Sesame Street puppets give refugee children emotional support

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An early learning project that uses the children's television characters to help refugee children displaced by conflict to overcome trauma has been shortlisted for a $100m (£80m) grant from a Chicago-based charitable foundation.

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Jordan is one of the countries where the project will work with young refugee children and their families

The Sesame Workshop, the educational arm of the long-running television series, with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one of eight semi-finalists in the McArthur Foundation’s 100&Change grant competition for one single proposal that promises ‘real and measurable progress’ towards solving one critical problem of our time.

Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Foundation, said, ‘We’re familiar with the immediate impact of refugee status, but Sesame Workshop and the IRC are taking a more forward-looking approach and designing an intervention today that draws from their respective expertise.’

The Sesame Works and IRC  partnership aims to tackle one of the greatest crises of our time and is one of very few initiatives that are addressing the needs of young children who are displaced.

The grant takes in to account four main criteria when shortlisting influential projects like Sesame’s: they have to be meaningful, verifiable, feasible, and durable.

Ms Conrad added, ‘While 100&Change was open to problems from any domain or field, the four criteria… implicitly restricted the types of problems and solutions that would be competitive.’

The project will deliver early education and emotional support to refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

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The foundation’s decision to shortlist the project underlines the importance of education for children faced with conflict and significant traumas. ‘[The project has] proposed an intervention that will have a long-term impact on the prospects for these children, their families and their communities by improving their opportunities to learn and to prosper,’ said Ms Conrad.

The educational material will make use of content from Sesame Street programmes aired to Jordanian, Egyptian and Gulf audiences, to remain as culturally appropriate as possible. It may also dub content from Sesame Workshop India, as some of their content focuses on child protection and conflict resolution.

Katie Murphy, early childhood education advisor, at the IRC said that the content will be tailored to the realities that refugee children, and those affected by war face. She said, ‘[It] could include short video clips that could be viewed in community gatherings or in waiting rooms in health clinics, mobile phone applications to provide support and guidance to caregivers, printed books, lesson plans for pre-school and early grade teachers, toys and games, among others.

‘Existing content will be piloted to test its potential…The video content typically consists of small and short clips, keeping young audiences, who have short attention spans, interested. This pilot will help us decide what content will we need to create from new.’

She added, ‘Prolonged and severe stress resulting from the accumulation of adverse experiences and the absence of stable, nurturing care in the first years of life can result in toxic stress, flooding the brain with dangerously high levels of stress hormones—which can disrupt biological and neurological processes during critical stages of development.’

Alongside the IRC’s existing work with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Lebanon to support their education strategy and increase educational access for refugee children, this initiative aims to support children living in adverse circumstances, ‘setting them up to be not [just] healthy and happy, but contributing members of society’.

Aware of the need for the project to be engaging and enjoyable for care-givers as well, ‘Sesame brings in adult [aimed] jokes and famous personalities to ensure that adult care-givers are very much interested in tuning in to Sesame. This way they will be more inclined to further teach their children if they are engaged in the topic themselves,’ said Ms Murphy.

The programme's 15-month inception phase will end in March 2018, and the IRC and Sesame Workshop aim to secure extra funding to develop the project further.

  • The winner of the 100&Change grant will be announced in December 2018.
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