Fred Rogers' Methodology of Beingness

Apr 13, 2021
Melissa Butler

I recently read a description of strong relationships as those built on a foundation where each person potentiates the other. I love thinking of potential in this practice-based way. We can tap into the expansiveness of this idea and know at a deep level what it means, how it feels when someone sees us fully, allows us to grow as, and into, ourselves—the beautiful nuances at play when we are loved into being.

Fred Rogers often spoke about how he was loved into being by the many people in his life. He allowed himself to receive love and share love in many ways, including the collaborative production of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (MRN). It does not surprise me that this archive of episodes continues to love those who watch it into being.

The adult helpers in our Educators’ Neighborhood say things like “MRN makes me feel good” or “Some days, I just need to hear Fred talk” or “When I watch Mister Rogers I remember to breathe.” One of the earliest things I noticed when educators shared MRN episodes with their students was how the educators seemed to relax into themselves, remember who they were, tap into the abundant knowledges inside them.

This still happens—and it’s why Educators’ Neighborhood continues to grow—because watching MRN (as a child or as an adult) reminds us of the expanse of our potential in the present. Fred Rogers potentiates us to see/love/be ourselves. We are invited into our own beingness, where we are both full and unlimited. We are enough as we are and always expanding into all we have yet to discover.

To be full and unlimited. This impacts how we feel, yes; it also expands how we connect with others and contribute our gifts to the world. Everyone benefits when we create space for each person’s beingness. Fred Rogers knew this. And MRN is a brilliant treasure chest to dig into in order to learn how he did this.

The episodes invite us into beingness not through Boomerang-Toomerang-Soomerang magic, not because Mister Rogers is kind, not because he wears sweaters and changes his shoes. MRN works on many levels to create space for us to deeply explore ourselves in relationship to others. There are consistent messages and methodologies both on the surface and also as structural foundation.

We most often see and hear the beautiful, broad messages of Fred Rogers—powerful quotations from decades of scholarship; songs: “It’s You I Like,” “Many Ways to Say I Love You,” and “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake”; words spoken directly into the camera: “I like you just the way you are,” “Thank you for being you,” and “Isn’t that a good feeling?;” overarching ideas: anything mentionable is manageable and everyone is uniquely themselves.

This list only scratches the surface of the surface. And this is why many conversations about Fred Rogers and MRN stay at the surface. There is a lot of substance to the outward-facing, easily repeatable/singable, beautifully relatable messages on this vast surface. Yet these messages around ideas of beingness only stand strong and actually create our experiences of beingness because they rest on a rigorous foundation of methodology at work in MRN.

Beingness requires space to be, and grow into, the fullness of yourself. This space can’t be created only by outward messaging. If we tell children “You are important just as you are” and sing empowering songs, but later praise one child for being the “best” reader in the class, or if we tell educators “We trust you and appreciate the wisdom of your experience,” but structure systems on the value of efficiency and quantifiable outcomes, the surface messages are disconnected from the foundation. Although we hear a beautiful message, we don’t feel it as true, thus our experience (of who we are and can be) isn’t one of beingness.

This is why it’s important for us to dig deeply into the foundational layers of MRN. We need to examine how the episodes let us hear messages of beingness on the surface and also experience them inside ourselves as true. To do this we need to see beyond what is there in the episodes. We need to also notice for what is NOT there. When we look for what is not said and not done in MRN episodes, we can better see what’s essential.

Let’s try it. Here are some excerpts from MRN episodes. Notice for what is there (the messages and practices on the surface). Then, notice for what is not there. Try to find the openness, the empty spaces, the between. Take your time.

  • “There’s my song. Hmm hmm. Everybody would draw a different song to that music. I wonder what kind of song you might draw to that music, what kind of picture?” (#1646, Imaginary Friends)
  • (Mister Rogers rolls ball, knocks down some pins.) “Now you get another chance to get the rest of them down.” (He rolls ball again.) “There’s two still standing, so that means I got eight down. Eight, Mr. McFeely. Now it’s your turn.” (#1605, Fun & Games)
  • “No matter what age you are, practice is an important part of becoming good at hopscotch or any game. And when you’re finally able to do something you’ve practiced a long time, you get a really good feeling.” (#1514, Games)
  • “Handyman Negri really gave up, didn’t he? Corny didn’t tell him how he wanted things done or what things he should do first. Sometimes when people ask you to do something and they don’t tell you how you should do it, you often just don’t want to try, do you? (#1492, Discipline)
  • McFeely and Mister Rogers: “I just found this bird that is dead.” – “I wonder what happened.” – “I don’t know but I thought you might have a small box so I could bury it.” – “Are you sure it’s dead?” – “Well, it doesn’t move at all. Maybe it had an accident or something and died.” – “Isn’t that sad.” – “It won’t be able to fly again.” – “Or eat anything.” – “Or sing.” – “There are some things that are so hard to understand.” – “They surely are.” (#1669, Then and Now)
  • “Did you ever look at yourself in a mirror? What do you suppose people think about when they look at themselves in a mirror? (#1664, Love)

