Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Today: Learning from Educators in the Neighborhood

The 2019-20 school year is in full swing and educators who are part of the Fred Rogers Center’s Educators’ Neighborhood have been selecting and playing episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for their young students since September.

A group of fourteen early childhood (preK-Grade 3) educators from Pittsburgh and across the U.S. have been thinking about how the life and work of Fred Rogers is relevant for today’s children. Inspired by teachers at Beechwood preK-5 in Pittsburgh Public Schools (Beechwood Kindergarteners Learn with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), educators in this pilot group share with each other why they select certain episodes for their students and note the learning connections children make from viewing the episodes.

The primary purpose of the group is educator learning from and with other educators. What relevance do teachers find in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes? What value do they find for the wholistic learning of their students? What shifts do they notice in themselves as they invite Fred Rogers into their classrooms each week?

During the 1980s and 1990s, numerous reports from educators and parents described a positive impact on children’s development from watching episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The idea of screen time, then, was fairly new and there was a lot of talk about the dangers of television, but Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came to be seen as a different kind of television program, one with a deep respect for children and a deep knowledge of child development.

Our outside world may have changed since the 80s and 90s, but young children’s inner growing and learning has not. Children who live in the neighborhoods of Homewood, Beechview, East Liberty, or Brookline in Pittsburgh, or outside of the city in Waynesboro or Reading, PA, or across the US from California to Maryland, we are finding that all of these children are excited to see Mister Rogers each week and learn from him and others in the Neighborhood.

In a first grade classroom during an episode about friendship when X the Owl was bossy and didn’t listen to Henrietta, but then he asked, “Can’t we try again?”, a child told a detailed story about how that same thing happened to him when a friend teased him at recess and then they tried again to be friends. In a Kindergarten classroom during an episode when Lady Aberlin and Mrs. Templeton showed a wooden apple with the letter “a” carved in it, there was a flood of classroom talk about the letter a: “a, apple, /a/”—“I got an A in my name”—“me too”—“a /a/, b /b/, c /c/,…”—“I like apples”—“I got A in my last name.” In another Kindergarten classroom on the opposite end of town, a little boy turned to me at the end of an episode and said: “Wasn’t that the greatest thing ever?”

Some people may think that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes are too slow, too long, too “boring,” too old-fashioned, and overall not relevant for today’s children. Much to the contrary, so far this school year I have seen a group of 5 year-olds from the neighborhood of Homewood who had never heard of a kazoo before clap along and pretend to play the kazoo with Ella Jenkins and Fred. I have seen another group of 5 year-olds, many of whom speak English as their second language, enthralled by an episode from 1975 about what it means to wear a costume with references to the classic Wizard of Oz. I have seen a group of 6-7 year-olds intently watch Mister Rogers sit at a table and slowly talk about how a table is set, how a water glass is filled, how to place a napkin on your lap, and what you can find on a menu.

Analog telephones ring. Mr. McFeely delivers VHS tapes for Picture Picture. There is furniture that you might now find at an antique store. All of this—the “outside stuff” in the episodes that some adults might deem unrelatable for children today—doesn’t seem to distract children from the essence of the show.

It’s how Mister Rogers talks to children that matters. What’s essential is invisible to the eye. What matters most about you is who you are on the inside. This is what permeates the viewing experience of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, especially for children. I’m not even sure this should be surprising. Of course children can see right through to the core of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. They aren’t distracted by artifacts that seem “old” to us—they are “new” and interesting to them. Children know when someone cares and trusts them. Children know when someone talks directly to them, asks real questions, and listens. And this is who Mister Rogers is for children, no matter where they live or when they were born.

It is an absolute delight for me to witness children of today, along with their teachers, getting to know Fred Rogers through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Keep an eye out for more stories about learning from our Educators’ Neighborhood group. We will share more examples of engagement from both children and educators throughout this 2019-20 school year.

Melissa A. Butler, a former Kindergarten teacher, writes for children and adults, and consults with organizations focused on depth of learning. www.reimaginingproject.com

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