In the Good Company of Art Education

The “Sign Song” series from The Electric Company is reminiscent of conceptual text-based art by Ed Ruscha and Corita Kent.

Good children’s television producers are able to differentiate the transfer of knowledge through programming that makes its content fun, engaging and relevant to the demographic it is most appropriate for. Two of the best examples of educational television shows that have facilitated artful and compassionate multidisciplinary learning are Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

Sesame Street debuted in 1969, and is based on early childhood educational frameworks, which are a cooperative effort between the show’s producers, school teachers and researchers of pedagogy. The Electric Company came out two years later in 1971, as a continuing educational program for older viewers; most likely, those who had “graduated” from Sesame Street’s early childhood-centered curriculum. Both shows were produced by the Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop). They each utilize humor and art to captivate and maintain their viewer’s attention, while concentrating each episode around a specific learning segment (often in line with subjects in the curricula like math, science, language and social studies).

The imaginary environments and narratives within both programs, reflect life within the real-world, where the majority of communities are an amalgamation of people from different ethnic, racial, economic and cultural backgrounds. Educating children and young adolescents who all have different life experiences is a challenge, but each show incorporates a blend of social and emotional learning that focuses on the intersectionality of human identity. Compassion is at the core of every episode; as is using problem solving skills in a myriad of ways that prepare youth to grow and establish good overall well-being in a fluctuating world. The curricula for both programs is employed via a structuring of content around the domains of development: social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language (see: Fraser-Thill, 2021).

Each show developed their own unique aesthetic using materials, objects and processes like puppetry, elaborate costume design and animation. Sesame Street has its archetypal main street-esque scenery and Jim Henson’s iconic puppets. The Electric Company has a recurring cast of actors, musicians and comedians, as well as traditional animation and groundbreaking computer generated visuals and moving images. The crux of the animations, comedy skits and musical performances is to teach and strengthen literacy skills. Words are often repeated and modeled by actors or animations and associated with specific thematic narratives or imagery that reinforce its definition and phonetic transcription. For example, Chuck Jones, the renowned animator for Warner Bros., re-presented his popular Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote series in a manner that included signs that the characters would encounter featuring key vocabulary words that supplemented the action and story lines.

Three spliced and combined frames from screenshot of a Soft-Shoe Silhouette by the Electric Company.
Courtesy of The Electric Company’s YouTube channel.

Another artful style of visual learning, which The Electric Company envisioned, is “Soft-Shoe Silhouettes.” In this simple, yet mesmerizing production, two silhouettes of people in profile phonetically spell out a word. The first person begins by pronouncing the onset of the word, and the second individual adds the rime; then they say the entire word in unison.

While the original electric company was cancelled in 1977, several reboots have taken place in the decades thereafter. A more recent segment, titled “Pop Goes the Easel” uses art related themes to teach vocabulary. In the episode two characters are transported inside of a painting, where they encounter objects and qualities within the artwork that reveal and reinforce content specific vocabulary words, such as “landscape,” “series” and “canvas.” Of course, these words have other associations outside of the visual arts. While in this skit, the word “series” refers to a collection of similar or successive works made by one particular artist, it has other meanings in additional disciplines including music, math, science (chemistry and geology) and phonetics. Differentiating between words that have the same spelling but different meanings is what The Electric Company does best. Through accessible graphics, acting and storytelling, the show sets its viewers up to be able to apply knowledge of language and understand how language functions in different contexts. This is essential in order for individuals to make effective word choices for communicating certain meanings or styles, and to comprehend issues more fully when reading or listening. What other functions do the words’ symbols and iconography have in other subjects?

Sesame Street and The Electric Company proved that entertainment can be educational and successful at the same time (see: Fisch and Truglio, 2001 for both formative and summative research of the pedagogical value and impact Sesame Street has had on children’s growth and development). They were groundbreaking for blending the phenomenon of commercial television with distance learning via a first-of-its-kind curriculum. Many programs followed their lead, but the fact that both Sesame Street and The Electric Company are still thriving, shows the sustainability and cohesiveness of using art and creativity for learning. While pop artists were appropriating popular mass media tropes in the 1960s and 70s and finding success in the art market, the artists and educators behind the Children’s Television Workshop were making television to inspire children from all backgrounds feel accomplished and valued. And that spells S-U-C-C-E-S-S for generations of good and empowered social, emotional and cognitive well-being.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Fisch, Shalom M. and Truglio, Rosemarie T. “Why Children Learn from Sesame Street”. In Shalom M. Fisch; Rosemarie T. Truglio (eds.). “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street. Mahweh, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 2001. p. 234. ISBN0-8058-3395-1.

Fraser-Thill, Rebecca. “Major Domains in Child Development.” verywell family, 9 March 2021. https://www.verywellfamily.com/definition-of-domain-3288323

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