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In Sesame's New Show, To Play Is To Learn

Sesame Workshop

Turn on your TV and surf the stuff meant for kids. I dare you.

You'll likely find a surfeit of fast action and fart jokes. And that's what makes Esme & Roy so unusual.

The new show, about an unlikely duo who babysit monsters, is Sesame Workshop's first animated children's program in more than a decade, and it deftly combines the Workshop's parallel passions — for learning and play. In fact, Esme & Roy is dedicated to an idea that can feel radical these days:

That learning and play aren't parallel at all. When done right, they should converge, each in service of the other.

The show's eponymous heroes are Esme, an enterprising little girl (and the show's rare human), and Roy, a lovable, yellow grown-up with horns. The premise of the show is captured in one line of its jazzy theme song: "When they play, they're gonna save the day and chase those monster problems away."

In one episode, the monster-sitters are hired to take a toddler named Fig and her big brother to the planetarium. But there's a problem, of course. It's raining, and Fig won't cooperate.

"If Fig won't put on her raingear by herself, we'll just help her," Esme says.

"Great idea, Esme," says Roy in a voice that manages to be both deeply gruff and disarming. "I mean, how hard can it be to put a little monster in a raincoat?"

Pretty hard, it turns out. But Esme finds a play-based solution to their Fig problem: They use cardboard, tape and scissors to turn their raingear into spacesuits.

This kind of play is known as guided play, because Esme and Roy provide some structure, but not too much. They essentially say, Let's make spacesuits! Not only is guided play a powerful vehicle for creativity; here, it's used to sneak in lots of other learning too.

"The first thing we need is helmets," says Fig's brother, a space enthusiast. "That's how we breathe in space. Next, we need warm space suits because space is very cold. And special jetpacks to help us move around."

How 'bout that for a science sneak attack?

/ Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

"Guided play captures your imagination, it's fun, it keeps you motivated," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who teaches psychology at Temple University. Her work studying the power of guided play influenced the show's development. "And we think that those features are an important learning tool for helping young children master skills."

Including academic skills, like vocabulary, geometry even engineering. Which is why Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for curriculum and content, arrives at an interview with an outline of learning goals for every episode of Esme & Roy. Truglio bemoans the fact that play has been nudged out of many schools and daycare programs to make room for early academic instruction. It's not an either/or, she argues.

"Play can provide the platform to learn all of these content goals, in addition to very important social-emotional goals, as well as health goals," Truglio says.

On that last point, Esme and Roy's monster charges also have monster meltdowns, and the sitters have to jump into action with calming strategies, including positive self-talk and a song about belly-breathing.

"Take a deep breath, put your hands on your tummy. Feel your belly rise and fall," Esme sings when Fig's brother loses his patience with his recalcitrant little sister. "In through your nose, out through your mouth. It's not hard at all."

It's also not hard to imagine kids enjoying Esme & Roy. But parents beware: When you're folding laundry and overhear just how much thought went into this show, you, too, might find yourself on the couch. Taking notes.

Esme & Roy premieres Aug. 18 on HBO, and Sesame Workshop says it hopes to bring the show to an even wider audience in the future.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.