The Power of Early Learning to Build Brighter Futures


The Power of Ideas

The Power of Early Learning to Build Brighter Futures

Sherrie Westin
Sherrie Westin
(President, Global Impact and Philanthropy, Sesame Workshop)

At Sesame Workshop, we have always believed that if we want to see a better, more peaceful, more prosperous world, one of the best investments we can make is in quality early education for the world’s children. This has been our call to action from the start.

It began in 1966, at the height of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the United States. A new wave of research revealed the depths of the unmet educational needs of young children living in poverty—and the potential for early intervention to change the course of a child’s life. 

Against this backdrop, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett had the simple but revolutionary idea to see if television could be used to teach—and more, to give children living in poverty some of the same advantages of their middle-class peers so that they could arrive at school ready to learn. The theory of change was simple: if education can determine a child’s future, then media that delivers educational content can help open the doors to opportunity—much like the magic words “Open Sesame!”  

Sesame Street premiered in 1969 and became an overnight success. In the first week, more than 1.5 million children tuned in, which was twice the number of children attending preschool at the time. Since then, more than 1,000 studies have attested to the efficacy of Sesame Street—the most-researched show in the history of television—including a famous longitudinal study revealing that children who grew up watching Sesame Street in the United States had 16 percent higher grade point averages in high school than their peers. 

Researchers have found that access to the show not only improved children’s educational performance, particularly among disadvantaged children, but also positively impacted long-term outcomes in the workforce. The evidence is clear: by empowering children with quality early learning, we can put them on a path to a brighter, more prosperous future.

If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.

Sesame Street has since grown to become an educational force for change on a mission to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. From teaching life-saving hygiene habits in Bangladesh, to modeling gender equity in India, to promoting understanding of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, we are present in more than 150 countries and continually looking for how we can serve the world’s most vulnerable children. 

In recent years, the global refugee crisis has become the defining humanitarian challenge of our time. Today, 68.5 million people are displaced worldwide—more than 30 million of whom are children. They’ve lost homes and loved ones, seen violence, and endured the kind of trauma that threatens their future learning, health, and well-being. Millions have no access to quality early learning, yet less than three percent of the global humanitarian aid budget goes to education, and only a tiny sliver of that is for young children.

Failure to act can cast a long shadow: a lost generation of children whose lives are forever defined by their experience of war and persecution. With such high stakes, Sesame Workshop is partnering with the International Rescue Committee, BRAC, and others to bring hope and opportunity to a generation of refugee children.

We continue to work toward a future in which every child has a path to success and the support they need to overcome even the most daunting obstacles.

Thanks to audacious support from the MacArthur Foundation and the LEGO Foundation, our initiatives will reach millions of displaced children in the Syrian response region and Bangladesh with early education, nurturing care, and playful learning. Ultimately, we intend to create a scalable model with the potential to transform humanitarian response for children and families in crisis settings wherever they may be.

The theory of change remains: if we can reach displaced children with quality early learning and nurturing care, we can help change their trajectories and empower today’s victims to become tomorrow’s nation builders. 

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.” I believe the same holds true for a prosperous world. If we can create a world in which every child has a path to success—and the support they need to overcome even the most daunting obstacles—we will have made a pivotal step toward achieving shared prosperity.

Published July 15, 2019