Staying in to Stay Healthy with the Ahlan Simsim Muppets

Sesame Workshop adapts to the needs of social distancing to help children learn and cope with COVID-19 across the Middle East with a new special: Ahlan Simsim: Friends Time.

By Sherrie Westin, President of Social Impact & Philanthropy, Sesame Workshop

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Basma’s puppeteer, Hind Jaal, remotely tapes a scene from the new broadcast special, “Ahlan Simsim: Friends Time”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, we know it’s those who are already the most vulnerable who are most at risk. That’s especially true for young children, whose needs are too often overlooked in times of crisis.

With so many children out of school and without access to in-person learning spaces, there’s an urgent need for innovative approaches to ensuring that young children still have access to early education during this pandemic. And in the Syrian response region, where conflict and widespread displacement has already put millions of children at risk for being left behind, we knew that Ahlan Simsim could help.

While much of the Middle East and the world was under lockdown in April, the Ahlan Simsim puppeteers dialed into a video call from their homes across Jordan for a rehearsal of Ahlan Simsim: Friends Time, a broadcast special designed to support families across the Middle East during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With input from our partners at the IRC and in-region advisors, we began producing a broadcast special to give the region’s children tools and support, all with the help of familiar Muppet friends. We decided that the program would take the form of a video call, reflecting the reality of how many families are staying connected while social distancing.

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Ahlan Simsim characters connect over a video call in “Ahlan Simsim: Friends Time”

Remote production was not easy. The Ahlan Simsim team and our local production partners at Jordan Pioneers had to find creative solutions to new challenges. In the absence of the usual set equipment and crew, puppeteers used table lamps as studio lighting and rigged cameras of their own. Producers worked around the clock to stitch together footage and audio, and illustrators brought animated characters to life.

The result includes songs, games, and practical strategies families can use at home, all infused with the playfulness and joy our characters are known for. When almost-6-year-old Basma expresses how much she’s missing her friends, human cast member Hadi teaches her how to calm down with a song about belly breathing. And with the Ahlan Simsim Muppets staying in to stay healthy, the episode models fun, educational activities for children and caregivers to do together inside, like playing guessing games and creating thank-you messages for essential workers — fostering the parent-child engagement so critical for children in crisis.

The special also aims to help young children make sense of their new reality. In one scene, Hadi explains to Basma and Jad what “social distancing” means, and how they can still stay connected to friends while keeping themselves and others safe.

In “Ahlan Simsim: Friends Time,” Basma and Jad learn about the importance of social distancing.

Ahlan Simsim: Friends Time premiered in over 20 countries across the Middle East and North Africa on May 8 and is also airing now on local broadcast channels and will be available on YouTube. Our goal is to reach children however we can, including delivering educational resources via WhatsApp.

As the pandemic evolves, we know that the needs of families will evolve, too. That’s why, in the coming months, Sesame will continue to produce more localized content that gives families the support they need to cope with their ”for-now normal.” We are reminded of the tremendous power of media and Muppets to bring valuable lessons to children and families, even in isolation.

This article was originally published by Sesame Workshop.

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