Sesame Street is all about teaching important life lessons to kids. But some of our favorite Muppets on the show have stepped up to deal with major social issues. Here's a collection of Muppets who taught kids about the issues facing our world today.
1. Cookie Monster - Handwashing and Healthy Eating
In April, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:
Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual? Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.
Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:
Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.
2. Captain Vegetable - Eating Vegetables
While Cookie Monster
likes tolerates fruit, Sesame Street devotes an entire character to vegetables—the superhero Captain Vegetable. Based "somewhere in New Jersey," Captain Vegetable was first voiced by Jim Henson (!) in this 1982 song promoting healthy eating:
In 2002, the Captain Vegetable superhero franchise was rebooted, now starring John Leguizamo as a live-action Captain Vegetable, complete with green cape and a bandolier of veggies!
3. Kami - Living With HIV
Takalani Sesame is the South African version of Sesame Street. It features Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet. The name Kami comes from the Tswana word for "acceptance," and Kami has become a global figure in HIV awareness campaigns. Kami emphasizes that it's possible to live with HIV, and those who don't suffer from HIV should be accepting (and unafraid) of those who do. She has made appearances with Oprah Winfrey, Laura Bush, Desmond Tutu, and Whoopi Goldberg. Oh yeah, and she shared a hug with Bill Clinton in this adorable UNICEF video:
For more on Kami, check out her Muppet Wiki page, which includes a photo of the time she smooched Whoopi Goldberg at the U.N.!
4. Big Bird - Dealing With Death
Big Bird has had a hand (and a wing) in lots of social issues on Sesame Street, but the most touching was his segment on dealing with death, after the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, in 1982. On the show, Mr. Hooper's death taught Big Bird an important lesson. Have a hanky ready:
The episode dealing with Mr. Hooper's death was shown almost a year after Lee's death. It aired on Thanksgiving, 1983, as producers expected many adults would be around over the holiday to help kids process the loss. The episode was eventually turned into a book called I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper.
5. Lily - Food Insecurity
Lily is a "food insecure" Muppet, who sometimes goes hungry because of her family's financial situation. She first appeared in 2011 on a Sesame Street episode entitled "Growing Hope Against Hunger." Lily is the first character on the show to suffer from food insecurity, and highlights solutions to the problem, such as school lunch programs and food pantries. Here's a highlight reel from Lily's first episode:
6. Pino - Bullying
Sesame Street also tackled the bullying issue with a special episode featuring Big Bird, among others. Here's Big Bird on CNN talking about the issue:
(Trivia note: the American Pino, a brownish monster, shouldn't be confused with Pino the big blue bird, from Sesamstraat, the Dutch version of Sesame Street.)
7. Grover - Cultural Differences
Global Grover travels the world, learning about different cultures. Here are a few of his greatest hits!
In Nicaragua, Grover tells us about a boy who makes mud bricks. "It is I, your furry blue globe-trotting monster!"
Here he is explaining how kids get to school in various places around the world:
And here he is in Bangladesh, in a slightly squished video:
8. Zobi - Malaria
Zobi appears on the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, teaching kids about malaria. In one sketch, he becomes entangled in a mosquito-protection bed net. He also has a (non-malaria-related) obsession with yams. Here's Zobi, with Kami, in a teacher training video:
9. Ronnie Trash - Recycling
Ronnie Trash (inspired by Johnny Cash) delivers a pro-recycling message in this medley of "I Walk The Line" and "Ring of Fire," rewritten to deal with issues of trash:
10. Aristotle - Blindness
Aristotle is a blind Muppet. In this clip, Aristotle teaches Big Bird about reading in Braille:
11. Alex - Parental Incarceration
In June, Sesame Street introduced Alex, a Muppet whose father is in prison. Alex is there to reach out to the estimated 2.7 million U.S. kids with a parent who's incarcerated. Here's a clip:
12. Kermit the Frog - Environmentalism
Although we usually think about Kermit the Frog as being a Muppet Show Muppet, he was an original Muppet character on Sesame Street. He was named UNICEF Spokesfrog in 1980 after Jim Henson began working with the United Nations Children's Fund, and headed up a Halloween drive that year. (Check out an amazing photo of Henson, Kermit, kids, and those famous 1980s UNICEF collection boxes.) Kermit was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College, New York, where he gave a commencement speech emphasizing environmentalism.
Kermit also participated in a promotional video, along with the Prince of Wales, Robin Williams, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama, and others, for The Prince's Rainforests Project. (If you just want the Kermit content, he shows up at the end.)
13. Snuffleupagus - Divorce
Snuffy and the mysterious Mount Snuffleupagus. Image via YouTube / higman12.
A bit of bonus trivia! Sesame Street producers actually shot an entire episode in which Snuffy's parents got divorced. Unfortunately, the results were deemed too grim, and the episode never aired. Here's a quote from cast member Bob McGrath, via The Muppet Wiki:
... They wrote a whole show and taped it, and it was just devastating for test groups of kids. So they just threw the whole thing in the garbage and never tried it again. It was just too difficult a concept for a 3-year-old.
The Muppet Wiki page about the Snuffy divorce is amazing. While the Snuffy episode remains in the vault, there is at least one oblique mention of divorce on Sesame Street—in Jim Henson's last "News Flash" performance as Kermit on Sesame Street, Kermit interviews a bird whose parents now live in separate trees.
To address the divorce issue, the creators of Sesame Street made Abby Cadabby, a character introduced in 2006, the daughter of divorced parents. She wasn't built specifically to teach about divorce, the way Alex is built specifically to teach about incarceration; instead, divorce is just a part of her life. In 2012, Sesame Street created a whole resource kit to help teach kids about divorce. Abby Cadabby features prominently in the kit. Here’s a video from it:
This list just scratches the surface of the issues Sesame Street tackles. For even more, check out the Sesame Workshop Initiatives page.