Oh, how I wish we were in a room together right now and you could share what you notice that’s not there. There is much to find, discuss, and learn through this lens. Here’s some of what I notice that is not in MRN that contributes significantly to our experience of beingness. I offer it as a beginning for continued conversation:

There are no qualifications. No comparisons. No external rewards. There is no “oh, this painting is a little messy, I wish it were different” or “Yay! I got more pins down” or “If I get good at this game then I will finally be happy.” Fred Rogers never cheers for himself as a “winner” or worries about not knowing how to do something. Everything is what it is. It’s all allowed. The focus is on practice, not to be as good as someone else (or any kind of comparison), but to feel good inside yourself because you are growing and learning for its own sake.

Nothing is summed up or tidied up. There is space for linger and drift. Daydream, memory, wonder, worry, knowing, not-knowing—everything can be how it is and take whatever time it needs. There is space to be a multidimensional human. Open-ended questions abound, and not those that seek a particular direction, but those that expand your heart, connect you with others, and require deep pause: “There are some things that are so hard to understand.”

Feelings aren’t separated. Everything is personal. Social-emotional learning is everywhere. Mind-body-spirit is holistic and expansive. There is a distinction between the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and the real world, but this adds opportunities for more overlap and less separation when exploring feelings.

By no means is this exhaustive. Yet, I hope these noticings might be helpful to guide us in finding ways to create more space for children (and their helpers) to experience beingness. Following from these three foundational practices of MRN, here are some concrete applications for any learning context (school, organization, program, home):

1. Take an honest look at what’s underneath. 
It’s easy to add positive messaging or an inspiring program on top of what already exists. It is much harder to look honestly at the foundation. It’s important to look for hidden assumptions, implicit curriculum, and various mixed messages of a space. These are the layers that teach people how to be in a space, that let them know if they can be themselves or need to play as a single version of themselves.

2. Avoid qualifications of things. 
Notice where there is measurement and assessment about how well and how much people are doing. Where are conversations about learning qualified (with comparisons, scores, points, grades, done/not done, counting totals, good/better/best, etc.) rather than simply about the beauty and joy of learning itself? Find ways to shift away from qualifications and focus talk on what is being learned and how it feels on the inside to learn. That’s enough.

3. Loosen separations. 
Notice for words like “units,” “centers,” “__ time,” subject classifications (math, science, reading), distinctions between “play” and “work,” separations between feeling-thinking and mind-body-spirit, and other ways categories and boxes show up in learning spaces. Try to dissolve these and find ways for things to overlap and collapse and play alongside each other.

4. Encourage liminal spaces. 
Think linger and drift. Find questions that open things up, invite introspection and solitude, allow memory to mingle with dream, savor the awe of wonder, merge pretending with planning. No lessons tied neatly with a bow. Allow mess, discomfort, and the expanse of not-knowing.

We experience beingness when we are allowed the space to be full and unlimited—without qualification, without separation, without summary. Although it may be tempting to add curriculum, programs, and messages (even beautiful ones from Mister Rogers) on top of what’s already there, adding more does not create space for beingness. The best design emerges “not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery).

Looking for what’s not in MRN allows us to see (and learn from) what Fred Rogers didn’t do and didn’t say, what he took away from the learning design that would otherwise get in the way, how he created layers of open-ended, liminal, intrinsically motivated, trusting spaces as a foundation that allows us (even as we continue to watch MRN today) to both hear his message of “It’s you I like” and also experience this as true from the wholeness of our being.

Melissa A. Butler—local writer, educator, and founder of reimagining project—is the project lead of Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Institute. Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and her blog: Noticing Matters.

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