The Sesame Street Approach to Primary

Bored in Vernalchildren, church, education, LDS 25 Comments

The children’s television series Sesame Street premiered November 10, 1969. I was just turning 10 years old, so I didn’t watch it very much as a child. But in the mid-1980’s, with several preschoolers, the show became a staple in our home. Wikipedia describes the program as follows:

Sesame Street uses combinations of animation, puppets, and live actors to stimulate young children’s minds, improve their letter and word recognition, basic arithmetic, geometric forms, classification, simple problem solving, and socialization by showing children or people in their everyday lives. Since the show’s inception, other instructional goals have been basic life skills, such as how to cross the street safely, proper hygiene, healthy eating habits, and social skills; in addition, real-world situations are taught, such as death, divorce, pregnancy and birth, adoption, and even all of the human emotions such as happiness, love, anger and hatred.

Sesame Street just fascinated me. Although it was geared to teaching and entertaining my young children, I couldn’t get over how much of the show was aimed at the parents. There were often references to historical figures, rock stars, and cultural allusions, and even innuendo that only adults would recognize. The humor written into the show allowed parents and children to enjoy it together. There were guest celebrities like Ralph Nader, Maya Angelou, Barbara Bush, Johnny Cash, Mel Gibson, Yo Yo Ma, and Barbara Walters, to name only a few. I especially loved “Monsterpiece Theater,” presided over by Alistair Cookie. For example, watch “The Taming of the Shoe” and notice the underlying adult themes.  See how enjoyable this sketch is for both children and adults:

The reason I mention Sesame Street in connection with Primary is because I have heard a lot of complaining about how difficult it is for adults who have Primary callings to spend the majority of their Church instructional time with the little children. Primary workers often feel a void in their spiritual and social needs, and a Sesame Street approach could help. As a young mother working in the Primary, I recall a Primary President who used this very method. She was a very intellectual woman, who naturally related well to adults but not to children. Being extremely motivated, she worked hard on developing interest segments including songs, games, and activities that would appeal to young children. But as she taught, she would comment and make little asides that would reference the adult Sunday School lesson, conference talks, politics, or even ward gossip. I found myself looking forward to the stimulation I received from the Primary sharing time given by this woman.

Sesame Street was a pioneer in contemporary educational television. Many hours were put into research, production and curriculum planning to discover what would be the most effective ways of reaching and teaching both children and adults. It seems to me that with the amount of time both children and adults in the Mormon Church spend in Primary, a greater effort could be spent to improve this time. The Church Educational System (CES) has been in place to support teaching of teenagers and adults, but has little to do with religious education of members under the age of 12 on the stake and ward levels. Besides the development and printing of class manuals, there doesn’t seem to be much energy allocated to this age group.

Each year the General Primary Presidency develops a themed program for the Primary. Though the theme varies year to year, it always includes monthly emphasis on such topics as Baptism, Obedience, God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Plan of Salvation, Prophets, the Temple, and the family. Outside of these guidelines, local units are left to decide how they will implement the Primary program within their units. Primary often struggles with getting competent and reliable teachers and personnel to run an adequate program. I’ve been wondering how the Primary fares in areas other than my own. Do you feel that the Primary provides sufficient religious instruction for children in your area? How do we compare to programs like Sesame Street? Is there an emphasis on a well-staffed Primary in your locale? How supported and trained are the adults who administer the Primary in your ward?

Comments 25

  1. I’ve been the Primary pianist for years, so I haven’t really been able to tell what kind of support the teachers get, but I believe the main factor in that support is in how tied the Primary President is to “correlated materials only.” Of course, there are different levels of this–from the most strict “if it isn’t from the Distribution Center it is Evil”, to a more moderate “it’s okay if you can buy it at Deseret Book” to “anything that teaches and entertains the children.” You are probably not surprised that from my vantage point, I prefer the “teaching and entertaining” approach. When I was a little kid, I hated Primary, so I do what I can to make it a good experience. I figure that, like me, most kids won’t remember much of what the teachers taught, but they will remember how they felt, whether it was a pleasant experience or institutionalized structural boredom.

    The institutional Church is all over the place, too. In our stake, if there is a conflict, for example, between the Relief Society and the Primary on use of the building, of course the Relief Society always wins, no matter which organization scheduled it first. After all, didn’t the Savior say “Suffer the middle-aged women to come unto me”?

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  3. I had a Primary calling a couple years ago and absolutely loved it. Our Primary President should have been taken on a world tour to show Primary Presidents how to do it right. I like a lot of singing and singing games in Primary. Sometimes when I’d show up at Church I wouldn’t be in the best mood. But by the third hour, when I was listening to sweet little children’s voices sing songs and laugh and say funny things, I was on cloud nine. I think listening to Primary children sing should be used as a treatment to cure depression.

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    Andrew, you simply must tell more about what the Primary President did right. Did she stick to correlated materials? Was it her personality? What else did she do beside singing games? Apparently there was lots of participation (funny comments). What elicited this? Were any of her remarks directed to adults?

