Interview: What Would Big Bird Do?

"Sesame Street" began in 1969 with a revolutionary idea: learning could be fun. The cast of furry Muppets and their inimitable songs became so popular among kids of all backgrounds--and not just the disadvantaged kids the show originally intended to help--that "Sesame Street" spawned an entire industry of DVDs, toys and computer games aimed at teaching ever-younger children. The show, meant for 2- to 4-year-olds, is watched today by kids as young as 9 months. NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo asked Rosemarie Truglio, "Sesame Street"'s VP of education and research, whether she thinks this is a good idea. Excerpts:

TRUGLIO: People want children to be ready to read in kindergarten, so that pressure is now being passed down to preschool and day-care centers. We're putting a lot of pressure on [teachers] and introducing children to some things that may or may not be age-appropriate. Stress is not conducive to learning. If you're put in a stressful environment, you're not going to learn.

The majority of kindergarten teachers want children to be able to function in a group setting. To be able to listen and take direction. Be able to get along. To be able to regulate their emotions. A lot of what I'm talking about is social-emotional development of children. If they can't function in a group setting, it will interfere with learning to read.

Every child learns at their own rate. During the preschool years, children's job is to explore and investigate, and adults need to assist learning and facilitate it. I'm not going to say a child can't read by the age of 5. But developmentally, most children in kindergarten are learning the precursors of reading skills--they have sounds, they do the alphabet, they have rhyming--but they are not reading.

One reason may be No Child Left Behind. I don't think the intention was for this kind of hysteria. The idea of accountability is great. But I think it's turned into this testing issue, and there's a lot of pressure about testing and performance which I think might be leading to anxiety.

What's happening now is, everything is getting pushed down to a younger and younger age. There's pressure even on babies to begin achieving, so parents are buying these videos to make their infants "smarter." But there's no research that shows exposure to videos increases learning.

Yes, and that's not something we can control. "Sesame Street" is a show for 2- to 4-year-olds. If you can get that word out, it would be great. Parents grew up on "Sesame Street" and they know it's a safe, educational viewing experience. They think, Why not have my little ones learn their letters and numbers at an accelerated pace? It makes parents feel proud. There's no harm, but the show's content isn't age-appropriate, so a lot of the learning is going over their heads. Also, they burn out. If you start watching it at 9 months, by the time you're 2 you want something else.

Learning should be fun. It shouldn't feel like they're learning, which is what "Sesame Street" is all about. A child's work is through play. I don't think preschoolers should be doing flashcards.

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