Big Bird and the over-40s

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Robert Mendick talks to the woman helping Sesame Street update its maths curriculum

Big Bird and the Cookie Monster, kings of cool learning in the children's TV hit Sesame Street, have turned to Oxford University for some help with the basics.

Children around the world have adored Sesame Street for nearly 30 years. The programme, and its cast of eccentric characters, is an institution in the USA. It also serves a serious educational role for pre-school children.

Now it wants to revise its maths "curriculum", and has called on a 26-year-old Oxford research student for advice. Naomi Norman has just returned from a very un-donnish month of rubbing shoulders (if she could only reach them) with Big Bird, a giant yellow canary, and others.

The former maths teacher, now entering the final year of DPhil on the role of television in maths education, was invited to "examine and revise their maths curriculum in the light of current educational research on pre-school maths education".

Currently, for example, a Sesame Street policy is to teach pre-school children to count from one to 40 and go no further.

Ms Norman says: "I looked at children's understanding of numbers and counting and tried to provide a more comprehensive overview of the number system. If you actually speak to pre-school children they are fascinated by what the biggest number is, so it didn't have to stop at 40.

"So I recommended that they tried to encourage children to explore numbers rather than just trying to get them to count."

She suggested altering content relating to number patterns, a revision of its policy on shapes (not just regular ones, but irregular ones too), and a greater understanding of measurement and space ("like how many children you can fit into Oscar's trashcan or how many children standing on each other's shoulders would it take to reach the height of Big Bird").

Ms Norman also proposed an introduction to basic arithmetic ("if the Cookie Monster has three cookies and the child has two, children could add up to see there are five altogether").

She says: "Children would be getting to grips with the concepts they are going to be introduced to in a formal way at school - which is what Sesame Street is all about.

"The most amazing thing about Children's Television Workshop is they take notice of real academic research and that is probably what makes Sesame Street so successful."

Big Bird apparently asks so many questions because hesheit represents a child aged six.

Ms Norman, among her other credits, includes writing a cookery book of her grandmother's favourite recipes while running a not-for-profit teaching agency in Oxford. She is an avid fan of Sesame Street, which has been going since 1969, three years before she was born.


First broadcast on November 10, 1969, "Sesame Street" is now watched in 140 countries by 11 million children and adults a week. The first show was "sponsored" by the letters W, F and E and the numbers two and three.

The programme has won 71 Emmies, more than any other television show in history.

Canadian stripper Barbie Doll Benson was ordered by Children's Television Workshop to drop Bert, Ernie, Kermit and the Cookie Monster from her raunchy act.

The K-Mart supermarket chain was forced to withdraw 150,000 talking T-shirts due to a faulty microchip. The Cookie Monster had been intended to say: "It's time to truck."

Elmo talks in the third person because he represents a child aged three-and-a -half.

Two lesser-known "Sesame Street" characters are Placido Flamingo and Meryl Sheep.

The word muppet is a combination of marionette and puppet. Kermit and Ernie are the only muppets constructed with a permanent smile.

Guy Smiley, the "Sesame Street" game show host, presents "Squeal of Fortune" and "The Triangle is Right".

Big Bird is 8ft 2in tall and weighs 35 stone. He represents a child, aged six, which is why he asks so many questions. His scientific name is Bigus Canarius.

A pirate Internet website called Shoot Me Up, Ernie, shows Ernie taking drugs and Bert in a compromising sexual position.

Count von Count's favourite songs are "Born to Add" and "Count on Me". He is 1,832,652 years old and still counting. The street's most romantic character, he dates the Countess von Backwards who shares the count's passion for numbers except she likes to count in reverse order.

*Partly sourced from "Sesame Street Unpaved", due out next year to coincide with the show's 30th anniversary

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