Look-Listen Relationship

Aug 7, 2023
Melissa A. Butler

In Mister Rogers Talks with Parents (1983), Fred Rogers, in collaboration with Barry Head, outlines six “basic necessities” for children’s learning readiness, one of which is “the capacity to look and listen carefully” (p170).

Forty years later, educators in Educators’ Neighborhood continue to explore the capacity to look and listen—what this means across contexts with children, youth, and families, why this capacity matters beyond areas of readiness, and how a thoughtful look and listen approach is valuable for educators to practice themselves.

On one level, it may seem obvious what it means to look and listen. You look. You listen. The value, too, may seem obvious. You see more. You hear more. Yet one of the many things I’ve learned as true when studying the work of Fred Rogers is: where there’s simplicity, there’s depth.

I’ve been wondering about the relationship between look and listen. How does look support listen? How does listen support look? How are both more than the sum of their parts? What grows in the moments when look and listen play together?

Another thing I’ve found as true when studying the work of Fred Rogers is that once you frame your view for something specific in episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (theme, topic, approach, etc.), you find it everywhere. It’s not surprising, then, that again and again in episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there are examples of invitations to look alongside, adjacent, and overlapping with invitations to listen.

In Episode 1692 after Fred plays his slide whistle to viewers, Maggie Stewart stops by with “something to look at […] it’s water and oil. You move it around in different ways and see what you get […] it’s sort of like the ocean, the ebb and flow.” They look and hmmm and move the object in various ways for a whole minute while music plays in the soundscape, and Fred says “My, this is something you could look at all day.”

Episode 1740, Fred brings a bag of “noise makers,” plays a few, and offers a question: “Can you imagine what a quiet maker would look like?” He allows silence and says: “Quiet. Here we are making quiet together.” He then plays various sounds on a tape recorder for viewers to wonder about and picture in their minds (bird singing, car starting, waves coming to shore, F sharp bell ringing) followed by a return to the present moment with a knock on the door, “Oh, that’s a real knock on the door” as he gets up to see who it is.

[Note: These examples were part of previous public conversations, one on Silence and another on Music (email here if you’d like to access recordings). You might want to find examples of your own. My guess is that you’ll easily find a beautiful moment of intersection between look and listen in any episode you decide to view. You can always find a whole week of episodes to explore on misterrogers.org. You may also like to attend one of the upcoming Symposium Series public events where Fred Rogers Archive resources are discussed with educators.]

Throughout our learning groups in Educators’ Neighborhood, we View, Talk, Listen, and Grow with various aspects of episodes (whole, clips, songs, transcripts, archival notes) in order to find more in what Fred Rogers (and collaborators) created of design, content, and approach that we might be able to reflect upon and bring into our contexts of practice today.

Specific to the look-listen relationship and what we might find that’s dynamic, fluid, complementary, and full of potential, here are three practices I notice in episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that I also notice educators frequently notice and discuss as relevant in their practice with children, youth, families, and adult helpers.

Explicit invitation
In most episodes there is at least one moment when Fred invites us explicitly to look and/or listen to something (“Did you hear that?” “Let’s look closely together”). The directness and simplicity of such invitations open space for broad notions of look and listen. This allows all senses, understandings, connections, and feelings to be welcome. Anything you might find as you look-listen is something beautiful and worthy to share with others.

This is often one of the first details of Fred Rogers’ approach that educators notice and bring into their practice (or notice that they already incorporate in their practice). In this way, the practice of explicit invitation is an explicit invitation of its own. It’s simple and accessible and lends itself to a variety of contexts—Kindergarten classroom, curriculum meeting with colleagues, or family experience at the library. (See Reimagining Relationships in Storytime by educator Alison Loewen for her take on simple, explicit invitations in the library.)

What I find most powerful is how such simple and direct invitations support educators, over time, to trust that less is more. To trust that a single open-ended prompt—“What do you notice?,” “Let’s listen,” “Explore and see what you find,” “Hmmm…what do you sense inside yourself?”—is more than enough for meaningful, relevant, curious depth of learning.

Between space
I’ve always been intrigued by the curated between spaces throughout episodes. Between the words. Between the scenes. Between foreground and soundscape. Between screen and viewer. Often this is slow, but not always. Sometimes it’s quiet, not always. But always the space is there—to process, answer, connect, wonder, drift, reflect, awe. There’s a consistent and artful sculpting of call and response. I see this call-response dynamic in the look-listen relationship.

At first it may seem like look and listen are both outward actions to “read,” “absorb,” or “understand” something. In a way, they may begin as such observational actions. Yet there’s a breath, an ebb and flow, to how Fred Rogers invites us to look and listen. There’s something at the core of look-listen that speaks to other dynamics: give-receive, read-write, be yourself-appreciate others. It’s the space between these dynamics that nurtures our growing, the aliveness of our wonder, how an expanded capacity to look-listen invites us into a deeper giving-receiving with the world.

Educators often notice this space as slowness or silence at first glance. When probed to dig deeper (What happens in the slowness? What’s the value of the silence? What’s being nourished in this space?), the potential of the between becomes more visible. Educators connect and apply this to their practice in a variety of ways. They extend time between activities, notice when and how they speak over children’s play, develop more nuanced approaches to engagement, and cultivate opportunities for both individual and collective reflection. Educators notice the importance of this dynamic space for themselves, too. Notice where their give-receive dynamic may be off balance, and how opening space to fully receive enhances giving. How their practice of look-listen includes looking and listening to themselves.

Fred Rogers was artful in how he encouraged us to look-listen in the outside world as a way for us to look-listen more deeply to our inside worlds. Throughout episodes, the tangibility, observability, and relatability of objects, ordinary materials, and everyday places/people allows a practice of different ways to look-listen: shift perspectives, appreciate difference, see what you hear, hear what you see, find new questions, allow surprise. All of this is in complement to a deeper understanding of what’s inside us (and inside others). The invisible stuff. That we can trust this and trust ourselves.

I love to notice educators find this for themselves. How through their study of Fred Rogers and review of episodes and archival documents, they find something in themselves that they had forgotten. This is why I continue to believe that the practice of studying episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood matters. It impacts the outer practices of educators, yes. But it’s the inside practices—how educators think, talk about, feel, and see themselves—that are most profoundly impacted. To look-listen to episodes is actually not about the episodes at all. It’s the entry point for educators to grow a more loving, nurturing relationship as they look-listen with themselves.

Another thing I know as true in my study of Fred Rogers and episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is that I will always be a beginner, barely scratching the surface of what there is to learn. I’m inspired to continue to wonder and wander in the space of the look-listen relationship. To let myself learn from its beautiful loop, continuous call and response, aliveness of its invitation to find the world in ourselves and ourselves in the world.

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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