As schools search for ways to educate children this school year, my heart reminds me to slow down to notice for what’s already here. We have a beautiful example of how to inspire joyful, curious learning through a screen. That example is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I study Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood [MRN] and work with teachers in Educators’ Neighborhood. We look to Fred Rogers for his play-based, relationship-building approach. Imagine what we might learn if we shift our lens to look at how he did this remotely through a camera lens to connect with millions of children each day.
At the beginning of most MRN episodes, you can witness Fred turn to the viewer and ask, “Did you see what I brought?” This simple practice sets the “objective” for everything: Let’s be together here and now.
Online programs often over-structure things or list oodles of options. But less is more. We don’t need to give children all the things to do with a cardboard tube. The invitation to notice and wonder is enough. There are over 900 MRN episodes that show us this.
Find something ordinary. Share it with children. Ask them to talk about what they know and wonder. Notice, draw, play, build, imagine… this is enough.
Children need to feel safe to express their feelings. Fred Rogers shows us how to do this even through a screen. He talks directly to the viewer, is unafraid to share his feelings, weaves conversation through realistic and make-believe moments, sings songs, and consistently shares a message that all feelings are “mentionable” and “whatever is mentionable can be more manageable.”
In episode 1632, Fred says, “And what did you think of King Friday saying we weren’t to be afraid of anything? […] even though the king says he doesn’t want anyone to be afraid, it’s important for us to know that it’s all right for us to talk about being afraid… (sings) “I’m Taking Good Care of You.”
Clear, direct, grown from pretend play, light with song, you and me together through a screen talking about fear. A teacher or parent may want to play this episode for children, but what’s most important is not this episode, it’s about what Fred does in this episode that we can do, too.
It’s important to highlight that there isn’t a theme week called Feelings. Feelings aren’t a separate topic. They aren’t on the periphery. Feelings are the core of every MRN episode.
Online content often gets organized in segments (units, steps, skills). But children learn in overlaps, not segments. Learning needs to breathe.
The theme weeks of MRN show us how to explore content deeply in a way that breathes (in 30 minutes/day). Themes flow as layered offerings: ordinary objects to notice, a visit to a place where something is made, a visit with a neighbor who loves what they do, a book to read, some pretend play in Make Believe, feeding the fish, maybe something to make or build, all alongside our teacher, Mister Rogers, talking to us, singing to us, and loving us just as we are.
Although these layers may seem effortless, the Fred Rogers Center Archive holds arm-length piles of notes scrawled on yellow legal paper, dynamically inked revisions, and hours of audio tape conversations that reveal how episodes were collaboratively and artfully produced.
Online platforms are designed so we can pack them with thick content, scopes and sequences, and infinite lists of links, but this doesn’t mean we ought to use them this way. What might happen instead if we offered layers like MRN and trusted children on the other side of the screen?
Fred Rogers loved The Little Prince. This makes me think he may have also admired Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s thinking about design: “A designer knows [they] ha[ve] achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Beautiful design of anything—especially learning—follows this principle.
We can be our whole selves full of feelings, questions, wishes, and dreams. As a practice—to be honest requires us to engage in mess and uncertainty, show the unpolished parts of ourselves, and connect with others from the core of who we are.
We don’t see many examples of how to be honest through a computer/TV screen, but we can look to MRN to study how Fred Rogers practiced honesty while engaging millions of viewers.
Fred’s honesty is like air—always present, essential, yet hard to see separately from anything else. But a keen eye can find its clear thread in and out, up and down through every episode because Fred Rogers was honest with children. He looked into the camera, imagined each child, and told the truth as best he could. He took children seriously. He didn’t offer gimmicks or try to make them laugh. He loved and trusted them.
We might think that to tell the truth is the extent of what it means to be honest with children. But it’s not. We also need to be the truth in front of children. In MRN, Fred Rogers was himself. He played with a hula hoop and let us watch him not be good at it. As Daniel Striped Tiger, he sang “Sometimes I Wonder if I’m a Mistake.” He dropped things and fumbled things. He told us about his wonderings and worries. He let us look into his mouth as he brushed his teeth.
To be honest with, and in front of, children doesn’t require anything more than what we already have. But it does require us to be okay with what we have and who we are. It’s a small thing. It’s also everything.
It’s possible for us to create this school year as joyful, connected, and transformative. We need to slow down and notice how to leverage what we already have. I can hear Fred Rogers singing to us. He’s singing for us to listen deeply to ourselves.
Melissa A. Butler writes, speaks, and consults to help people slow down to notice more. She’s the project lead of Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Center. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog: Noticing Matters.