Eliot-Pearson and CMS honor “Sesame Street,” promote educational children’s media

10/25/14 – Medford/Somerville, MA – Audience members watch Sesame Street clips during the Elliot Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development 50th Anniversary event in Cabot Auditorium on October 25th, 2014. (Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily)

“Sesame Street” (1969 – present) saw sunny days this weekend, giving Elmo, Ernie and Bert reason to be proud. The prolific children’s show received an Award for Excellence in Children’s Media from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and the Communication and Media Studies (CMS) program. The award was given for the show’s positive educational impact on the lives of children and their families, and celebrated Eliot-Pearson’s 50th anniversary as a department.

The celebration on Oct. 25 featured workshops, children’s events and a keynote talk by Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, and was attended by Tufts alumni, faculty members, current students and families from local communities. 

According to Senior Lecturer and CMS Director Julie Dobrow, the award was established to recognize the important role that media plays for children, and to honor the people and projects that have had a positive effect on their lives. 

“Kids today are growing up in a world of wall-to-wall media,” Dobrow told the Daily in an email. “There’s a lot of evidence that not only [is] media a big part of children’s lives, but that media can affect children in many ways. Media [doesn’t] always have to have negative effects on kids; they can have positive, educational and pro-social effects, too. So in recognition of the place and importance of media in children’s lives, we decided to try to honor some of the best work going on in children’s media.”

 Dobrow said that a faculty committee decides the recipient of the award based on number of criteria, including demonstrated understanding of child development concepts, promotion of positive and non-stereotypical images of gender, production quality, availability to children and both educational and entertainment value.

The awards are given biennially and have been granted to organizations, individuals, and companies, including actor and comedian Bill Cosby, and creator and executive producer of “Dora the Explorer,” Chris Gifford, according to the awards’ website.

Co-produced in 30 different countries and viewed by children in more than 140 countries, “Sesame Street” was selected for being one of television’s most educational and innovative shows, according to Dobrow’s introductory speech. The show has just entered its 45th season.

“‘Sesame Street’ is the most studied, most quoted, most researched and rewarded children’s show,” Dobrow said in the speech.

Dobrow explained to the Daily that the show’s value is not purely entertainment; it also has been shown to have long-term positive effects on its young viewers.

“‘Sesame Street’ is in some ways the ‘grand master’ of children’s television,” she said in an email. “There have been hundreds of studies in this country, and many others around the world, documenting the educational, positive and pro-social effects of this show.”

 The show has already received 159 Emmy Awards (253 Daytime Emmy nominations overall), eight Grammy Awards and various other honors. Despite its achievements so far, the show’s Vice President of Domestic Research, Dr. Jennifer Kotler Clarke, said that receiving an Eliot-Pearson Award means a lot.

“This department has such a renowned reputation … and it is really an honor because I think this department does really good science, and to be recognized for our both academic rigor as well as our entertainment value is really important,” Kotler Clarke said.

Kotler Clarke explained that Eliot-Pearson and “Sesame Street” have the common goal of serving children and their families.

“I think we both have the same mission; we care about children, and we care about their healthy development and we are using research in an applied setting,” she said. “It’s not just research for the sake of research, it’s research to inform content. And I think this program is really very good in terms of application.”

According to Eliot-Pearson Department Chair Professor David Feldman, the award, which is Eliot-Pearson’s only national award given to the public, aligns with Tufts’ missions of research and active engagement.

“We see it [as] very much consistent with overall Tufts missions,” Feldman said. “Eliot-Pearson, by its mission, that’s more than approach and teaching. It also does active participation. It does outreach and community involvement, practical applications, policy analysis and policy development. All of those are done in the children’s media, as they are in all of the other areas that we are active.”

Founded in 1922 by Abigail Eliot as one of the nation’s first nursery schools, Eliot-Pearson did not become an academic department focused on the study of children until 1964, according to Feldman.

“[It’s] very unusual in the academic world [that] a program like this could be in the arts and sciences college at a major university,” he said. “It’s a quite unusual situation, and maybe one of the few in the country … We are very proud of that, and very grateful that we are part of it.”

According to Feldman, Eliot-Pearson has achieved several accomplishments in the past few years. This year, a faculty member earned one of the field of psychology’s highest awards.

“This year, we are very proud [that] Richard Lerner … was given a [Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Achievement] by the American Psychological Association for his positive youth development, research and applications,” Feldman said. “That’s about as high [an award as] you get in our field.”

Furthermore, two Eliot-Pearson faculty members’ research works have recently caught a lot of attention, Feldman said.

“One is the world literacy initiative that Maryanne Wolf is leading, that is using tablets to try and bootstrap technology with that natural curiosity of kids … and have [them] basically teach themselves to read, using apps on tablets,” he said. “The second is … an initiative that Marina Bers is leading on what’s called ‘ScratchJr,’ which is basically programming for little kids.”

In addition to its longtime involvement in training early childhood teachers, Eliot-Pearson has recently become more involved in the local community, and has entered into a new agreement with the City of Somerville this year, according to Feldman.

“The Somerville public schools and Eliot-Pearson have a formal agreement that places our teachers-to-be [and] students-in-training in the Somerville public schools in positions that are paid … and [the] Somerville teachers and staff will participate in activities here in Eliot-Pearson,” he said. “That’s very unusual … and it has never happened before. It shows that kind of commitment that we at Tufts [have] to being involved in the local community, and trying to serve the local community.”

That dedication to serving children and their families is the reason why many people love Eliot-Pearson, according to current doctorate student Danielle Stacey, who helped Dobrow put together a film for the department’s event.

“I love Eliot-Pearson for the same reasons a lot of people I interviewed like it,” Stacey said. “I feel like I’m part of a cohesive, whole item, one unit in something that is much greater than myself, and the mission to help children and their families is something that I really stand by, because I believe children are [the] future.”

Moving forward, Feldman hopes to build the department’s focus on health and clinical research in response to students’ requests.

“One of the areas that is really growing and we are going to be building … is the area of health and clinical,” Feldman said. “We have one faculty member this year in that area, [and] we are hoping to add to that … A lot of our students, undergraduate and graduate, come here with a desire to get training and work in [the health and clinical] areas, and it’s something that we are trying to respond to. That’s going to be our major focus.”

At the same time, he hopes to maintain the department’s high profile in research that it has enjoyed in the past few years.

“Last year we [were] told that we were the highest grant-producing department in the arts and sciences,” he said. “So we are very successful at generating grants’ support to carry out our activities.”