Can We Play That Love Song Again?

Feb 7, 2020
Melissa Butler

A child was having a hard day, slumped in the corner of a classroom, shirt pulled over his head. He poked out of his shirt to yell to the teacher across the room who was engaged with the other children in the class: Hey, can we play that love song again?

The teacher, one of the educators in the Educators’ Neighborhood said “yes” and pressed play on the song Then Your Heart is Full of Love, by Josie Carey Franz (Lyrics) and Fred Rogers (Music). Everyone in the class paused what they were doing to listen.

This is one of many stories told when teachers gathered on January 28, 2020, to learn from each other about sharing Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes with their students. And it’s one of many examples teachers gave of what they notice children need right now for their learning and development.

Collectively, our Educators’ Neighborhood group has played slightly over 100 episodes to children ages 3-8 (and some families) so far this school year. We have transcripts of what children say/do during episodes and anecdotes of what children say/do as connections after episodes. It is from this specific documentation that we are finding and exploring various layers of learning for children, families, and also educators themselves.

When asked about the impact on themselves from watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, here’s what educators have to say:

  • Sitting each week with children watching episodes brings joy to my school life and personal life, too. How do I encourage students to have joy in learning if I can’t take the time to see the joy myself?
  • I am happy. I feel that what I know and do with children is good. When I am questioned about my teaching I feel better not talking so much about academics and more about well-being.
  • My knowledge of what MRN has to offer has changed greatly. I thought it would only be about love, kindness, and feelings. There are so many creativity, curiosity, and other features to the show, like the “How Things are Made” part of the show. I get just as excited as the children (or more) to watch it.
  • I am so much calmer when this is part of my week. That makes me a better person, in school and out of school.
  • I find myself thinking more carefully about the words I choose.
  • I am living/being more present with my students. I ask questions I never asked before like: What did you see? How did it make you feel? How does it make you wonder?
  • I believe that my priorities have changed in the classroom. My focus is on building self-awareness, play, and social interactions vs TEST SCORES.
  • I have noticed that I am learning from Mister Rogers and taking more time to think before I speak.
  • I am listening more, talking less. I am more aware of my own personal pace.
  • I have realized I need to slow down.
  • I am learning to be more forgiving of myself.

Educators often feel a tug between what they know is best for children and what their job requires of them. It is interesting for teachers to learn that Fred Rogers felt a similar tug between what he knew was best for children and what he saw happening in the world around him—in schools/classrooms as well as in television programming.

As part of our time together in January, teachers studied from the Fred Rogers Institute Archive reading piles of speeches, episode notes, and newspaper clippings curated especially for them based on their own unique questions. There is much that is inspiring and confirming in reading a speech from Fred in 1969 about how play should not be considered extra-curricular or a newspaper article sprinkled with quotations from Fred in 1984 entitled “Playtime. Forget about the computers and flash cards—old fashioned play is the basis of a healthy childhood” (The Sunday Denver Post, September 2, 1984).

Sometimes, we romanticize a time when all children had access to play-based and developmentally appropriate learning contexts, and we want to return to those “good old days.” But the truth is, this has never been the case. There has never been a time when all children had access to play as the basis of their learning or heard a consistent message that you are enough and all of your feelings are welcome here.

In this way, Educators’ Neighborhood is a support system for teachers to trust themselves more and stretch their voices farther as they advocate for what they know is best for children and families. Learning about the behind-the-scenes thinking/feelings of Fred Rogers and the many teachers who “loved him into being” allows teachers today to be connected to this larger Neighborhood, and thus, a deeper consciousness of being as a basis of their work.

I am reminded of Shea Tuttle’s description of Fred’s early spiritual and philosophical development of the concept of Neighborhood inspired from his learning with Dr. William Orr around the distinction between an accuser or an advocate (Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, pp 56-61). There is something profoundly relevant about this distinction for educators’ work right now.

There is gravity around a discourse of accusation for why things are the way they are in education today. The web of social and economic injustice is thick and identifying policies, programs, beliefs, actions, and inactions that maintain this structural web is an important part of working to dismantle it. That said, there is significance in recognizing our own agency as people to embrace an approach of advocacy (vs accusation). To be able to recognize the web of injustice and identify parts/systems that maintain it, and still hold a belief in goodness and an assumption of loving kindness for all neighbors.

When I asked teachers to reflect on the gifts they receive from Fred Rogers, here are a few: Clarity. Stillness. Gratitude. Slowing down. New perspective. Kindness. Seeing good in people. Being present. Better listening. Open and vulnerable. Expression of feelings. Talking about hard things. Feeling valued. Everyone is special. Questions are okay. To be seen. To feel brave. To embrace my calling. Peace. Calmness. Wonder. Exploration. Joy. Confidence. Love.

As Educators’ Neighborhood grows, it feels like it is becoming a space for cultivating educator advocacy based in love. A space inspired by the loving, radical advocacy of Fred Rogers. A space for educators to tell their honest stories, learn from each other, challenge one another, and collectively elevate their voices to speak up on behalf of children and their families. A space where we can notice all the “marvelously wonderful” things not only about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but also about our students, their families, each other, and ourselves.

Noticing goodness is a radical act. Let’s do it more. And can we play that love song again? Yes, please. Let’s keep it on loop.

Melissa A. Butler is the project lead for Educators’ Neighborhood, a project of the Fred Rogers Center at SaintVincent College. Melissa writes for children and adults, and she consults with schools and organizations who wish for more slowness, trust, and appreciation of small things.

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