It's like breath

Feb 14, 2024
Melissa Butler

One of the many gifts of teaching and learning in our Educators’ Neighborhood community is the continuous finding of something new… in the Fred Rogers Archive, in episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and in our seeing of how this connects to children, families, educators, and other helpers.

I am endlessly surprised, humbled, nourished, and stretched by what I find (and from what others find). Particular to the episodes, I’ve found it true that any episode (whether I’ve seen it ten times or more) will reveal something I didn’t see or hear or consider before. Always.

During the January 2024 Educators’ Neighborhood Mid-Year Convening, I heard yet another group of educators say (what we consistently hear educators say): “It feels good to hear him [Mister Rogers] talk,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is like a big hug,” “It’s always exactly what I need.”

As I listened (and smiled), I thought to myself: “Ah, it’s like breath. They say this because they’re recognizing their own breath.”

And in this moment I found a subtle shift into something new, a drift of nuance in my ever-searching lens for why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood continues to matter to educators. Perhaps there’s a breathscape in the episodes. When educators watch (even a small piece of) an episode, they feel the breath, they attune to this, and find it in themselves.

Yes, I created this word: breathscape (at least I’ve never heard of it before). It seems interesting, like landscape, soundscape, or dreamscape, but of breath.

In Fred Rogers’ Methodology of Beingness, I explored why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood “feels good” and wondered about what’s present and NOT present that creates space for viewers to be. In a way, being—enough as you are, here and now—is connected to breath. To settle in and attune to the present moment is to notice your breath—follow it all the way in, and all the way out.

What feels new to me is a lens for what happens in the breath—expanse of tides and moon—as a frame for considering the episodes and their impact. Perhaps the loose layers, between spaces, and other approaches evident in the episodes are part of a deeper foundation that supports a remembering of our breath, our aliveness connected to the aliveness all around us.

I’m not writing this to articulate anything definitive about the design of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I’m writing to wonder and invite you to wonder along with me: What might we find if we attune to the breath of the episodes?

To begin, we might notice some examples of in and out, ebb and flow, such as:

go away <- -> come back

Obvious, yes, but no less important. The simple and essential ebb and flow for each day, each week, each year, for the whole of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

<- -> large

Examples of layered scenes in a week: look at a pair of overshoes – watch and dance with rain – look closely at a fish mobile – watch whales dance with their trainers – look at a pair of tap shoes – visit Sam Weber in a dance studio – look at a floor mat with visual dance instructions – visit the Dance Theatre of Harlem [Week of Dance, Episodes 1571-1575].

outside of you <- -> inside you

Example moment in one episode: After showing how to make green from blue and yellow (with food coloring) and playing with a water wheel, Mister Rogers says, “All of these things are part of science. When you study science in school, you’ll probably do all kinds of fun things. I was just thinking of all the things I like in school. It makes me smile. Do you know where a real smile comes from? From inside yourself. Can you feel yourself smile? I mean, even if you’re not looking in a mirror or feeling your face, you know if you have a smile on your face, don’t you?” [Episode 1666, Then and Now].

try hard <- ->you’re enough

Examples of layered moments in an episode: Paul Tifford plays with his hula hoops and shares how he’s been practicing since he was seven years old. – “You not only practice it, though, you like it, don’t you?” – “The people in Make Believe are learning there are certain things they can do and certain things they can’t. And they’re trying to do the things they can, the best they can. That’s really important.” – “Here you are, fish. You’re good at eating and swimming.” – “I like to think of children who are just learning to walk. They don’t wear any magic hats. They just toddle and fall and get up and toddle again.” – a video plays of many different children learning to walk – Mister Rogers sings “I’m Proud of You” while looking directly into the camera [Episode 1720, Be Yourself: That’s the Best].

Within these examples, there are significant differences in what we might call ebb and flow. Go away-come back is strong, consistent, and steady. Small-large mostly alternates, back and forth, sometimes evenly with zoom in, then out, other times with more gradation… zooming further and further outward or inward. Outside of you-inside you and try hard-you’re enough feel less back-and-forth and more spirally with long arcs of crescendo and decrescendo.

Noticing for breath feels a bit like noticing for slowness. We may notice and name “slowness,” but it’s oh, so much more than slowness. As we look for, notice, and name “breath,” it feels like we’re only glimpsing the surface of ocean.

Although ebb and flow seems to be an important layer to notice related to breathscape, and certainly worthy of continued collective inquiry (to find and discuss more examples), it also feels insufficient.

Breath is much more than ebb and flow.

The fullness of breath is also—especially—about the space at the top and the bottom of each breath, the turning over and falling into.
When we consider this fuller sense of breath in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, we breathe in what’s new, fresh, and more than ourselves… hold, savor, and receive this at the top of the breathslowly release the breath to relax, connect, and settle in… and find ourselves okay, held in our own belonging, at the bottom of the breath.

When we spread out the breath—and broaden our seeing of the breath—to consider not only the ebb-flow, back-forth, in-out, but also the space at the top and the bottom, this is where we begin to see into endless ocean depths in the breathscape of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I sense something particularly marvelous for us to consider and explore in this expanded breath space—to wonder how the episodes nurture these points of falling over and into, and how they consistently lead us back to ourselves.

This essay feels like the slightest of beginnings. I offer it humbly and with a hopeful invitation that you might want to explore the breathscape of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood too. I plan to continue to play in this space and work toward a Part 2 to this essay in May. I welcome your thoughts and questions—may we explore the aliveness and wonder of breath together.

With gratitude, Melissa


Melissa A. Butler is a Senior Fellow in Teaching and Learning with the Fred Rogers Institute. Connect with her: here and here.


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