Sesame Street Has a New Way to Teach Kids About Money

May 23, 2019, 5:03 PM UTC
Photo courtesy of Sesame Street

The next time you’re looking for financial tips, forget about Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos. Try Elmo, Cookie Monster and Big Bird.

That’s because the iconic Sesame Street characters are part of a program to bring financial smarts to kids around the world. Developed by Sesame Workshop and the MetLife Foundation, the program uses videos, comics, games and activities to make money seem … well, a little less boring, and a little more meaningful to kids’ daily lives.

Called “Dream, Save, Do,” the program started in 2013. It eventually operated in nine countries – including Bangladesh, Egypt and China – and reached 75 million kids. Now the program’s next phase is kicking off: A targeted three-country dive into Brazil, Mexico and Japan. The two-year, $3 million initiative will focus more on parents this time: How to talk to your kids about money, help them set goals, and give them independence for decision-making.

“It’s about financial empowerment, but it’s also about so much more,” says Sheila Kelly, Sesame Workshop’s chief development officer. “Sometimes there are gaps in what kids know about money, so we are teaching children tools that they will need to be successful in life.”

So what exactly does Elmo talk about, to pass along money smarts to kids? The target age range is three to nine, so you’re not going to get into more adult scenarios like mutual fund fees, or the importance of a diversified portfolio.

Instead you’re going to get the basics: “It might be something as simple as the fact that they want a bike,” says April Hawkins, MetLife Foundation’s assistant VP. “If you are making some money from allowances or chores, then if you put a portion of that into a piggy bank, that will grow over time – and eventually you’ll have the money to buy that bike.”

Another popular topic is “self-regulation” and impulse control, says Hawkins. Take Cookie Monster, for instance, who is famously unable to resist devouring sweets. His character is often used to convey the idea that if you control your immediate desires, then there will be more left for you later on – or, perhaps, to share with others.

Knowledge like that may seem second nature, but when you’re explaining the concept of money to young kids – especially in lower-income areas, where there may not be a lot of resources around – that’s where you need to start.

So far, the program seems to be having the desired impact. In China, for instance, kids who went through the program did 17% better on measures like saving more, understanding the need for planning, and having higher aspirations.

Meanwhile in Brazil, 41% of parents reported having more money conversations with their kids after the program, and 66% more parents said their child had started saving.

One obvious challenge: The way you talk about money to a kid in a slum in Bangladesh, for instance, is different than how you would address a well-off child in urban Japan. So rather than coming up with a blanket global curriculum, Sesame partnered with local organizations to develop culture-specific content.

In comics and video clips, country reps would swap out items so they would be recognizable to local kids – like currencies, foods, and even toys – and then would gather in New York City for meetings to share best practices.

“Different countries came up with different initiatives,” says Jennifer Kotler, Sesame Workshop’s VP of content research, noting that it all went into a common “library” that each country could access and adapt as needed. “In Bangladesh, older children mentored younger kids. In rural India, parents and children often went through the program together. And in Brazil, it was a usually a school-based intervention.”

Dream, Save, Do may be just the beginning, though: Having become an international presence, Sesame Workshop has used that acumen to springboard into a couple of other massive projects. It won a MacArthur Foundation $100 million grant to partner with the International Rescue Committee and provide early childhood intervention to refugees in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

Then it secured another $100 million grant from the LEGO Foundation, to deepen their work in Syria and help the displaced Rohingya population, to encourage learning through play and brighten the lives of refugee kids who have lost everything.

That kind of money, and responsibility, is anything but child’s play.

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