Child Development

"Sesame Street" and Childhood Development in Crisis Zones

How IRC and Sesame Workshop developed a new show for kids in the Middle East.

Posted Jan 31, 2020 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

For generations of children, "Sesame Street"and its many international versionshas represented a significant source for early childhood educational and emotional learning. Since its U.S. debut in 1969, the Jim Henson-created show has introduced children to basics like ABCs and sharing, as well as more complicated issues, like conflict, divorce, and death, through its cast of colorful, funny, fuzzy Muppets.

The most recent version, a co-production between the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Sesame Workshop (SW) called "Ahlan Simsim" (Arabic for "Welcome Sesame"), premieres next week with a unique goal that sets it apart from its predecessors: to address the devastating impacts of crisis and displacement on children across Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. 

Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop
Basma making a new friend in Za'atari Camp, Jordan.
Source: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop

A project like this draws on the decades of experience from IRC and Sesame Workshop as well as local, regional, and global experts in early childhood, language, culture, gender, and disability. In addition to the television program, the project incorporates in-person services in the refugee camp.

Katie Murphy is one of the people who's been working on making this program happen. Katie is the Senior Technical Advisor for Early Childhood Development at the International Rescue Committee and has over 15 years of experience working in the field of early childhood development, education, and sustainable development. Currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, Katie has conducted research in early childhood development in Central America, Ecuador, India, Lebanon, Kenya, Mexico, and Thailand. 

I asked Katie to share how the team drew from their experience, research, and best practices to create the program and services, as well as how they will measure its success.

JA: How did this new version of "Sesame Street" geared toward Syrian refugee children come to be? What was your role in its development?

KM: United by the urgent need to address the unmet developmental and educational needs of young children affected by conflict, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Sesame Workshop (SW) first started working on the project concept in 2015. We felt strongly that by combining the strengths of our two organizations—IRC’s experience designing and delivering high-impact programs for children and families affected by crisis, with SW’s powerful approach to developing and disseminating world-renowned educational content across 150 countries—we could make a lasting and meaningful impact for young children growing up in some of the most difficult places in the world. 

At the time and still, to this day, the war in Syria has fueled massive displacement and chaos in the Middle East and beyond. With each of our organizations having a strong presence in the Middle East region, we knew that our first focus of this effort should be there. Before deciding if a new television show would be appropriate, we started relatively small with some initial testing of Sesame content for Syrian refugees living in Jordan, funded by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, and building and refining our existing early childhood development direct service models, such as the Preschool Healing Classroom program in Lebanon and the Reach Up and Learn home visiting model in Jordan and Lebanon.

These experiences, coupled with additional needs assessments, validated and reinforced the demand and need for early childhood programming and content within the region, and we remained determined to expand and scale the scope of the project. When the MacArthur Foundation announced the inaugural 100&Change competition, to provide a one-time award of $100 million to “make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem of our time,” we knew we had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring the full vision of the project to fruition, including the development of a new television show to enable us to reach a massive scale coupled with critical direct services to ensure that children and families experiencing conflict and displacement receive the targeted and personalized care that they need to recover and build resilience. I’ve had the honor of being part of this project from the start, serving as the technical lead for the overall design, and continue to provide technical support to our regional team and our teams delivering services across the four countries where the program is operating: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

JA: How did the development of this show differ from the development of existing versions of "Sesame Street?"

KM: Sesame Workshop has extensive expertise in developing culturally-relevant content for children and families around the world. Their model has a strong emphasis on engaging with local writers, actors, puppeteers, and production companies to co-develop content that reflects and resonates with the local children and families. The creation of this new television show follows in the tradition of previous international co-productions that Sesame has developed in places like Afghanistan, India, South Africa, Mexico, and many other countries around the world. 

The key difference is that this show has been specifically designed to respond to the needs of children affected by conflict and crisis in the Middle East. The new show features some of the beloved characters familiar to U.S. audiences, such as Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Grover, brought to life by Arabic-speaking Muppeteers from the region.

There are also two brand-new Muppet characters named Basma and Jad. Basma, an almost-6-year-old, purple Muppet, welcomes her yellow-furred friend Jad with open arms when he moves to her neighborhood. Each episode of "Ahlan Simsim" follows Basma and Jad as they explore their world with the help of trusted adults, animated characters, and friends, like a lovable and mischievous baby goat named Ma’zooza who eats everything in sight.

JA: What educational and emotional lessons did you feel were most important to address in this version of the show? How did you identify these needs? 

KM: Throughout the early stages of the initiative, we have brought together local, regional, and global experts in early childhood, language, culture, gender, and disability. Their perspectives and advice have informed the educational framework that underpins the "Ahlan Simsim" initiative—both mass media and direct services—and have provided specific guidance on linguistic choices, messages, and programmatic approaches. While the entire initiative has been designed to improve the early language, cognitive, and socio-emotional development of conflict-affected children ages 0-8, direct services use a whole-child approach to target the broad range of outcomes, while the TV show has a narrower focus on socio-emotional learning (SEL).

In particular, the first season of the show focuses on building children’s emotional vocabulary, which includes helping them to develop a roster of self-regulation strategies. Advisors noted the critical importance of basic emotional identification as a first step in learning how to express and manage their emotions in culturally and developmentally appropriate ways. This is particularly important for children who have been affected by crisis and conflict who are confronting difficult experiences and big feelings without having the skills to regulate these emotions.

JA: In addition to the TV show, the partnership with IRC includes in-person services in the camp. What does this look like, and how are they meant to work together with the show?

KM: While the TV show is a powerful and effective way to reach massive numbers of children and families within the region, we know that the most essential ingredient for helping conflict-affected children recover and build resilience is the existence of safe, nurturing, and enriching relationships with consistent caregivers and trusted adults. These types of relationships are modeled in the TV show, but they must also be supported and reinforced through experiences that the child has in the home, in health clinics, in community spaces, and in schools. In addition, we know that children’s resilience is enhanced when they have access to safe, predictable learning opportunities where they develop the critical skills necessary to grow and thrive. This includes the development of social-emotional skills that play a key role in mitigating the negative effects of early adversity. 

Unfortunately, these critical needs are largely neglected within humanitarian responses around the world, with educational programs receiving only approximately 2 percent of humanitarian funding, of which only a tiny sliver is dedicated to the youngest children. Our "Ahlan Simsim" direct services address this need through a range of program models falling under two target categories: programs targeting families and programs targeting children. These models draw from global evidence articulated in the 2016 Lancet Series on Early Childhood Development, align with the Nurturing Care Framework, and were designed with an understanding of the specific needs, contextual factors, and constraints of humanitarian settings.   

JA: How is the impact of this program being measured? What kind of impact do you hope it has?

KM: We have designed the initiative to have an impact on multiple levels. For policymakers, governments, program implementers, funders, UN agencies, and other key stakeholders, we aim to create replicable, scalable models for ECD programming and content delivery that can be adapted for conflict and crisis settings around the world. For parents, teachers, and facilitators of ECD programs, we aim to increase their skills and motivation to provide nurturing care for young children.

For the children who have experienced horrific trauma and chaos during their early formative years, participation in "Ahlan Simsim" programs and engagement with "Ahlan Simsim" mass media should lead to meaningful gains in their language, cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes, changing their life trajectories. In other words, I hope that the layers of support provided by the "Ahlan Simsim" program can provide conflict-affected children with the same chance to grow to be happy, healthy, and productive adults that my own children have.