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Sesame Street knows the way to a kid’s brain is through their funny bone

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Humor is a subjective thing. And for kids, sometimes all it takes is pastries. Miles Ludwig says, “All we have to do is put Cookie Monster sitting with a plate of cookies. And Cookie Monster says, ‘Oh no! Me not supposed to eat those cookies! Me need your help!’ That’s a really funny situation, but it doesn’t require a lot of exposition. And kids immediately get that Cookie Monster really needs their help.”

Miles Ludwig is the managing director of the Content Innovation Lab at Sesame Workshop. This is the digital arm of Sesame Street. The Lab develops the educational and entertaining Sesame content that can be found online and in several apps, and it wants to reach children using the latest tech tools.

“The Innovation Lab was formed to try and stay ahead of new emerging technologies. It’s not about the technology that’s at the top of everyone’s mind just because it’s cool and buzzy,” says Ludwig. “It’s about whether or not that technology will become ubiquitous over time, so that it is available and accessible to all children across the full social and economic scope. At the beginning of Sesame, television was a luxury item and not yet in every home, and yet the founders of Sesame Street had the vision that it could be used as a powerful tool to entertain and educate.”

One of the tools that the Innovation Lab has embraced is tablets and their ability to provide interaction anywhere. And that includes interacting with parents. The Lab created the Sesame Street Family Play app to help empower parents to entertain, educate, and play with their kids. “A parent might say to the app, ‘I have three children under seven; I’m under a bandshell in the park and it is raining; I have three dixie cups and two umbrellas.’ The app will make up a game that everyone can play together right there in that moment,” says Ludwig. “So the app is helping parents to create those moments. And ultimately empowering them to create them on their own later. So it’s an app that’s about actually getting you off the screen and creating meaningful quality time.”

Sesame Street, and the Content Innovation Lab in particular, has learned that entertainment is an important part of making education a joy for children. You can’t teach kids if they aren’t interested in learning, without or without parents’ involvement.

“Getting that balance of entertainment and education right is critical,” says Ludwig. “Children are going to choose Sesame—most of the time for entertainment reasons and maybe sometimes for education reasons. Mastery is a great feeling and learning feels great, even when you’re two or three. Hopefully we are using the stories and the narrative, the magic of our characters and our themes, to really help kids learn how the world works in a way that feels really entertaining, but also, at perhaps some unconscious level, gives the buzz of learning.”

The humor is part of the emotional mix that keeps them at play

Content that both entertains and enlightens is not limited to just children, according to Ludwig. “When it is done in a very organic way, you’re not conscious of the distinction between being entertained or being educated. There are plenty of grown-up videogames we can point to. Assassin’s Creed might be one example, where there’s both factors at play and that is part of the reason for its success. And it feels good; it’s another level of reward.”

And to educate children while entertaining them usually means humor. Sometimes it is a funny character that the boy or girl has gotten attached to, not unlike Cookie Monster, or it is a silly situation. They grab kids’ initial attention using the characters they are attached to—Elmo needs your help!—and then the challenge and fun of the activities has them playing. The humor is part of the emotional mix that keeps them at play.

“If you think about the Sesame Street television, humor is such a key part of it. The jokes are part of the draw, the humor and the fun of the storylines and the characters,” says Ludwig. “We tend to use humor more as a pay off, for having successfully helped Elmo. Or we can do humor through the setting and bring in the satire or parody people associate with Sesame Street.”

With the mainstream adoption of tablets, the Lab has even greater access to children, wherever they are. Ludwig says, “We really need to be everywhere that kids are. And we need to be there in ways that are capitalizing on whatever those moments and platforms are. If kids are in the back seat of a car, are we able to create experiences that are really tailored to that moment.”

Besides app for mobile devices, like the forementioned Family Play app, the Innovation Lab looks at newer kinds of tech to interact with children. As a nonprofit, Sesame Workshop works with others to get funding and partners for some of their research projects. Sometimes they are studying if a new piece of tech helps children learn, other times it’s about interface or methods of teaching.

“What if children could be a contestant on one of the game shows hosted by Guy Smiley?”

Ludwig shares an example: the Innovation Lab has been working with a San Francisco-based startup named Toytalk. They have released several apps that use speech recognition for interacting with characters, including SpeakorTreat and SpeakaZoo. These skew toward older kids, but Ludwig and the Lab have been working with them to create experiences for young children where they actually talk to their beloved Sesame Street characters.

Ludwig says, “What happens when you allow pre-school aged kids to talk to Elmo? From a narrative perspective, what would those experiences look like? We are looking at different models. What if children could be a contestant on one of the game shows hosted by Guy Smiley? The kids participate by simply yelling out the answer. Those are the kinds of things we are working on, building out what that rich content experience looks like when speech is enable as input.”

Whatever the technology or whomever the partner, Ludwig and the Content Innovation Lab are trying to find the best and most fun way to get children thinking and laughing. “Laughter is so fundamentally at the heart of engaging with children. It’s so much what Sesame is about. Laughter makes kids smarter, stronger, kinder. We can provide those moments. Making that connection in the brain between positive and joyful experiences and learning is such a great thing that stays with human beings for their whole lives,” says Ludwig.

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Header image via Gavin St. Ours.