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When the children's TV show "Sesame Street" first hit the air in 1969, a lot of people were not ready to buy into the idea of using TV to teach, but the experiment has been a success. "Sesame Street" has reached generations of toddlers with its combination of educational content and pure entertainment. In the last installment of our series on early literacy, NPR's Lynn Neary visits the Sesame Workshop.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When early viewers of "Sesame Street" first tuned in to the show, they met a new universe of characters, from real-life grown-ups like Gordon, to an oversized yellow bird who would soon become famous.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
MATT ROBINSON: (As Gordon) Hello, Big Bird.
CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, hi, Gordon.
ROBINSON: (As Gordon) How are you?
NEARY: These days, a toddler is as likely to meet up with Big Bird for the first time on a tablet or smartphone as on a TV screen, says Michael Levine. He's executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
MICHAEL LEVINE: Kids tend to consume across platforms and across settings. They're on the couch. They're in the living room. They're outside even, or they're on the go. So these mobile media and these interactive platforms allow for anytime-anywhere learning.
NEARY: Sesame Workshop is building on the popularity of characters like Big Bird, as well as 45 years of educational research to create new digital products for young children. Testing is a key step in the development of these products.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Thank you so much for coming in today. We really appreciate your help.
NEARY: A number of young children and their parents troop into Sesame Workshop's corporate headquarters in New York City to try out a new game.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Find all of the beans with polka dots.
KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Yeah.
MAN #1: You did it.
NEARY: As the children play the game quietly on a tablet, researchers sit in a small room nearby, watching them on a computer. Michelle Caplin of the workshop's digital content department says they're observing how each child interacts with the mechanics of the game.
MICHELLE CAPLIN: We are seeing how he is choosing to help Elmo jump up the beanstalk. Is he swiping? Is he tapping? Is he piloting Elmo with his finger? And the more kids that we put in front of this game, the better we'll understand the intuitive way in which kids interact with it.
NEARY: Whether the workshop is creating a new app or a new video, Sesame Workshop Vice President Rose Marie Trulio says the most important thing is the content.
ROSE MARIE TRULIO: People believe just because it's interactive it must be a better educational tool. And you could put pretty crappy content on a digital device.
NEARY: Trulio says her team asked educators what was most needed to help children develop literacy skills. The answer was vocabulary.
TRULIO: We're trying to teach children words in order to build their core knowledge skills. Children know bus, and they know car, and they know boat. But do they know the superordinate word called transportation?
NEARY: The workshop created a game called "Big Bird's Words" that's aimed at showing kids how words are related. Vice President Jennifer Perry demonstrates.
JENNIFER PERRY: This is the introduction to the app "Big Bird's Words."
NEARY: It starts off as a fairly straightforward word recognition game.
(SOUNDBITE OF APP, "BIG BIRD'S WORDS")
SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Here's how to play. I'll say a clue, then you tap that thing in the picture.
NEARY: The game has been designed for a smartphone because at a certain point, the app turns into a wordascope. Perry says that's a made-up term for a camera-like device that children can use to track down words wherever they might be. Kids put a word, like milk, into a viewfinder and search for an object, like a milk carton on the kitchen counter, that has that word on it.
(SOUNDBITE OF APP, "BIG BIRD'S WORDS")
SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Ta-da. You found it. Milk.
NEARY: And then that brings you to a page where milk is in the middle, and there's a whole lot of things around - other words around milk, like dairy, teeth, farmer, cow, farm, goat. What's that?
PERRY: This is our word tree. Our word tree is to show the interconnectedness of the words themselves to grow a child's vocabulary as well as to show a child how these concepts, in the real world, relate to each other so that they will learn where milk comes from - from a cow, on a farm, where there are also goats. It's a dairy product. Milk is good for your teeth, and the farmer takes care of everybody.
NEARY: (Laughter). Not only does this game introduce kids to large concepts, it also requires an adult to help the child, a decision aimed at getting parents to interact with their children instead of using the device as a babysitter. Ian Rowe, the CEO of Public Prep, a New York City charter school, says getting parents involved in their kids' education is crucial.
IAN ROWE: It's part of the reason we actually launched a pre-K partnership with Sesame Workshop because so many of our kids were coming in not having enough exposure to language, which then translates into background knowledge, which is the foundation for all future learning.
NEARY: Public prep just added the first pre-K program to its existing network of elementary and middle schools. Sesame Workshop is developing materials for the school. On this day, a small group of children gathered around an iPad to watch a video about families.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) A family, a family. What, what, what, is a family?
NEARY: Afterwards, teacher Jesse Marks leads the children in a discussion.
JESSE MARKS: Wow. So what did you think of that?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: A family together.
MARKS: It's a family together, right?
NEARY: The videos are just one part of the lesson plan on families. They are used together with books, arts and crafts, and writing projects. Sesame Workshop's Akimi Gibson works closely with the school.
AKIMI GIBSON: Our videos for children act as sparks, and so we think of it as view-and-do.
NEARY: Gibson says the videos are just one tool the teacher can use in the classroom.
GIBSON: So our vision for this year isn't to give iPads to children. Our vision is always put the technology in the hands of the adult, right? So it's the adult's decision to say, let's come over and let's talk about something, right? Let's delve into this big concept, right?
NEARY: Technology, says the pre-K's managing director, Haifa Bautista, is incorporated into the classroom because it will always be part of life for these children, just as books are.
HAIFA BAUTISTA: I mean, we don't hide the books in the classroom. They're right there on the wall. They're on the bookshelf - same time the little screen is available, so that kids can relate to both. And, for us, technology is part of the same journey towards getting them ready for kindergarten.
NEARY: Once these kids are in elementary school, says Bautista, they'll have their own laptops and iPads, so it's never too soon to teach them that technology can be more than just entertainment. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.