The Power of Social Networks
I want to tell you something: I wasn’t always in favor of technology and media in early education, and I still am skeptical about much of the media itself and many of its applications in children’s earliest experiences. I know many of you are, too. You worry about how technology and media are changing the fabric of childhood—and with good reasons. You know something? Fred Rogers felt the same.
In my short time as an Early Career Research Fellow, I’ve learned that Fred Rogers was skeptical of the appropriateness of television for young children. But he also believed that it had tremendous potential for good. In many ways, it was this skepticism that led Fred to create such remarkable media for young children and their caregivers.
I’m going to tell you about one part of Fred Rogers’ work: how he leveraged technology and media as tools to help parents, educators, child advocates, and children themselves learn and explore things known and new to them in pro-social ways.
I learned about what I’m calling “Fred’s Method” during a trip to the Fred Rogers Archive. In all of the speeches and scripts I read, Fred greeted his audience with a smile and eye contact. He often led with a question about a topic of interest to his audience. He waited and allowed his audience to formulate a response. He shared a story about someone he knew—sometimes with video or images, and always with powerful words. He often connected his ideas to song, offering the listener a different modality for understanding ideas.
I already knew some of this when I arrived at the Center, but after reading so many scripts and speeches it all made sense. After all, visual engagement, interest, reciprocity, and feedback are components of good conversation and strong, positive relationships. Of course Fred used these elements in his programming!
In 2012 when NAEYC & the Fred Rogers Center released the Joint Position Statement, they declared, “Technology tools offer new opportunities for educators to build relationships, maintain ongoing communication, and exchange information and share online resources with parents and families.” In my review of the research since the release of the position statement, I see so much of “Fred’s Method,” especially in the research on early childhood uses of social media.
As I mentioned, Fred shared stories about people he knew. At the Center, there is a welcoming and playful installation when you first walk in. (One piece of that installation is pictured below.) The exhibit highlights some of the people who constituted the social networks Fred shared with his viewers. Among these are exceptional children, authors, singers, environmentalists, astronauts, musicians, conductors, actors, chefs, architects, and even animals. These guests hailed from various corners of the United States and beyond. They represented diverse cultures, races, genders, and gifts.
Fred shared all of this through his medium of public television. He said:
…a major goal of public broadcasting [is] to explore ways in which this marvelously wonderful thing can continue to grow to inspire more and more of our children. To offer them real people who care enough about them to share whatever has been nourishing in their own lives in the hope that at least a few of the children who are watching – and listening – will say to themselves “That’s what I want to do. That’s how I want to be.” (Rogers, 1988)
Fred knew that when prominent figures in a child’s life—parents, teachers, caregivers, or even Mister Rogers himself—share part of their worlds and how those worlds look, feel, and sound, children begin to trust that person.
One way parents get to know their children, and children get to know their peers, is through discussing what happens in their everyday lives—what they do, who they meet, etc. Fred provided opportunities for children to meet new people and learn new vocabulary. Parents and caregivers who watched the episodes with their children also met these people and learned with their children. In addition, adult co-viewers walked away with a sense of what elements of the programming sparked an interest in their children. From Fred and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the adult gleaned tips and stories to help make sense of everyday events—stories about people’s similarities and differences; explorations of a child’s joys and fears; and tips about how the child is to negotiate their place in the social world. I can only imagine how current social media platforms and Internet-enabled communication might have extended Fred’s reach and impact…or not.
In my work as a Research Fellow, I have not yet identified any experimental or longitudinal study that examines the impact of social network connections between homes and schools on child development. However, there is a wealth of evidence that when teachers and parents engage with one another, child outcome is improved significantly. This might imply that any parent-teacher engagement (be it in person or via social network) is good for the child.
Also, there are many examples of practitioners using these techniques in two particular ways. First, they use social media to connect parents to the school-based events and activities of their young children. Second, teachers use social media to enhance family engagement. Both are examples of using technology/media in the sorts of ways Fred did—with important themes that promote deep engagement, reciprocity, and feedback.
In the research, I see teachers and care providers creating opportunities for children to explore the known and the new, like Fred did. Teachers and care providers, and sometimes the children themselves, are documenting their experiences. Then they’re communicating and sharing with parents, families, and the larger local and global communities. For example, I’ve read about the following:
- Kindergarten students shared artwork and written messages from Finland to China and back—allowing exploration of new languages, new alphabetic or Chinese scripts, and cultures (Zhao & Li, 2015);
- First grade and preschool classrooms documented their learning and extended their classroom-based explorations (Parnell & Bartlett, 2012);
- Kindergarten students documented their learning in Wiki format (Govus, 2012); and
- Kindergarten students recapped their daily learning (Dominguez, 2009), explored robotics, and shared through Twitter (Ferreira, Dominguez, & Micheli, 2012).
I also see how contemporary social networks enable the reciprocity of communication. In other words, these newer technologies allow the senders to get replies from the receivers of the messages, just as Fred replied to so many questions, letters, and invitations. Here are a few examples:
- Posts on social networks from K-3 students in a school context generated comments and answers from parents (Parnell & Bartlett, 2012; Zhao & Li, 2015); and
- Authors have virtually joined classrooms after being invited via email or social network (e.g., Micklos, 2012).
Children are also receiving feedback about their explorations of the new and known. Fred’s feedback was verbal, visual, and written. In the research, I see the following kinds of feedback taking place:
- Parents commented on children’s projects shared from classrooms to parents via blogs and reported feeling closer to their child’s learning through “reading and talking about the drawings on the blog” (Parnell & Bartlett, 2012, p. 50). In addition, the teachers’ use of photo documentation on the blogs of children’s drawings facilitated further conversation about the physical features of various cats;
- Peers provided feedback on a Plant Life inquiry Wiki project, commenting about the process of creating electronic documents (Govus, 2012); and
- When infants and toddlers communicated via contemporary video chatting technologies with grandparents who live far away, the children received greater visual and emotional feedback than they did through traditional phone calls (Psychological Science, 2014).
As far as the research is concerned, there is room to more systematically document the impact of these social networks on students’ social, emotional, and academic learning and development. I hope that what I’ve presented here helps to illustrate how emerging research and contemporary social networking technologies are helpful in making and strengthening home-school relationships and enhancing family engagement.
Fred’s social networks had tremendous impact on the lives of many in Fred’s audience and also on Fred’s own life. (Fred believed he got as much as he gave from his interactions with his audience and social network.) In his programming and interactions with any audience, Fred showcased reciprocity and feedback—key components of effective communication. He put forth this idea: “I have long believed that the best use of television happens when the program is over, and people integrate what has been presented. You are facilitating that in important ways for children because you obviously care about them, and you are available to them” (Fred Rogers Center Archive). Television was the technological medium of his time, and Fred used it in positive, pro-social ways. Contemporary social networking technologies offer many of the same possibilities and can strengthen home-school connections when used thoughtfully and intentionally.
Katie A. Paciga, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Education, Columbia College Chicago & Early Career Research Fellow, Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College/TEC Center at Erikson Institute.
Feature photo from The Lynn Johnson Collection: Ohio University Libraries.