  5. I have very seldom seen a Primary President who was dead set on correlation with nothing entertaining for the kids. They’d be dead in the water! I too enjoyed serving in Primary as a teacher a few years back, and I still enjoy subbing there. The lessons are whatever you as a teacher choose to do. When I taught in Primary, the teachers rotated Sharing Time responsibility, so each class took turns “hosting” it. That added some responsibility to the kids to make it fun and interesting. In our current ward, that isn’t how it’s done, but they have tried to do some things to keep it fun like teaching yoga poses based on which song the child picks. What I found in Primary is that kids need to move physically. They can’t sit for 3 hours like adults (if adults even can).

  6. Hawkgrrrl,

    My wife was recently called to do the Achievement Days program for the girls in our primary. She found a couple of books with suggested activities at Deseret Book and showed them to the Primary President, who told my wife “I’m uncomfortable with using anything that isn’t published by the Church.” Really? For Achievement Days? It is Primary Presidents like that who made me hate Primary when I was a kid.

  7. Great questions, BiV. About the Primary President who

    as she taught, she would comment and make little asides that would reference the adult Sunday School lesson, conference talks, politics, or even ward gossip.

    I haven’t known of or served with anyone who did this in a planned way. But when I was last teaching Primary a few years ago, I remember that during sharing time and singing time–whatever all the parts are called collectively when the classes aren’t broken out individually–there was under-the-breath conversation ongoing between the members of the Presidency and the music leader and piano player and teachers. By “under-the-breath” I don’t mean that it was at all negative. I mean adults said things to other adults under their breath, not aimed at kids. It was never anything earth-shattering–it was often commentary on what was going on, how the presentation was going or how the kids were paying attention (or not). But I thought it was a fun way to keep a little adult contact up.

    Like I said, though, I haven’t seen such things planned beforehand. That sounds like a really good idea. I doubt the Church will ever publish materials that include such adult-audience undertones, simply because such material might almost necessarily include parody and mocking, and Correlation is not, I suspect, a fan of such things.

  8. If we could just include Elmo’s world (the LDS version) in primary each week, there would be no problem keeping the adults attention. I mean really, who can resist Elmo?
    What we need is an LDS version of Elmo, maybe Elmer or something more pioneerish sounding. 🙂

  9. I love it, BiV. Something like Care Bears is almost unwatchable by adults, but material that is explicitly geared to both audiences simultaneously a la Sesame Street (or The Simpsons!) strikes me as a terrific idea.

  10. #1: “the Relief Society always wins, no matter which organization scheduled it first. After all, didn’t the Savior say “Suffer the middle-aged women to come unto me”?”

    High Priests ultimately trump the sisters because “blessed are the pacemakers.”

  11. I aspire to be just such a Primary chorister, BiV. I make LOTS of under-my-breath comments that are meant for the adults. Sometimes the older kids catch them and sometimes not. I have served in Primary in some capacity for 20 years with a one-year stint in the YW presidency (which I hated for a host of reasons). I LOVE Primary and agree with Andrew that it is a refreshing, uplifting place to spend my Sundays. I dread the day when they release me from my calling.

    In my current Primary, we do very few gimmicks/cutesy things. No one uses anything “non-correlated,” but I find most of that stuff to be pretty bad anyway. Some Sundays go better than others, but any time you get 50+ kids in a room, it’s always hit-or-miss.

  12. I’ve seen primary leaders all over the spectrum — from very good to very bad. I think a lot of it is related to how much time and energy are put into preparing. Some people don’t put any time in and so their sharing time presentations are lacking — and boring, so the children don’t pay attention.

    But, I’ve seen some awesome primary presidencies and I’ve wondered to myself, “Wow, how much time did she put into preparing that?” Because you can really tell she put in the time.

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    Well. I don’t think comments to the adults have to be “under the breath,” so to speak. The outreach to the adults in programs such as Sesame Street and SpongeBob and these types of shows is very much a part of the programming, and I think it should be so in Primary. Even though the kids may not “get it,” it shouldn’t be anything not meant for little ears. In fact, I’d love to see ward Primary leaders put out something correlating the Primary themes to the SS and RS/PH lessons–maybe just in outline form, so leaders can make references directed to the adults.

    As for gimmicks, I love gimmicks. I always use gimmicks (or shall we say “attention-directing activities”) in all of my talks and lessons. As you know, Sesame Street uses videotaped spots, humor, puppets, animation, live action, and music. One of the most important indicators to the researchers and writers that a show was “working” was that the children responded to it actively, by laughing, or dancing to the music. Loretta Long was chosen to play Susan when the children who saw her audition stood up and sang along with her rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot”. In our Primary, the exact opposite happens–when the children begin to show these signs of engagement, all action is stopped, and they are told to sit down and be quiet before the lesson can continue. What a shame. I agree with Hawkgrrl that kids need to move physically. It’s true, I find it difficult to sit still that long myself.

