Why It Matters Which Children’s Programmes Kids Watch
By Sonali Gupta
Sesame Street recently announced a new Muppet character: Julia, who joins Elmo, Big Bird and the gang , makes her debut today on one of the longest-running children’s programmes. (She’s been part of print and digital storybooks produced by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit media and educational organization behind the US show, since 2015.) Julia is described as a 4-year-old girl, with red hair, who likes to paint, sing, and, as one of the characters describes, likes to do things just a little differently — in a Julia sort of way. Because, you see, Julia has autism.
I’m so excited — first, for such support for inclusion and neurodiversity, and second, for what it means for our children.
The early childhood years are critical when it comes to cognitive and emotional development. How we see ourselves, how we see others, how we see the world – both clinical research and anecdotal therapy agree that these perspectives are shaped in our earliest years of life, with profound influence on the all of the years to come. While the brain is flexible, and we can continue to learn, unlearn and relearn, there is a powerful window, when children are young, to ‘get it right.’
Yet, in India, there is an absolute dearth of quality children’s programmes aimed at this window. So-called educational shows for kids online or on TV are rife, but few teach cognitive or emotional skills in a way that is appropriate to children’s ages and developmental abilities. Parents have noted it for years — as a practising psychologist, I often hear parents complain that certain Indian children’s TV shows aimed at children have led to aggressive behaviour, ingrained gender stereotypes, and, through the advertising associated with the shows’ characters, created confusion around needs versus wants. Without other options, toddlers, preschoolers and small children watch these sub-quality shows for children or the highly age-inappropriate reality shows and sitcoms their parents watch. The narratives these shows present are either violent, too complex for children to parse, or often, both, and their impact on child development is concerning; over the past two years, I have seen three young children in counselling who threatened to kill themselves after witnessing similar threats on reality shows. Other young clients come in saying, “When someone hits me, I hit them back, because I am as strong as [a popular character from Indian children’s TV shows].”
“Most of the media aimed at children is either violent, male-skewed or animated, in India. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of Certification Board or any guidelines when it comes to parental guidelines [around what children should be watching],” said Sashwati Banerjee, when I spoke with her recently.
Banerjee is the managing director of Sesame Workshop India, the one exception – or rather, one exceptional kids’ TV series. Sesame Workshop India produces Galli Galli Sim Sim – the Indian adaptation of Sesame Street – which uses metaphors and subtlety in order to impact young children’s impressionable minds in the best possible way, a way that has long-term implications for their tolerance, empathy, openness and ability to see beyond stereotypes. In more than 1,000 studies that have looked into Sesame Street’s impact since its origin in 1969, results show that watching the show has improved literacy, numeracy, prosocial behaviours – that is, behavious intended to help others, like sharing, helping, cooperating, etc — and even understanding of gender equality. In India, an analysis of the first three seasons of Galli Galli Sim Sim has linked the show to improved Hindi skills among children in non-Hindi speaking households, as well as better visual discrimination skills (a precursor to literacy).
It’s been able to have this impact because the show – and the Sesame Workshop, which develops it – is rooted in child development research. At Galli Galli Sim Sim, the creative team develops content that maps to the cognitive, prosocial, emotional and physical skills of each developmental stage. More broadly, the show aims to develop children’s executive functioning skills – the abilities to self-regulate, pay attention, remember instructions and switch between tasks, among others – which, Banerjee said, “are the single most predictor of cognitive and prosocial skills development.”
Lessons in these skills play out in the narratives of child-friendly characters, each of whom is subtly designed to challenge stereotypes and expose children to differences, Banerjee said. Chamki is a dark-complected androgynous character who wears a school uniform and is equally liked by girls and boys. Googly is 6-year-old boy who is Chamki’s best friend; he likes to read and dreams of becoming a chef. Boombah is a friendly, cuddly, vegetarian lion with a passion for bhangra. Through their adventures, children learn what it means to be a good friend, or helpful neighbour; the messaging is subtle and natural allowing kids to pick up the lessons without feeling like they’re being instructed.
The entertainment and education of Galli Galli Sim Sim, and all of Sesame Workshop’s initiatives, is preventative, rather than curative. And prevention is needed in shows for children now more than ever; with the increase in digital devices and smartphones in households, children are spending more and more time (three hours each day, by some estimates) in front of a screen. When so much time is invested, children’s programmes need to be more powerful, more carefully planned and tailored to early childhood development – not merely more entertaining. If we rely on the latter, our nation and our families will pay a huge psychological and economic cost when the adults of tomorrow do not have the empathy, resilience and executive functioning skills – skills that many of the world’s top school systems are now pivoting toward – to succeed.
Read more about the future of education on The Swaddle
Chamki, Boombah, and Googly might be fictional, but their effects on our children are real. Isn’t it our duty to provide our kids with the shows for children that will help them create a more tolerant, capable and inclusive world?
Here’s hoping we see you here, soon, Julia.