Memory, Truth, and Wishes

Oct 19, 2021
Melissa Butler

Recent conversations in our Educators’ Neighborhood community have invited layers of stories about what children are processing right now in their talk, play, artwork, wondering, worries, dreams, and wishes. Conversations also reveal what adults (families, educators, neighbors) are processing about their own ways of seeing, understanding, and talking about the world, and how educators are doing their best listen to others and show compassion, while also staying attuned with their own ways of knowing.

Here is something I know to be true. No matter which episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood I select to re-watch, it is always the perfect one. And lately, no matter which episode we watch and discuss as an educator community, we seem to circle back to questions of reality and make-believe, truth and wish, memory and dream.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood holds a carefully curated balance of messages for imagination, pretend play, invention, creativity, and dreaming alongside messages that Wishes Don’t Make Things Come True and You’ve Got to Do It. The clear distinction between make-believe and real life is made evident not only by the trolley transitions into and out of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but also in the nuanced attention to detail for what viewers see and hear throughout each episode.

Here are a few glimpses of such content layering:

Episode 1487 (from Play): The scene at the kitchen table when Fred Rogers moves models from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe away—Museum-Go-Round, Platypus Mound, Clock, Tree, Factory, Castle, Trolley—slowly, one-at-a-time, naming each item, touching the empty space where it once was, pointing to the empty spaces again and again to re-remember and re-name, looking directly at viewers to say: “Even when nothing is there you can still remember what it was like when it was there, can’t you?

Episode 1600 (from Secrets): The scene from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe when Lady Elaine has told a lie or maybe a secret or maybe she made a mistake or had a misunderstanding because it seems, she says: “Sometimes I think I hear just what I want to hear.” Later, when she hears Queen Ida say something she likes, she asks to confirm: “You mean it? You really said it, I didn’t just think you said it?”

Episode 1733 (from Little and Big): The scene when Fred Rogers comes in with two suitcases, shows how the little suitcase has little hats and the big suitcase has big hats, and says: “Do you like to get dressed up and play? Children have so many good ideas for play.” Then he sings Children Can before looking through photographs with Mr. McFeely of people in the Neighborhood wearing some of the hats. He asks to keep the photo album for a while because, he says: “I like to look at pictures over and over again.”

Episode 1697 (from Transformations): The scene when Fred asks viewers to look closely with him at an African Violet, sings Look and Listen, and at one point says: “Some people make up stories about the flowers, pretending they’re all part of a neighborhood or one family living and growing together. They even give each flower a name. If you had this plant with these flowers, what names would you give them?”

Each of these episode moments invites a unique entry point for conversations with children (and adults) about practices of remembering, imagining, wishing, dreaming, pretending, lying, hiding, forgetting, trusting, creating, sensing, believing, knowing, and not-knowing. Although Fred Rogers is clear and careful in describing things as either real or make-believe, the program consistently invites viewers to grow thinking far beyond anything as either-or. Episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood offer endless ways to play in the overlaps of sense-making and encourage extensive wondering about how and why we know and understand things the way we do.

Many educators show episode clips to children to open a space for conversations, and others watch episodes themselves for inspiration and guidance in their work with children, families, and other educators. During a recent Educators’ Neighborhood discussion around an episode, we wondered together:

  • What do you hear because you want to hear it? What do you try not to hear?
  • When has a pretend story helped you get through a tough time?
  • Have you ever told a make-believe story and later it came true?
  • What are the differences between an understanding and a misunderstanding?

We might extend from these questions and invite children to think about and play with questions such as:

  • What is different between knowing, remembering, dreaming… what is the same?
  • Did you ever know something and then find you were wrong?
  • When can a secret be helpful? When can a secret be harmful? Can it be both?
  • Are memories real? Can memories be dreams? Can dreams be memories?
  • How do you feel inside when you make a wish? When you imagine?
  • How do you know when you know something?

More than ever, children need open-ended spaces for conversations not only about what is happening in their lives, but also how they are making sense of what they see, hear, and feel. These conversations don’t need to be separate from play. In fact, they are play. And they occur during children’s block play, dress-up, art-making, hula hooping, shoe-tying, and more. Our job is to allow space for them. As Dan Engle, a preschool educator from Texas, stated in our last Community Sharing Event: “The real teaching often happens when we’re quiet, when we’re sitting there and listening, and engaging in just a simple conversation.”

Melissa A. Butler is the Project Lead for Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Institute.

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