On the Importance of Slowing Down

Dec 11, 2020
Melissa Butler

On December 1, the Fred Rogers Center hosted a webinar on The Importance of Slowing Down featuring a panel of educators from Educators’ Neighborhood.

During the 90-minute conversation, educators shared a wealth of ideas about why slowing down is important for children and for the educator-helpers who work in organizations that support children’s learning and care.

Our discussion was anchored in the foundation of Fred Rogers’ deep and rigorous practice found in episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. A core layer of our Educators’ Neighborhood community is to notice episodes for examples of practice and reflect on these for our own work with children.

Slowness—as both an idea and practice—is a significant layer of what we can learn from Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And slowness is about much more than going slowly. Slowness opens a space for what is essential for children and their helpers.

Molly Ouchis, Kindergarten teacher at St. Ignatius Loyola Regional School in Reading, PA, shared that slowness is important “for children to hear others think aloud and think about their own thinking. It allows time for them to articulate and spend time with what they are doing. It lets them learn to be comfortable with failure and take time to practice and think things through.”

Sally Rushford, principal of Pittsburgh Beechwood in Pittsburgh Public Schools and part of the team who inspired the beginnings of Educators’ Neighborhood (read the Beechwood story here), said “Slowness invites an opportunity to create curiosity. It allows the space to be created for questions to arise. And it’s also a way for you to connect to how you’re feeling and to your other lived experiences.” She continued, “In children’s play, slowness helps them build a muscle for attention. It also helps children develop a passion and interest for things.”

During the discussion, we took a close look at clips from Episode 1685 (week of Fast and Slow) and Episode 1741 (week of Go Stop Go), as well as the clip when Mister Rogers shows the length of a minute from 1970, Episode 1112. Even 4 or 6 minutes of an episode can reveal layer upon layer of meaningful practice.

Erica Nemzek, Early Childhood Coordinator for Wayneboro Area School District, noticed “the way he goes through and he’s verbalizing everything, he’s speaking out loud about what he’s doing, exploring, and coming to a realization of cause and effect without ever saying ‘This is cause and effect.’” She continued about the knock at the door, “He never urgently left or walked over, ‘Oh, someone’s at the door! I need to go see who it is!’ Instead, he slowly said, ‘Oooh, someone is at the door… hmm… let me close up the sandbox (one side, then the other), let me bring my toy.’”

Cindy Patterson, First Grade teacher at Pittsburgh Dilworth in Pittsburgh Public Schools, observed that “he was creating the play how he wanted it to be. He had this sandbox and he had this crane… he was deciding, ‘Oh, I think I want to do it slow.’ He was making his own organic decisions in his play; it wasn’t prescribed as this is how you have to do it. He was inventing his play as he was doing it.”

Fred’s practice of thinking aloud, talking through each step of something, showing viewers his authentic process, sharing his enthusiasm for play, never rushing, and staying present in each moment are evident consistently in all Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes. In addition to these practices, educators also noticed how Fred talks directly to the viewer—asks a question or makes a statement—and pauses. There are always pauses. There is always space between. Or, he’ll look into the camera and smile, connecting without words. He is also expert at extending moments… “Oh, I like this…” “Hmm. I wonder why…” “Ah, isn’t that something!” His examples are always clear, consistent, and relevant for children, those who grew up in 1970 and those who are growing up now in 2020.

Another topic of our webinar discussion was the choice of materials for extended play that are featured in the episodes. They are simple, ordinary, relatable. Educators resonate with this. Cindy Patterson shared a story of taking her students on a walk to a nearby park. “It was just this little space with only one tree. They played and invented games. And it was nothing, but it shows that children have so much in them to create and be.” Erica Nemzek echoed this sentiment with a story about her son’s block play and Molly Ouchis shared how with fewer materials her students are “able to create so much out of nothing—their imaginations are incredible.”

Slowness is essential to allow for children’s depth of learning with intentional materials. Sally Rushford shared, “One of my favorite things to notice is children’s easel painting where we would give them only three colors. And it does slow them down… it becomes ‘look at this paint brush stroke and then this one and then I’m going to mix it with this color.’ And it does all end up as a nice greenish brown at the end. But while they’re doing it, if you listen to them or ask, ‘What are you doing? Tell me about it,’ there’s a whole scenario going on about what they’re painting.”

This “whole scenario going on” is both what children are learning and also who they are being. Such open-ended, spacious opportunities—grown from a trust of slowness—allow all children to be their whole selves and bring their whole selves to their learning.

Children are not the only ones who need more space to be and bring their whole selves. Educators, parents, and other helpers need slowness for themselves, too. Our discussion highlighted several positive outcomes for adults who have access to spaces of slowness: Calm, patience, reflection, being present with children, grace to be fully human, time to breathe, space to remember and access prior experience, feeling whole, ability to listen carefully, increased attention to children’s processes of learning, and overall health and well-being.

Our systems of learning would all benefit from a significant slow-down and a rigorous noticing of what we are doing and why. Isn’t now the perfect time to take stock and throw out what no longer serves children and educators? Isn’t now the perfect time to allow for the wholeness of all of us?

When asked how we could transform systems of learning in order to care for the wholeness of the people inside them, each educator on our panel shared one thing we could release and one thing we could embrace starting right now:

  • “Release the pressure. Embrace deep exploration.” -Molly Ouchis
  • “Release the idea of tight schedules and the tight definition of teaching as content delivery. Embrace breathing and being.” -Erica Nemzek
  • “Release ourselves from the weighing and measuring of children. Embrace ways of learning about children in new ways, learning to listen to them and build upon their experiences.” -Sally Rushford
  • “Release the need to have all the answers and have everything figured out at this moment. Embrace the sense that we are enough—everybody—and everything we need is inside of us. We just need to dig in there and make it grow and come forward.” -Cindy Patterson

Let’s continue to listen to, and amplify, educators’ stories as we work collectively to make significant shifts in all of our systems of learning for all of the beautiful beings who are learning and growing inside them. Systems don’t change themselves. We are the ones who change them. Let us trust in the wisdom of educator Cindy Patterson who reminds us: We just need to dig in there [inside of ourselves] and make it grow and come forward.

Melissa A. Butler helps people slow down to notice more. She’s the project lead of Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Institute. Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and her blog: Noticing Matters.

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