Why Mister Rogers Is Still a Children’s Media Pioneer in 2014

FR_Hand_On_Face_300-300x218Those of us raised on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” may not have known that Fred Rogers was a child development expert, a composer and lyricist, a TV producer, and an ordained minister.

Actually, we didn’t need to know all that. Because what was apparent to every child who tuned in day after day to sing along with him or to watch the trolley chug along to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe was something even more remarkable—or, as Rogers would say, special: That Mister Rogers was a caring adult who listened to and understood children. Never mind that he was only accessible through a TV screen and our imaginations.

Today Fred Rogers would have celebrated his 86th birthday. The world today is very different from 1968, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired. But yet, we’re all still looking to him in many respects for guidance in this screen-saturated world.

Many of us who grew up with Mister Rogers are now busy parents ourselves, with children clamoring for the digital devices we have in our homes and carry around with us at all times. It’s not news that children spend much more time in front of screens today, and they’re no longer just in our living rooms, but available to young children in the grocery store checkout line or in the backseat of the family car.

Not surprisingly, this leads to a lot of discussion about screen time, much of it negative.  Parents today are concerned about whether spending so much time in front of screens is good for kids and are looking for guidance about how to set appropriate limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics, among other organizations, cautions against any screen time before age 2. However, as Michael Robb, director of education and research at the Fred Rogers Center, pointed out in this blog, “recent research suggests a disconnect between what pediatricians and advocacy groups recommend and the reality of children’s home lives.”

It’s unlikely the proliferation of screens will slow down anytime soon, and parents need sound advice about how to harness the educational potential of digital media while minimizing its negative effects.

Too much of today’s digital media falls short of the high standard he set for children’s programming.

As Robb suggested, “Instead of focusing on whether young children are able to learn their ABCs from an app, we should be looking at what child development research has been telling us all along”: Young children learn best when actively engaged with a caregiver—for example, looking at pictures of family and friends together on a smartphone, clicking through pages of an e-book, or video chatting with relatives.

A joint position statement on young children and technology use issued by the Fred Rogers Center in partnership with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), confirms that, “when used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.”

Fred Rogers had a unique ability to transmit warmth and connection through the television screen, but too much of today’s digital media—with its quick cuts, frenetic pace, and nonstop action—falls short of the high standard he set for children’s programming, with its developmentally appropriate slower pace and suitable content.

In a blog post published last year, Fred Rogers’ colleague Hedda Sharapan recalled how her friend and mentor approached the task of creating positive media for young viewers. She wrote, “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.”

And if we listen to our children, we’ll hear them asking for more time with us, not with our smartphones or flat screens. Used well, these devices can be a tool to enhance our connection—like when my daughter and I sing along to the “Daniel Tiger” theme song. I like to think Fred Rogers would have wanted it that way.

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