What I Learned from Fred Rogers

To reach children through media, we have to start with understanding children. On Rogers’ 85th birthday, a close colleague who worked alongside Rogers for many years shares why parents and media makers still have a lot to learn from this TV pioneer.

It’s hard for me to believe, but it was 46 years ago when I began working with Fred Rogers and his small nonprofit production company!   I first met Fred in 1965, before Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  I had just graduated with a degree in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.  Hoping for a career in children’s television, I went to WQED (Pittsburgh’s PBS station) for an interview.  At the time there were no jobs, but the person who interviewed me suggested that I talk with Fred Rogers.  I knew Fred’s name from his work behind the scenes on his earlier local program “Children’s Corner,” so I figured I’d get some pretty good advice from him.

Fred’s Advice

It turned out to be superb advice. Fred was working with young children as a follow up to his graduate studies in child development at the University of Pittsburgh. After he heard about my interest, he suggested graduate school.  But he wasn’t talking about studying television production or mass media.  He was talking about a master’s degree in child development, and I remember him specifically recommending Pitt because their program emphasized real time with children.

Long after that, I came to realize that he was telling me that if we want to be effective communicators with children through television, the place to start is not with understanding the medium, but with understanding the audience.  And that’s not easy for most of us. Yes, we were all young children once, but it’s virtually impossible to remember what that feels like.

I remember Fred saying that the question is not so much “What can we give to children through the television set?” but rather “What are they bringing to us?” “What are their inner dramas?” “What makes them scared?  Happy?  Angry?  Proud?” It’s all about listening.  That’s what made Fred such a gifted communicator—he was first and foremost a listener.

Rather than focus on academics, Fred was more interested in helping children develop the “tools” they’ll need for success in school and in life: persistence, curiosity, getting along with others, self-control, and self-regulation.

A year later, in my second year of grad school at Pitt, Fred received funding for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  He remembered my interest and asked if I would serve as assistant director.  There I sat in the control room at WQED, watching Fred translate the complex child development theory that I was learning in my classes into a television experience for young children.

What he was offering looked simple, but I could see how thoughtfully it was crafted. I was in a unique position to recognize the many ways he was supporting children’s development: offering rituals and transitions; dealing with challenging feelings like aggression, separation, and fear; and helping children differentiate between reality and fantasy.  I remember Fred once telling a reporter that rather than focus on academics, he was more interested in helping children develop the “tools” they’ll need for success in school and in life, like persistence, curiosity, getting along with others, self-control, and self-regulation. Isn’t it interesting that Fred knew long ago what research is now confirming?

For Today’s World

Over the past four decades I’ve had the great honor of speaking about Fred’s life work all over the country at hundreds of early childhood conferences.  He was offering such fundamental themes in early childhood that it’s no wonder his work is valuable for today’s professionals.  It’s timeless.  As he often reminded us, “even though children’s outsides have changed, their insides have not.”

But what has surprised me lately is that I’ve been able to take his work into a whole new arena that’s in demand these days—STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math).  Even early childhood educators are being held accountable for teaching STEAM concepts, but I hear over and over that many of them feel inadequate and unprepared.

When I show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood videos in my presentations, teachers can see that Fred wasn’t “teaching” science or math, but he was offering core STEAM concepts in natural, everyday, developmentally appropriate ways.  Just look at the ever-popular factory videos, like the crayon factory, and his songs, like “If you will look carefully, listen carefully…there’s a lot that you can learn” or “Did you know when you’re wondering, you’re learning.” At the end of a recent STEAM workshop, I was really touched to hear a preschool teacher say that she had felt uncomfortable with science and math-related subjects, but now Fred had given her confidence, and she was actually looking forward to offering them to the children.  I know what she means because I, too, keep finding encouragement and new insights from Fred’s work, even after all these years.

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