FOR years, ``Sesame Street'' has been helping toddlers learn their letters and count like the ``Count.'' Now the flagship of constructive children's television has steamed into deeper waters, into an area that many adults can find difficult to fathom - the mysteries of love and marriage. A couple of days ago Luis and Maria, two longtime residents of Sesame Street, got married on screen, in front of millions of three- and four-year-olds. The event had been in the works since last December, when Luis and Maria began to realize that their relationship was growing into something more than a partnership in the street's Fix-It Shop.
Young viewers watched the courtship develop - holding hands, a kiss or two, even an argument that had Big Bird worried that the whole thing was off. And finally, the ceremony, with all the couple's human and fuzzy friends in attendance.
As youngsters sensed and parents knew, this on-screen romance was more than a diverting interlude from the show's daily fare of instructional songs and dances. The show's Maria, actress Sonia Manzano, had herself been married two years ago and was thinking of having children. That led to some brainstorming about how marriage and family could be worked into the show. ``Sesame Street'' researchers, meanwhile, interviewed 90 Manhattan preschoolers and found that most youngsters didn't grasp the connection between love and marriage. The conclusion: Why not help them make that connection?
Ideally, of course, that kind of thing is learned by viewing the family around you, not the TV set. For a large slice of ``Sesame's'' young audience, however, the message may be elusive at home. Statistics about divorce and single-parent households tell that story. Children living in neighborhoods where teen pregnancy and absent fathers are the rule may rarely see a marriage as traditional and potentially stable as the one they viewed on ``Sesame Street.''
The show's contribution to kids' awareness that marriage is a good and natural thing may be small - or great. Either way, the message is needed today, and ``Sesame Street'' is to be applauded for trying to convey it.