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Sesame Street: Behind the Scenes

Anna Housley Juster, former content director for Sesame Street, explains the research process behind kids’ educational shows in the LearnNow article “Can Kids Really Learn From TV?” Here, she takes us through a day in the life creating the iconic children’s television program.

I had very strict television-viewing rules as a child. No Brady Bunch, no Gilligan’s Island, no Three’s Company. But any children’s show on PBS was okay. As a result, I watched Sesame Street from age 2 until I was about 11 years old. As a preschooler, I loved each of the characters for different reasons. I connected with them, I liked learning with them and they made me laugh. I knew every song by heart.


Courtesy of Sesame Workshop 2012

By age 8 or 9, I began to understand how downright hilarious the show is on many levels. I was also old enough to understand many of the complexities in the humor and the dynamics between the monsters, Muppets and human cast members. One day I turned to my mom and declared, “I want to work for Sesame Street.”

In February 2000, this dream came true. I had moved to New York City for graduate school, knowing this would bring me closer to what was then Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop). I began as an intern, accepted a job in the Education and Research Department and later became director of content for the Sesame Street series and the brand: helping to create content for the show and all media platforms, including book and magazine publishing, toys and games. I spent seven years working with an amazing group of colleagues with advanced degrees in fields such as developmental psychology and early childhood education. We all took the responsibility of creating high-quality, educational media for children very seriously.

With the help of a content team, I wrote the annual curriculum that would guide each new season of Sesame Street in the U.S. While each season focuses on a current educational theme (e.g., literacy or art and music), the curriculum always addresses learning across the “whole child”: cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. Writers and producers use this as a guide when creating the show, and the research team then assesses whether specific elements of the series are helping children learn the intended educational goals. The Sesame Workshop model is a process that began long before I came to the show, and it still guides the development of Sesame Street today.

Courtesy of Sesame Workshop 2012

A typical day in my life as director of content for Sesame Street went something like this:

9:15 a.m. Coffee and (hopefully) something healthy to eat at my desk

9:30 a.m. Attend morning script-review meeting, where I meet with the content and research teams to discuss three new Sesame Street scripts

11:00 a.m. Back at desk to continue writing the curriculum that will guide script-writing and production in the next season

12 p.m. Run to conference room to join Kevin Clash (puppeteer for Elmo) in a Webcast to answer questions from parents and kids

1:00 p.m. Back to desk to—wait, must remember to eat! Run downstairs to get salad . . .

1:15 p.m. . . . then work on content for a traveling museum exhibit helping families build healthy habits: Sesame Street Presents…the Body  

2:30 p.m. Meet with Products group to review four new toys in development

3:30 p.m. Back to my desk to send notes on the most recent manuscript from the Publishing group

4:00 p.m. Meet with Sesame Street’s head writer

5:30 p.m. Review latest interactive games and send notes to producers

6:30 p.m. Home

10:00 p.m. Crash!

Needless to say, there is a lot of careful planning that goes into just about every word that comes out of Elmo’s mouth.

Five years ago, I began work as an independent consultant, but I’ll never forget my earliest experiences at Sesame Workshop. Today, I sit on the couch and watch Sesame Street with my own daughters (2 and 5 years old). I see the same sparkle in their eyes that I felt as a child. We laugh together, and I find that I am still blown away by the incredible balance of humor and education—the nexus of fun and learning that inspired me so many years ago.

Related Reading:

“Can Kids Really Learn from TV?” Anna’s article for LearnNow on the research process behind shows like Sesame Street