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     Volume 6 Issue 12| March 30, 2007 |

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Learning with Muppets

Elita Karim

Shreya is like any other 5-year-old - inquisitive, stubborn, experimenting, loves to rush out to the playground at class recess and hates to wake up for school early in the morning. However, for the last one year, Friday mornings have always been a special treat for Shreya. Now that she knows her numbers quite well, she gets someone to help her with the alarm clock, so as to wake up the next morning and catch Sisimpur on BTV at 9 am every Friday. “It's a wonder how hell breaks loose every time we try to wake Shreya up for school though,” says her mother Rahela Anjum, an executive working at a private company in Banani. Evidently, watching Sisimpur happens to be Shreya's top most priority at the moment. “My favourite character is Tuktuki,” she says, referring to one of the muppet characters featured in the show. “But I also like Halum since he can talk like a human and doesn't seem to scare anybody,” she adds talking about the tiger, yet another muppet character on Sisimpur.

Sisimpur has been designed and planned in such a way that it meets the learning needs of children between the ages of 3-6 years in Bangladesh, irrespective of social classes and regions across the country. The Bangladeshi adaptation of Sesame Street, Sisimpur under an organisation called Nayantara has been running for the last one and half years on Bangladesh Television (BTV), every Friday at 09:05 am, with repeats at 02:05 pm every Saturday, Monday and Wednesday. “It is based on a syllabus or a curriculum,” says Sara Zaker, eminent actress and the Project Head Nayantar, at a recent seminar held to create a special Media Forum for the show. “The show does not emphasise only on math, science, alphabet and letters but also plays a big role in developing the young minds regarding social and cultural values.” With a curriculum defined by Bangladeshi educators, the series showcases values such as self-respect, empathy and cooperation. Sisimpur moves a step forward and work on the very sensitive issues, such as improving educational opportunities for young girls; promoting good nutrition, hygiene and safety; and encouraging appreciation of the shared cultural heritage of diverse segments of Bangladeshi society.

Sesame Street developed in 1968 in the USA, working on the concept of children's learning through a television show. This idea evolved over the years and today it is a major platform for building a better future in many countries. Sesame Street, a production of the Children's Television Workshop in the United States, is an integral part of a child's education. From a very early age, children learn to recognise letters of the alphabet, count, add, subtract and also learn about culture of other countries. Sesame Street plays a significant role in developing the day-to-day skills of children, be it crossing the road, wearing the seat belt in a car, tying shoelaces and getting in and out of a school bus. Today, Sesame Street, which is termed 'the longest street in the world', has been adapted in many countries around the world, such as in China, Egypt, Kuwait, South Africa, Israel, Palestine and now in Bangladesh amongst many.

Ratan Pal, the executive producer of Sisimpur says that this might seem like a mere television show to the adults or a normal television viewer, but to a child Sisimpur is a way of life. “Our surveys and researches show that children who watch Sisimpur actually relate to the characters on the show,” he says. “The way the characters behave, think, even the way they speak seem to influence the children in a significant way.”

At the seminar, a few segments from Sisimpur were shown to members of the media to give a clearer idea of what the children have been learning in the past year and a half. In one of the segments, Ikri Mikri, a muppet character, wanted to buy permanent colour pencils from the nearby shop to colour herself purple so as to be like her best friend Tuktuki, yet another muppet character. The shopkeeper, however, explained to Ikri, that you don't have to change your colour to befriend someone. One should always be oneself and in turn respect the other's differences as well. To a child, this would seem a very natural and an obvious explanation. It's probably in the 'adult-world' where we have terms and concepts like racial discrimination and social class differences.

Dr. Mahtab Khanam an eminent psychologist and consultant to the Sisimpur project has conducted various surveys and workshops with children and parents alike in several remote areas of Bangladesh. “Our community outreach programme works on raising the awareness amongst families regarding early life nurturing, health, hygiene and much more,” she says. “This is closely related to how we plan our concepts and scripts for every segment in Sisimpur.”

According to writer, professor, Dr. Zafar Iqbal who is the consultant to the scriptwriters in Sisimpur, every script has to go through certain stages of official approval and certification from the authorities in Sisimpur Bangladesh and also in New York before it is finalised. Cultural contexts have to be kept in mind while making the scripts as well.

The famous actor-turned politician Asaduzzaman Noor says that Sisimpur is “educational and much more.” It is all about love, patriotism, the arts, values and the world we live in.”

The muppet characters that have captured the hearts of millions of children in the country are Tuktuki, Haleem, Ikri Mikri and Shiku. Tuktuki is a five-year-old extroverted girl who loves to sing and dance. She is a dreamer and does a hundred different things at a time so as to be helpful. Halum is a loving tiger and the children absolutely adore him. In fact, some of the kids even want to be Halum when they grow up. In many of the episodes, Halum has been shown enjoying a family of clever family members. However, his naiveté and his interesting collections of sorts, for instance stamps have viewers laughing out loud. fish and vegetables, which actually had many a child turn towards fish and vegetables as well. Ikri Mikri is a cute and cuddly three-year-old who is very affectionate and is loved by all. She has an imagination where she makes anything happen. Shiku is the intellectual jackal, who comes from a family of clever family members. However, his naiveté and his interesting collections of sorts, for instance stamps have viewers laughing out loud.

Children in this country need a reason and also a chance to dream. Sisimpur, which started out in 2005, is creating a positive image of Bangladesh for kids, and giving them lessons in alphabets and numbers. But it is also creating cultural awareness amongst young minds, something that no textbook can do.

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