One television show has it all - opera and jazz, drama and comedy, dance, poetry, painting, and sculpture. The latest cultural series on A&E? Nope. Try "Sesame Street."
As the award-winning children's television program enters its 32nd season with a new slate of offerings and a star-studded lineup of guests, the focus has shifted to music and art, two areas that in traditional education take a back seat to academic subjects.
And not a moment too soon, according to the show's creators. "The arts are often the programs that get cut from schools, and we feel that that's a real mistake, given the role they play in children's development," says Rosemary Truglio, the show's vice president of research.
Unfortunately, parents can't always pick up the slack in giving exposure to or instruction in the performing and visual arts.
"Sesame Street" is not only increasing opportunities for appreciation of the arts, but encouraging the process of making music and art as well.
Executive producer Michael Loman says, "We want children to see art and music as a way to express themselves creatively and emotionally, to have fun, and to open up new possibilities."
Scientific research emphasizes the importance of music in children's development, Ms. Truglio says, and while one television show can't fill the vacuum left by schools, "Sesame Street" offers an important bridge to the creative process.
"To not include ... the message that 'You are a musician, you are an artist' would be an injustice," Truglio says, "especially when research shows that as children engage in making music and art, they also make strides in cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development."
Though the focus is primarily on music and the visual arts, drama, dance, and poetry are featured as well. In fact, all the arts have been well represented in "Sesame Street" programming from the beginning. However, the new focus on hands-on experiences and a more varied, often process-oriented approach should help bring the arts out of the television and into the home.
"We're showing [viewers] children just like themselves making music and art," says Truglio. "We want to help them recognize that you can make music without special instruments. Your voice is music."
In one show, Big Bear and Baby Bear turn empty porridge containers into bongos.
On another episode, Telly's tuba is broken, so he learns to make music by playing glasses tuned with different levels of water. The episode involving creating a collage with contributions from everyone on "Sesame Street" is a lesson not only in artistic imagination but collaboration.
The first show of the new season, which began airing in January, was centered around Baby Bear's birthday, giving all the "Sesame Street" regulars an opportunity to express how much Baby Bear meant to them. Bob created a mini-opera, Rosita made a sculpture, one character wrote a poem while another drew a picture. "It's a wonderful opportunity to show how you can express your feelings through music and art," Truglio says.
For the new season, "Sesame Street" has lined up guest artists from pop-culture favorites Whoopie Goldberg and Keb Mo to jazz great B.B. King and the art superstar Chuck Close. For these artists, a stint on "Sesame Street" provides an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the younger generation.
Opera luminary Renee Fleming says: "The preschoolers of today are the mainstream audience of tomorrow. It's vital to introduce children as early as possible to all kinds of music, especially classical music."
In Ms. Fleming's segment, a well-known operatic aria is used to teach counting. "It's a very clear example of how music and art are wonderful tools for learning in general," Fleming asserts. "The show allows children to see that opera is fun and that they can identify with it as easily as any other form of music."
The arts are presented in a way that stresses personal, individual responses rather than qualitative values.
Truglio explains: "When we talk about works of art, we ask the kids, 'What do you see? What were the artists thinking about? Why did they use those colors and shapes?' Not 'Is it good or is it bad?' "
Next fall, Sesame Workshop, the show's parent company, is launching an initiative that will carry music even more directly into children's lives. A special kit, which will include a video and be available as outreach to day-care providers, focuses on the importance of music in the development of children from birth to age 5.
"Music is a powerful tool," Truglio says. "It's sad that so many parents today don't sing to their kids because they don't like [the sound of] their [own] voices. Babies don't care. It's the interaction that's important. My hope is that, as caregivers and parents are exposed to these messages, they will extend [music] into the child's environment.
"We want there to be a life [for these ideas] after the television show is over."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society