care that will include an examination of the uses of television, Ms. Willer said.

Suzanne McFarland, a professor of elementary and early-childhood education at the University of Toledo, studied the use of "Mister Rogers'' in 25 day-care centers over five months.

"We found, over all, that the teachers became more supportive of the children's emotional development,'' she said.

The "Mister Rogers'' preschool project is sponsored by Family Communications Inc., the Pittsburgh-based producer of the show, and public station WGTE in Toledo, Ohio.

Following a pilot-test, the project went nationwide last January with a training teleconference for child-care providers. More than 8,000 providers have been taught how to use the Mister Rogers Plan and Play Book, which provides activities tied to the themes of the show, said Hedda Sharapan, the associate producer.

The long-running "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' produces just three weeks' worth of new shows each year, relying heavily on repeats. By contrast, the C.T.W. produces 130 new hours of "Sesame Street'' each year.

Ms. McFarland's research showed that after using "Mister Rogers'' in child care, "the teachers were calmer and the children were kinder.''

She recommended that instructors watch television interactively with children "so it does not become the proverbial babysitter.''

"With quality support materials--that is where we are going to see children's TV used to an advantage in child care,'' Ms. McFarland said.

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