Research Plants “Sesame’s” Seeds of Programming

by Lauren Brown | Borzekowski photo by John T. Consoli

A School of Public Health researcher’s latest studies of “Sesame Street” extend beyond how the Indian version of the TV show teaches ABCs and 123s. Now Dina Borzekowski is considering how to talk to preschoolers about more complex social topics: child labor, sexual exploitation and violence against women.

She has received almost $1 million from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), a United Kingdom-based nonprofit, to lead three studies on the impact of “Galli Galli Sim Sim,” the Hindu name of the program, and to inform its content.

“It’s an opportunity to reach kids with important messages, and the delivery is through an entertaining program that they’re watching anyway,” says Borzekowski (right). “The idea of protecting them and making them stronger individuals and citizens—there’s no reason not to do that.”

India’s challenges are well documented: nearly 5 million children under age 14 in the workforce rather than in schools; 400,000 children and women sold into sexual slavery; 42 percent of girls sexually abused before age 19.

If cultural norms in the country are going to change, says Borzekowski, they have to change fundamentally, when citizens are children just developing their beliefs.

Associate Professor Donna Howard, an expert on childhood risk and resilience who will help oversee the five-year evaluation, says the key is to do so in an age-appropriate way.

“We’re looking at how to empower families to protect the well-being of their children through a developmentally appropriate lens,” she says. “We’re going to talk about traffic safety (such as wearing a helmet), inappropriate touching, dealing with strangers and the value of education, particularly for girls.”

As a co-sponsor of coming TV seasons of “Galli Galli Sim Sim,” CIFF is investing $12 million into new episodes.

One of Borzekowski’s studies will evaluate the effect of children’s different levels of exposure to the show over four years, while another will ask children, parents, health professionals and teachers about their perceptions of the program. The third study will examine whether its content affects school readiness, health and hygiene, and child protection issues.

Borzekowski, who studied under Gerald Lesser, a founder of “Sesame Street,” has worked on many international versions of the program. She’s been instrumental in developing and evaluating several new Muppets, including Kami, an HIV-positive orphan who helps children in sub-Saharan African learn about the virus and grief. Last year, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she helped create Raya (left), a preschooler Muppet who highlights the importance of using latrines, washing hands and treating dirty water collected from ponds or wells. Raya has been introduced to “Sesame” shows in Bangladesh, Nigeria and India.

“If you raise enough awareness that you need a latrine, then children and adults will advocate for one,” Borzekowski says.


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