Play as Truth

Apr 14, 2022
Melissa Butler

“Play is a child’s most important means of communication. Children are not self-conscious about playing. They play out what they think is real. That’s the ultimate honesty. Children bring their whole inner drama to any relationship.” (Fred Rogers, quoted in “How Mister Rogers keeps his Neighborhood ticking” by Marian Christy, The Boston Globe, February 17, 1985, pp. A29/A32)

I’ve been reflecting on the many stories from educators about the kinds of thoughts and feelings emerging through children’s play this year. The idea that “play is the work of childhood” is one that educators and caregivers understand and observe daily. We can readily see the varied and valuable learning that grows through children’s play: language, logic, empathy, content connections, personal reflections, sustained attention, relationship-building, and more. And yet, it can also be a challenge to bear witness to all that play reveals. Children’s play often shows us things that we find hard to fully see or hear or accept.

Luckily for us, Fred Rogers didn’t simply tell us to listen to children and hear their honest truths, he also showed us how we can do this.

Fred’s practice, shown to us through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was consistently supportive of children’s expression of their whole, honest selves. I’ve written other blog essays with specific examples of MRN pedagogical practice relevant for educators connected with this idea: Fred Rogers’ Methodology of BeingnessAs You AreRemote Learning Lessons from Mister Rogers). And yet, there is always more for us to find when studying MRN episodes (this is part of the delight of collaborative educator learning with Educators’ Neighborhood).

There are two strands of Fred Rogers’ practice, perhaps less noticed than others, that are embedded in MRN and support children to find, play with, and express their own truths. I believe these aspects of practice can serve as guides for adults who want to allow, accept, and nurture the whole truth of children’s play.


Space between the layers.

The weaving of ideas and experiences throughout a week of episodes to explore a topic with nuance and depth is one of the elegant design practices of MRN. In one week, we might watch Mister Rogers talk with a neighbor, visit a place, sing some songs, make a craft, read a book, remember a past experience, learn something new, wonder about an object, all while similar experiences weave through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, too. Yet, it’s not simply that episodes have layers of varied content, it’s the space between the layers that allows viewers to find a way into them, to breathe and be as they are, to find some space to think their thoughts, feel their feelings, and express something honest and true about their own experience.

Take this moment, for example, from episode #1506. Mister Rogers says “Sharing is hard sometimes for everyone, isn’t it? Everyone has some things that they shouldn’t have to share.” This is followed by a minute of him making a bed with a cardboard box, followed by another minute of singing “It’s You I Like” while looking at photos of friends in the Neighborhood, before mentioning anything about sharing again. This was after some earlier pretending in Make-Believe with Ana and Tuesday both wanting to play with the same hat. (If you’re interested in this clip, you may watch it as part of the recording of the Community Sharing Event on Belonging.)

As educators, we can take care to extend the spaces between what we offer children, too. We might read a book about a concept like sharing or trying something new, followed by some alone time with a bit of clay, followed by some music with an opportunity to dance, followed by an open question connected to the book: “What did you think about ___?” or “How do you think (character) was feeling?” This could be followed with an invitation to draw a picture or write some words. We don’t need our prompts to be too tight and tidy or our lesson plans to be too crowded and thick. The more space we allow between children’s experiences with layered content, the more they can bring themselves to their learning and share more of their honest processing and expression. We’ll learn more about children this way, too—how they’re connecting and wondering and making sense of things.


No projection of emotion.

Each and every episode of MRN has at least some mention of feelings. We can point to moment after moment when Mister Rogers looks into the camera to ask: Have you ever felt like that? or sings a song about feelings, such as “Please Don’t Think It’s Funny.” But MRN’s approach to feelings is as much about talking directly about them (following from Fred’s idea that “anything mentionable is manageable”) as it is about not projecting any emotional response onto anything that a child may experience.

For example, in episode #1486, when Mister Rogers first introduces his ventriloquist dummy, Hischer Booptrunk, to the audience, he pretends that Hischer falls from the banister. There’s no dramatic exasperation with the fall or any intensity of emotional response. Instead, he has Hischer say: “I need a hug.” Mister Rogers replies: “Okay, Hischer,” gives a hug, and says to the viewer: Did you ever fall down and go boom? I think everybody does sometimes. And it sure feels good to have somebody you love close by when you’re not feeling good, doesn’t it?

Another example of matter-of-factness with a topic comes from episode #1669, when Mr. McFeely comes to visit and brings a dead bird to show Mister Rogers. In the scene: MMF: I just found this bird that is dead. MR: I wonder what happened. MMF: I don’t know, but I thought you might have a small box so that I could bury it. MR: Are you sure it’s dead? MMF: Well, it doesn’t move at all. Maybe it had an accident or something and died. MR: Isn’t that sad? MMF: It won’t be able to fly again. MR: Or eat anything. MMF: Or sing. MR: There are some things that are so hard to understand. (If you’re interested in this clip, you may watch it as part of the recording of the Community Sharing Event on Love.)

In this example, the focus is to present the situation, describe it clearly, invite the viewer to consider what happened, and allow space to wonder alongside Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers knew how to hold space for children to have their own responses, to own their own feelings, and to be safe thinking-feeling-being any way they needed in each moment.

This can be challenging to do as educators (and parents) because we often have strong instincts to protect children and shelter them from things that might cause pain or fear. Yet, children need to talk about “important things,” and they have the capacity to do so. Often, children have more capacity to talk about big, complex, or challenging issues than adults seem to have. Thus, we must be careful not to project our own fears, insecurities, or desires of control onto children. How? We breathe, go slowly (without bringing drama or urgency), allow children to ask their own questions, listen, reflect what children say back to them, answer with clear, matter-of-fact explanations (as necessary), and let ourselves BE alongside children to hold space for whatever feelings and thoughts they bring to the moment (and the moments that will come in later days and weeks as they process).

As difficult as it sometimes may be to witness children express their truths, we know that we must. This takes a kind of surrender to presence—to be present without judgment or expectation, and trust that “The Truth Will Make Me Free.” Children’s play is not about us, not about our preferences nor our comforts. Children’s play is about children—their expression of themselves in relation to the world around them and what they hold as true inside themselves.



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

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