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

Aug 7, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 11:18 am

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?

"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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This weekend on HBO, the minds behind "Sesame Street" will unveil their first animated kids' program in more than 10 years. It's called "Esme & Roy." Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team reports.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Turn on your TV and surf the stuff meant for kids. You'll find a surfeit of fast action and fart jokes. And that's what makes "Esme & Roy" so unusual.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

MILLIE DAVIS: (As Esme) We've got a monster to watch.

TURNER: That's Esme, an enterprising little girl who runs a babysitting service for monsters. Literally, the kids are monsters. And Roy is her business partner, a lovable yellow grown-up with horns.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Esme and Roy.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Esme and Roy.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Monster sitters. When they play, they're going to save the day and chase those monster problems away.

TURNER: In one episode, the two are hired to take a toddler named Fig and her brother to the planetarium. But there's always a problem. This time it's raining and Fig won't cooperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

DAVIS: (As Esme) If Fig won't put on her rain gear by herself, we'll just help her.

PATRICK MCKENNA: (As Roy) Great idea, Esme. I mean, how hard can it be to put a little monster in a raincoat?

TURNER: Turns out pretty hard. But as the theme song says, Esme and Roy know how to solve problems with play.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

DAVIS: (As Esme) I know how we can get Fig to put on her rain gear and keep it on. We can turn it into a spacesuit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whoa.

TURNER: This kind of play is known as guided play because Esme and Roy are providing some structure but not too much. The kid monsters are still in charge of making costumes out of cardboard, tape and scissors. And the folks at Sesame use this play to sneak in lots of other learning, too. Listen to Fig's big brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The first thing we need is helmets. That's how we breathe in space.

TURNER: Did you hear that little science sneak attack?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Next we need warm spacesuits because space is very cold.

KATHY HIRSH-PASEK: Guided play captures your imagination. It's fun. It keeps you motivated.

TURNER: Kathy Hirsh-Pasek teaches psychology at Temple University. And her work on guided play had a big influence on the show's development.

HIRSH-PASEK: And we think that those features are an important learning tool for helping young children master skills.

TURNER: Things like vocabulary, geometry, even engineering, which is why Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for curriculum and content, comes to our interview with an outline of learning goals for every episode of "Esme & Roy."

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: So - yeah, so - no, no, I just wanted to look it up. The content goal of that one is...

TURNER: Truglio says play has been on the decline and that "Esme & Roy" offers an answer to critics who say...

TRUGLIO: Oh, you know, but kids need to spend more time focusing on the academic skills, you know, learning about science and math and literacy. Play can provide the vehicle to learn all these content goals in addition to very important social-emotional goals as well as health goals.

TURNER: On that last point, "Esme & Roy's" monster charges also have monster meltdowns, and the sitters have to jump into action with calming strategies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ESME AND ROY")

DAVIS: (As Esme, singing) Take a deep breath. Put your hands on your tummy. Feel your belly rise and fall. In through your nose, out through your mouth. It's not hard at all.

TURNER: 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. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.