Taking the Street on the Road: Part One
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In honor of Thinkwell’s 20th anniversary, we reflect on some of the milestone projects that we have developed over the years. One of the very first was Sesame Street Presents: The Body, a touring exhibit for science museums created in partnership with Sesame Workshop that delivered a playful, science-based learning experience for a young audience of emerging readers. More than that, Sesame Street Presents: The Body also proved to be a formative educational experience for everyone who was involved with its creation and operation, providing lessons that we still bring to our projects and our lives, to this day.
Thinkwell’s CEO Joe Zenas first met Sesame Workshop’s Vice President of Themed Entertainment Peter Van Roden while he was producing a parade for Universal Studios Japan that featured a significant Sesame Street component. Peter, who had just recently joined Sesame Workshop, provided oversight and final approvals for the Universal project. Once the parade in Japan was on its feet, the two met again back in the United States. “Joe came into my office, sat down on the sofa, and said, ‘We just started a new company called Thinkwell. What have you got for us?’” Van Roden said.
At the time, Sesame Workshop was in the midst of addressing a national child obesity crisis and was launching a new initiative called “Healthy Habits for Life,” encouraging young people to stay healthy and active, eat right, and learn about how their bodies work. Sesame Workshop had an idea of creating a touring exhibit in support of this new program, and Peter agreed to give Thinkwell the opportunity of bringing it to life.
Sesame Street Presents: The Body was a science fair of sorts, created by the Muppets themselves and staged in and around the iconic neighborhood from the TV show. The collection of hands-on, science-based activities were arranged into subcategories: Your Insides, “Your Outsides, Staying Healthy, and How You Work. Guests entered the exhibit through the familiar facades of Sesame Street, which were festooned with colorful banners and posters. The excited voices of the main characters could be heard coming from the windows, apartment intercoms, oversized birds nests, and of course, inside a familiar banged up, metal garbage can.
Thinkwell worked closely with the Sesame Workshop’s education team throughout the development of the exhibit, pushing the limits of how The Muppet characters might interact with visitors. Having The Muppets present the science-based content was a critical bridge to an audience of emerging readers, but how those Muppets might be depicted was often the subject of interesting debate. After all, do Muppets have insides like ours, or would an X-ray of Kermit, for example, simply reveal a human arm skeleton? During this discussion, one of the Sesame Workshop’s education team was adamant that Muppets would never be seen as x-rays as it would be too unsettling for a young audience. Ironically, Thinkwell’s education expert Cynthia Sharpe’s young son was at that moment watching the latest episode of Sesame Street. Right on cue, Cookie Monster appeared on screen and then stood behind an x-ray machine– excitedly revealing his insides, showing a simplified digestive system with cookies crumbled in his stomach.
The Muppets, it was decided, would be presenting their discoveries about the human body at a sort of Muppet science fair, with each character putting their own unique spin on how humans work. Ernie and Rubber Duckie would showcase keeping clean, of course, in the interactive Rub-a-Dub Tub game, Grover would put bodies to work exercising at a disco dance party and Super Grover’s Obstacle Course, The Count had a field day counting bones and organs, and Oscar would naturally focus on the disgusting, ooey-gooey stuff like mucus and digestion. All of the major characters were found here, including Prairie Dawn, Big Bird, and the wildly popular, fuzzy, red monster Elmo, among many others.
During the design phase, the team found solutions for making a giant nose sneeze on cue, for teaching kids how to wash their hands without needing any real water, and how to depict an apple as it is munched in a giant mouth, was broken down in a churning stomach, and finally exited the body as carefully art directed poo.
One of the most challenging aspects of the exhibit was The Brain, and the team debated how it might take form and how deep the content might go. Do kids need to know about the right and left hemispheres? About the primitive brain and the frontal lobes? About synapses and the electrical pipeline of the Corpus Callosum? Finally, Art Director Gwen Ballantyne asked Cynthia Sharpe for her advice. “What does this audience need to know about the brain?” Cynthia paused for a nanosecond, and then counted on her fingers, “You have a brain. It’s in your head. It controls everything you do.” The final design included a dimensional brain outlined by a 2D human head, both of which were set above a multifaceted kiosk with controls linked to all of the other parts of the exhibit.
“The stuff Thinkwell was coming up with was so good that I just sort of trusted the process,” said Van Roden, “I was brand new at Sesame and still on my honeymoon, but Sesame Workshop was equally impressed by the quality and the attention to detail that the team brought to the design, so they sort of let me run with it.” In fact, the exhibit enjoyed the unwavering support of the entire Sesame Workshop team, including the education and curriculum group, who helped shape the content, the marketing team, who provided style guides and final approvals, and even the Sesame Street Muppeteers who passionately lent their talents to custom-created media elements.
Led by Joey Mazzarino, the lead Muppeteer for the television series, the cast went above and beyond to make The Body a success. Jerry Nelson, the original voice of The Count, recorded musical ditties about the pancreas, the liver, the bladder and more for The Count’s Organ Organ. Eric Jacobson reprised his roles as Ernie and Grover and was particularly excited to help revive the career of America’s favorite game show host, Guy Smiley for an interactive quiz show titled Use Your Head. Joey and his team, meanwhile, shot all new footage of Grover, an elephant, and crowds of Anything Muppets for various elements throughout the tour. Thinkwell co-owner and Chief Creative Officer Craig Hanna even had the privilege of directing Grover for a promotional video for the exhibit. “It was a surreal and hilarious experience,” Hanna noted. “One of the highlights of my career.”
Even Sesame Street’s founder Joan Gantz Cooney was delighted to make a rare public appearance at the grand opening at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, which terrified Peter Van Roden. “She rarely travelled and I was brand new. Not only that, she had brought along her teenage granddaughter and I was terrified that she would consider the whole exhibit too young for her and be bored to death.” Happily, when Peter asked the granddaughter if she wanted to go explore, the young lady smiled, nodded vigorously, and ran off, much to the delight of her grandmother (and the relief of Van Roden).
Just before the exhibit went on tour, the team, led by project manager Cynthia Blackstone, monitored play testing at a temporary site in Burbank. The test audience included scout troops, local school kids, and many of the Thinkwell staff’s own children. The event provided an opportunity to test and adjust the exhibit to ensure that it was intuitive, scaled properly, and durable enough to withstand the oncoming audience, but the educational goals were also measured through pre and post visit questionnaires and the results were remarkable. After their visit, kids could correctly name more body parts and explain their function and give examples of healthy choices they could make regarding food, rest, and movement.
More than that, on-going studies throughout the tour revealed lasting behavioral changes by the young audience weeks after visiting Sesame Street Presents: The Body. Longitudinal testing by the Morey Group revealed that kids were putting The Muppets’ message to work in their own lives by washing their hands and brushing their teeth more consistently, resting, recharging and engaging in physical activity with an understanding that it was good for their bodies, and choosing weather-appropriate clothing all on their own. Behavioral change in the home involves repetition over time to build healthy habits for life- and a trip to the Sesame Street Presents: The Body exhibit not only jump-started that process for kids, it also jump-started Thinkwell’s reputation as an exhibit designer for museums.
At the time of the Burbank playtesting, our young ones were pre-schoolers and emerging readers in the sweet spot of the target demographic. Today, some of them are heading off to college, others are graduating, and still others have started families of their own. Ultimately, Sesame Street Presents: The Body would touch the hearts of over two million visitors, but none so profoundly as our own.
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