“After 30 years of teaching, I never would have thought I’d be showing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to my students,” says Kathy Brown, a Kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Beechwood preK-5, in Pittsburgh Public Schools.
But Kathy and her colleague, LeeAnne Kreuger, are doing just that. Every Friday morning at 9:30, all fifty-six Kindergarteners gather together in LeeAnne’s classroom at the end of a long hallway for “Mister Rogers Friday.” Teachers select which episode to play each week based on the needs and interests of their students.
This school year, they began on the first week—the third day of Kindergarten—with the episode “Helping children know what to expect from school.” The idea for showing the episodes, though, began with a question posed by their principal last school year.
In late March 2018, during a routine grade-level data meeting, teachers were discussing empathy and the need for slowing down. Beechwood principal, Sally Rushford, asked: “I wonder if they would like Mister Rogers? I wonder if the show is still relevant to our kids?” The teachers weren’t sure how their students would respond, but they agreed to give it a try.
From April through June 2018, teachers selected one episode each week to show their students. It took some time for children to get used to the pace of the show and to attend to its messages, but by the end of the school year, children were singing along to the songs, naming every character in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and making learning connections during other parts of the school day. Students even made their own paper mache puppets of their favorite Neighborhood characters.
When planning for this school year, it was clear to the teachers that this was something to continue. They knew Mister Rogers was important for their students’ learning. Reflecting on the importance of the episodes, Ms. Kreuger says, “I think we’re teaching life lessons by showing Mister Rogers. And it helps children with their social skills and the ability to focus.” Ms. Brown thinks, “It gives children an inner peace and the ability to stop and think of others. Life is not a race to be the first one done. Children need to know that the world is full of very different, interesting people and we can help each other.”
I am lucky to be part of this learning, too. I visit each week to watch episodes along with teachers and students while taking notes on what I notice. And there is quite a lot to notice. It is nothing less than beautiful to watch young children as they are introduced to the ideas and approach of Fred Rogers.
During the first weeks of school, many children asked “Is it over yet?” or “Is it done?” and most were looking this way or that instead of attending to the episode. To some people this might indicate that children aren’t interested, or that a full episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is too long or too outdated for today’s children. What is remarkable to me is how the teachers at Beechwood trust the process. They know it takes time for children to learn how to slow down. They know it takes time for children to engage deeply with things that seem different. And they know the message of Fred Rogers is important enough for them to invest this time.
Now after many weeks of “Mister Rogers Friday” this school year, children have started to sing along to the opening and closing songs, many are learning to snap along with “snappy new day,” everyone exclaims “choo choo” with the trolley, they are beginning to name the characters of the Neighborhood, and everyone has a lot to talk about when Mister Rogers feeds the fish just like they feed their school fish.
While teachers use the Mister Rogers’ Plan & Play Book as a reference, they also create their own extensions of learning for their students. After the episode on “rules and limits,” children played board games, after learning to “value all kinds of art,” they drew their own pictures of the trolley, when they saw Handyman Negri build a school for Daniel and his friends, they wanted to build their own school with wooden blocks, and when Mr. McFeely made a bridge with popsicle sticks in Mister Rogers’ sandbox, everyone tried to make popsicle stick bridges.
Teachers also make connections between Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. After playing the episode “We All Have Art Inside Us” (from It’s a Beautiful Day Collection DVD), teachers then showed a short clip from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (on PBS Kids) where they visited the artist studio of Alison Zapato. What children didn’t yet know was that Ms. Alison was going to visit them at Beechwood the next week! After learning about portraiture first from Mister Rogers’ in-depth exploration, and seeing Alison create a portrait on a brief episode clip, children then got to make their own portraits the following week. All students will continue to learn with Alison Zapato throughout the school year as part of her artist-residency.
There is significant learning for the teachers in this process, too. Teachers continuously reflect on child development and culturally relevant practice as they weave the lessons from Fred Rogers into their school days. Soon, teachers will have an opportunity to visit the Fred Rogers Center and read from its vast archive in order to learn more about the theoretical foundation and approach behind Fred’s creation of the episodes.
Fred Rogers reminded us to “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helpers.” When noting the importance of teachers as helpers, it is also important to notice and name who is helping these helpers. Ms. Brown made sure to point out, “If we did not have a principal who valued Mister Rogers, this opportunity would not be possible. It brings us all together to connect and celebrate how special we all are.”
If you visit Beechwood preK-5, you will get a Neighborhood feeling throughout the school because of how all people are valued. So it may come as no surprise that the leader of this school also values the approach of Fred Rogers. As Ms. Rushford says, “It is community building, giving the teachers and students a common language for social-emotional learning. The show helps children learn to play and use their imaginations.”
This approach to learning certainly grows from more than playing one Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode each week, but I think the commitment to make time for a full episode each week is quite remarkable. It takes courage to make decisions based in what matters most for children, to value slow in a fast-paced system, to care about depth over breadth of learning.
I am reminded of a little boy who, during his first viewing-visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe back in August, turned to me and asked, “Is that person coming back?” He now knows who that person is and that yes, he will come back to change his shoes and sweater at the end of each episode. And for all the Kindergarteners at Beechwood, Mister Rogers will be back again next week to talk with them directly and slowly, with kindness and thoughtfulness, inviting them all to look closely and marvel at the many beautiful, wondrous things in their neighborhood.
Melissa A. Butler is a former Kindergarten teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools. She now works as an independent writer, researcher and educator (www.reimaginingproject.com).
Pittsburgh Beechwood preK-5 is an elementary school in the neighborhood of Beechview. There are over 300 students who attend the school, which is enriched by the diverse racial, cultural and language backgrounds of all its families.