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In Russia, Children Get To Sesame St. In a New Way

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1996


Later this month, Russian children will begin to wake up to the same chipper tunes that have rung in the ears of a generation of American children: the snappy strains of "Ulitsa Sezam," known in the US as "Sesame Street."

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Of course, the setting has changed. The sociable courtyard surrounded by the apartment houses will feel familiar to urban Russian children. Big Bird is replaced with Zeli Buba, a big, floppy, dog-like character who lives in an oak tree.

But the real differences are in the children who will be watching the TV show.

In Russia, as in the United States and more than 30 other countries that have adapted "Sesame Street" to their cultures, the show is aimed at preparing children, ages 2 to 6, for school. And "Sesame Street" researchers have found the same differences, even at this young age, that follow Russian and American students throughout their school careers.

In general, American youngsters are more self-assured and independent, more expressive of their feelings, and have more experience with children of different ethnicities and physical abilities. Russian children, on the other hand, know more, read better, and are more advanced in arithmetic. They are also more respectful and obedient toward adults.

"In general, children are the same all over," says Anna Guenina, director of research and content for "Ulitsa Sezam," who directed the market testing and will study the show's impact on children here through the coming season. "The differences were created by adults, by us."

By the age of 6, the average Russian child is better prepared for school in the academic sense than the average American child. "I think in terms of math and literacy, our children are more educated," Ms. Guenina says.

"So if Sesame Street can teach children in Russia more about human values, social values, then teaching them how to count is not so important," she says.

'Lenin loved children'

Soviet education taught good citizenship in school and in Young Pioneer camps that were the communist equivalent of Boy and Girl Scout camps. Classroom guides for teachers included when to pull out pictures of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and to explain that everyone loves him and that he loved children.

All that has rapidly become ancient history. But Russian schools retain their traditional style. They are disciplined and formal. Classwork and homework are tightly directed, telling students both what to do and exactly how to do it, leaving little room for independence. Tests are often still based on standing and reciting before the class.

Russian families also tend to keep children firmly in their place. "Our kids don't have a sense of dignity and pride," says Vladimir Grammatikov, the director of "Ulitsa Sezam." "They are always told they are not important and know nothing."

Russian children are more dependent on parents and teachers than American children, feel less able to make their own decisions and solve their own problems, Guenina says. In tests of "Sesame Street" programs in the US, she says, children paid no attention to the adults in the room with them. In Moscow, the children sat absolutely quiet.

Russians look on American children with a mixture of wonder and consternation.

A Moscow teacher, Natalia Rusanova, taught for a few months in an American high school recently and was astonished to watch a class as a film on the book "War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy, was shown. Two students watched. Some wrote or read. Others came and went from the room. "They're not compelled to study," she says, marveling. The good part is that American youngsters learn self-reliance.