  14. Well. I don’t think comments to the adults have to be “under the breath,” so to speak.

    Sorry, BiV. I wasn’t trying to suggest that it needs to be. I was just saying that was the one related experience I had. As you’ve said, it’s better integrated into the presentation itself, and I agree.

  15. I was once a teacher for the primary and I found that teaching had to be fun er.. whats the term; full of edutainment. I taught primary to 10 year olds that I loved and adored but I wanted them to remember the things that they were taught. I didn’t want them to regurgitate answers that would bore them their whole lives but wanted them to remember the scriptures, stories and lessons that me and my wife had to share. Funny thing now its been 7 years but I can clearly remember when I was released that November that the students were so upset they wanted me to be their teacher for when they turned 11 that they protested to the bishop. Man I miss those days.

  16. I think this is a great idea. I have a question regarding its application. If the correlated materials came out in this way would people not as naturally inclined toward this dual level like your Primary President be able to pull it off. Further how would you translate that into correlated materials. Secondly, this is my main point, would this take a hihgly motivated person to get it going. I have never worked in primary, apart from short assignments so I am genuinely asking how practical this is. I would love to see it done I wonder who it could work. I really hope that it can.

  17. Achievement Days program for the girls…

    It would be frustrating to have a leader who discouraged using products for achievement day that are not published by the church since there IS NO offical achievement day program published by the church. Sure some people are creative enough to think of a thousand things to do, but others need a quick idea source.

  18. Great post Biv! It seems we have very similar ideas about how primary should be. It drives me crazy when the reverence card is trotted out just when the kids are getting engaged. When I was the chorister I always considered the adults to be part of the audience (even though it was clear that some of them thought they were just there to be bumps on logs). A child cannot tell the difference between an easy question they don’t know the answer to and a hard question that will challenge the adults. So many of the adults in primary assume they should know the answer to every question, I found that it could really draw in the teachers when I would ask questions that they didn’t immediately know the answers to. When the adults are interested and engaged it helps the kids to engage as well.

  19. I am the Primary Chorister and the Mom of little girls. As I’m preparing, I like to remember that I am competing with Sponge Bob/Sesame Street for the kids’ attention and brain space. Since spiritual things are more important, I must use whatever tactics to keep them engaged. I also am a little bit of an attention hog, so I need to know adults are paying attention too. Last week the theme was Family Work, and as we spent a little time talking about the children’s chores at home, I asked all the teachers to share their least favorite part of doing laundry. A big hit and something I’ve always wondered myself. One time I brought pop up tubes and let the kids and adults crawl through them. (the women just put them over their heads and stepped out after the tube was collapsed). We added a tube at a time to symbolize steps of preparedness. I like to think, is this fun for me? Would my kids pay attention? Would I pay attention? I am glad this post validates me in my thinking/preparing. Also, since we do struggle with getting spiritually engaged teachers, I like to remember this is THEIR spiritual nourishment for the week. What am I bringing to them? Thankfully, I have never experienced any hesitancy from the leadership about my activities. They love it and rarely miss attending.

  20. ALL classes should be taught this way. Primary is a very tough gig for a lot of people, but so is Elders Quorum, and for a lot of the same reasons.

    I went from being Elders Quorum President to the Primary, and that was very hard. The Bishop called me to the “Class-That-Must-Not-Be-Named”, and it was a huge adjustment. But one day we were teaching a class about pioneers, and I happened to have spent a lot of time in practicing for a play the previous week, so I just naturally started acting out the things the pioneers were doing. The kids leaped out of their chairs and started doing those actions with me. I rarely had any problems with that class again, as long as I thought of ways that they could all get up and do something with the class. Instead of being the enforcer, I became the friend, and when I was released I was sad, and so were the kids.

    Unfortunately, I have to say that the sharing time activities, etc., although I’ve sat through worse, really didn’t have anything in them for the adults, and I absolutely love the idea of Sesame-Streeting the Primary program. If I get another shot at it, I’m going to use some of these great ideas.

  21. I’ve never understood why people think using only church approved materials has to be boring. I’ve been teaching Primary forever and my classes are fun and follow the rules exactly. The Friend has all sorts of flannel board stories and activities that can be tossed in, and it’s easy to put action into almost anything in the book. I tell the stories in an interesting way (they usually are shortened versions of Friend stories, so I go back to the better-told original.) If we’re learning about the Good Samaritan, we act it out. If we’re doing Noah’s Ark, we use a flannel board story from the Friend and match animals using a game in one of the manuals.

    I learn the gospel better in Primary than I ever do in adult classes. You have to know a subject well to reduce it to its core principles. No wasted time arguing about whether there are horses in the BOM. We are busy learning the parts of the gospel that really matter and we’re having a blast doing it. Even my nursery lessons are educational and follow all the rules.

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