January 15, 2010

“Sesame Street” to focus more on child health issues

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Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., one of the creators of “Sesame Street,” says the iconic show is focusing more on children’s health issues. (photo by Susan Urmy)

“Sesame Street” to focus more on child health issues

In the midst of celebrating its 40th anniversary, one of the creators of the iconic television show “Sesame Street” recently visited Vanderbilt to present Grand Rounds to the Department of Pediatrics.

Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., vice president of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop, told the audience in the theater of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt that the program is moving beyond letters and numbers, focusing on key health concerns in children.

“If it's been awhile for you, even if your children watched it, take a look. It has changed a lot. Childhood obesity is one of the many issues we are working on now,” Truglio said. “My goal is to be certain there is a curriculum goal that can be met in an age-appropriate manner in each show.”

And the manner in which lessons are taught on Sesame Street has changed a lot over the years. Sesame Workshop now goes far beyond television lessons, focusing on basic skills like literacy to include the Internet, a live action travelling show, home videos and books. One of the programs Truglio has helped to foster in recent years is called Healthy Habits for Life. She joked about missteps in finding ways to educate as well as entertain.

“We learned some valuable lessons, like when a bright writer decided Cookie Monster should sing about cookies being a “sometimes food.”

That didn't go over so well with the audience, but we sure got media attention about it. Now parents thank us for giving them a new term to use when their kids ask for sweets,” Truglio said.

She said research is an important part of what Sesame Workshop does. A study examining children's preference for foods endorsed by the popular character Elmo indicated the fuzzy, red character could significantly increase a child's preference for selecting healthy foods like broccoli.

“But in that same research, we also discovered an alarming influence on junk food. That really had an impact on our CEO, Gary Knell. That's when he decided to remove our characters from products like gummies, or fast food products,” she said.

Truglio is a developmental and child psychologist and is responsible for developing the interdisciplinary curriculum across all Sesame Street media platforms. Before joining Sesame Workshop, she was an assistant professor of Communication and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Through her research, she investigated the effects of television on the cognitive and social development of children and adolescents.