Muppets Used As Example of Healthy Lifestyle

Dr. Valentin Fuster, a cardiologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, has teamed up with Sesame Street on a project to improve children’s health and a study in Bogota, Columbia, shows it is working. Six years ago he started working with Sesame Workshop, producers of television’s Sesame Street, on a project aimed at 3-to-5-year-olds in an effort to bring healthy eating habits to a toxic environment of junk food and too little exercise.  The doctor said, “At that age they pay attention to everything” and habits can be changed.

The Muppets have taken on new healthy lifestyle behaviors. They are active (Bert and Ernie jump rope) and eat healthy, munching on apples and carrots.  Cookie Monster no longer binges on cookies- he has one just once a week.

The study was done in Colombia because the schools in the U.S. that were approached were reluctant. In Columbia the Santo Domingo Foundation was willing to sponsor the experiment which involved 1,216 children and 928 parents from 14 preschools. Some participated in the program while others were a control group. Children were trained on healthy habits and how the body works for an hour a day for five months using Sesame Workshop-produced videos, a board game (the “heart game”), songs, posters and activities. Take-home assignments and workshops that focused on overcoming barriers to good food and exercise involved parents. In areas with poor access to parks or play spaces, parents were educated on encouraging children to use stairs and walk places.

The children’s weight and exercise habits were measured at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the study. While many moved or dropped out by the time the study ended, researchers documented a significant increase in knowledge, attitude, and health habit scores amongst the children who completed the program versus those in the control group. By the end of the study the proportion of children at a healthy weight increased from 62% at the start to 75% at three years into the program. Sadly this meant that mostly undernourished kids grew to a healthy weight.

After the three-year experiment in South America suggested the Muppets’ behavior can provide a positive influence on young viewers the project is now coming to the United States. A test run in a New York City preschool has already seen results.  One four year old got her mom to make cauliflower for the first time in her life. Another asked for a banana every morning. One family swapped out bread for Dorito chips.

Because one- third of U.S. children and teens are obese or overweight, the need is clear says the doctor. The focus must be on children while they are young and open to change. This is one way to prevent being at high risk for heart and other problems later in life.

Sesame Street sees the project as an opportunity to improve the lives of young viewers and makeover to certain Muppets.  The program will be launched in the U.S. in New York, where the program plans to launch in several early childhood and Head Start programs this spring and fall. Like in Columbia the project will have to tackle both under- and overweight kids based on socio-economic issues.

The Learning Center, in Harlem, tested the Sesame Street project last summer and their director, Rachael Lynch, said “it really took off” with kids and parents. The director went on to note that a lot of the kids are from low-income families and live in shelters. They do not have access to healthy foods. The school tried to get its students to walk past the Chinese food, pizza, and McDonald’s, to go home and make something healthy. In addition, the children in the program worked in a nearby community garden one day a week so they could learn about growing vegetables. They were encouraged to make healthy snacks including smoothies, fruit salads, microwaved baked apples and apple dip. On weekends, the children took home a “weekend update” to list and draw pictures of what they ate and their parents were asked to sign it in an effort to encourage an adult focus on healthy meals. One parent reports that her children can name every vegetable at the grocery store and opt for more healthy options like salad now.

The program is also expanding to about 20,000 children in Columbia and starting a project in Madrid, Spain. A pediatric and heart specialist, Dr. Jaime Cespedes, who helped lead the project in Colombia, believes it will succeed wherever it is tried. He said that Sesame Street knows kids, knows the media, and knows how to effectively communicate the message to the rest of the family which will bring change.


To read more about the project in NYC, click here.