“Anything child-care providers or preschool teachers can do to preserve the essential bond between parent and child during the preschool years will help preserve the emotional health of our country” – Fred Rogers (You are Special, 1994, pp 147)
Positive learning outcomes are related to healthy social-emotional skills, and both are strengthened through quality interactions with adults. As a Youth Services Librarian, I am interested in this connection, and how I can support children’s learning through programming like storytime. This year in Educators’ Neighborhood, I reflected on Fred’s philosophy, “it's through relationships that we learn best, and grow best.” I discovered an interview where he emphasized the importance of learning to read with affection and physical closeness. Margaret Kimmel, Fred’s trusted Librarian advisor, echoed this sentiment in the Spring 1993 Around the Neighborhood Newsletter.
Contemplating this, I thought about the direct role relationships play in my work. During storytime, I interact with children and caregivers to help children build early literacy, SEL, and other school readiness skills. I provide a space for caregivers, children, and community helpers to socialize and play. But how am I intentional in preserving the essential bond between child and caregiver, the most fundamentally important relationship in learning? Is simply offering a program and resources enough? What small shifts could I make to my practice to better nurture that relationship?
I have come to use Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a regular resource in my library. The examples I share below are directly using or inspired by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood clips – and while I do believe the show itself has timeless value with children and caregivers, I encourage you to consider how you can apply these same practices of encouraging interactions with any materials already in use in your setting.
ENCOURAGING SIMPLE INTERACTIONS
Traditionally, storytimes are centered around the Librarian and the conversations we have with children about books. This year I wondered: How could I take advantage of caregivers presence to shift focus away from myself, and encourage the simple interactions between them that build relationships? What would happen if I prompted children to talk with their adults instead of me about a question in a story, or offered multiple copies of a book and led choral readings, rather than me reading aloud to the group?
With a simple shift in how I presented some storytime activities, shyer children opened up, and most snuggled up to their caregivers. There were some chaotic and noisy moments, but nobody seemed to mind in the context of the larger program. I circled the room and engaged with each group to maintain connection over time. To my delight, these moments were well received, and simple enough to implement.
I was curious if I could cultivate similar interactions with less traditional storytime activities inspired by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
TECHNOLOGY INSPIRES ENGAGEMENT
The idea of building relationships in the presence of technology seems counterintuitive. In my experience, if I play a video during storytime, there is little engagement. I wondered: Would the same be true of clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?
To my delight, I discovered that clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood have the power to prompt “serve and return” conversations, inspiring children and caregivers to narrate what they are seeing and comment reciprocally back and forth. The results become even more lively when I give caregivers permission to talk over the clip, or when I model narrating for the first few moments.
Clips with instrumental backgrounds and those that take children to places they would not otherwise go, like a factory tour, pique children’s curiosity, inspiring them to ask questions to which caregivers respond. This may be as simple as describing what they see and pointing at the screen, to more complex associations and connections to their own life. Clips that show children playing, sharing, or problem-solving can build social-emotional skills that help children establish and maintain healthier relationships in the real world.
Watching these types of clips has not only stimulated conversations during storytime, but families have told me they’ve inspired further interactions at home, helping them talk about things they wouldn’t have talked about otherwise.
OBJECTS SPARK CURIOSITY AND CONVERSATION
At the beginning of most episodes, Fred brought something to share with his television neighbors to spark curiosity and conversation. In that spirit, I now begin my storytimes by bringing an object that connects to a book we’ll read.
Originally, I thought I would present them in a traditional “show and tell” style. However, most children quickly gathered around me, while others were left behind unable to see or too shy to join the larger group. I considered this an opportunity to reimagine this activity in a way that would open opportunity for everyone in the room.
I began to offer multiples of the same object, allowing children and caregivers to handle and talk about them between themselves. I also tried this with carpet games or flannel board stories. This provides space for more dialogue and interaction than my individual sharing. My role becomes to circle the room, ask questions about what they’re noticing, and then tie things together as we move onto the next activity.
While I still include group activities, I find that providing multiples allows children to move at their own pace, democratizing the experience. It individualizes learning, increases enjoyment and engagement with their caregivers.
SINGING, MOVING AND PLAYING TOGETHER CREATES CONNECTION
Drawing inspiration from episode 1080 and Project Zero Pedagogy of Play, I reconsidered my approach to music and movement with the goal of creating child-led, playful moments that empower caregivers and children to work together and make decisions.
The song “Today is a Special Day” is exceptional in its ability to help create a playful moment between caregiver and child. I’ve used this song to encourage adults and children to form the letter ‘v’ shape with their bodies. Caregivers modeled lifting their arms, or using their fingers or legs, and children both followed their lead and invented their own ways. We made these shapes each time we heard the word ‘very’ (30 times in 45 seconds). The room filled with giggles and smiles, with all families moving differently together.
“Let’s Think of Something To Do” also provides room for families to talk and make decisions. The lyrics themselves invite listeners to “think of something,” inspiring chatty moments where child and caregiver think of something to do while waiting. Sometimes, I model and the group copies. Other times, children or adults come up with movements, or the pair just talks about what they could do. Another song that can be a platform for this sort of caregiver and child interaction is “Everything Grows Together.”
SMALL SHIFTS CAN MEAN BIG DIFFERENCES
Relationships between children and adults play a vital role in children's emotional and educational learning and can be strengthened through simple interactions. Just as Librarians are intentional about early literacy and the books we choose to share, we can also be intentional about designing storytimes that nurture relationships.
The philosophies of Fred Rogers can be a springboard to inspire small shifts in what we are already doing. Through prioritizing relationships as a central goal in our programs, we can reshape activities to encourage conversation not only between the Librarian and the child, but also the children and their caregiver. This approach strengthens the bond essential to all learning and supports children in the way they learn best and grow best.
Alison Loewen has been part of our Educators’ Neighborhood community since 2021, participating in the All Educator Cohort (2021-22), Episode Study Group (2022-23), and Inquiry Educator (2023-24). She’s a Youth Services Librarian at the Mead Public Library in Wisconsin. Her goal is to inspire joy, curiosity, and wonder in children through storytimes and family engagement programming. She currently serves as the Chair of the Wisconsin Library Association Youth Services Section, and is a member of the CLEL Bell Picture Book Award Committee. She loves geeking out about Early Literacy with others who love doing the same. You can reach Alison at <email@example.com>.