Small is Enough

Nov 1, 2023
Melissa Butler

The factory visits of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—when Mr. McFeely visits Mister Rogers with video tapes of “how people make things”—are rich with opportunities for wonder, connection, and delight.

These segments are favorites for many educators who are part of our Educators’ Neighborhood learning community, and inspire rigorous conversation about relevant engagement with children, youth, adults, families, and communities. A few big picture concepts that educators notice in the factory visits and describe as especially valuable in application to their practice include:

Sequence of making as story: how the simple thread of sequence allows an exploration of story in accessible ways.

People behind the machines and products: the importance of seeing humans working together, as essential in the making of things, and working with their hands with real, raw materials.

Connections to everyday things: comparison, appreciation, and wonder about everyday things like balls, suitcases, umbrellas, cookies, paper, mushrooms, helmets, and more.

Historical perspective: reflection about how and why things were made then and are made now, and investigation of process, production, materials, use, etc.

Vocabulary: robust content vocabulary and clarity of step-by-step process allow practice of language in meaningful, contextualized ways.

I delight to listen to educator conversations about the factory visits and am consistently inspired by new ways to incorporate factory visit clips into contexts of practice (e.g., Kindergarten teachers last year who decided to show a factory visit without sound to hear what children thought and wondered, and then played it again with the sound; View, Talk, Listen, and Grow).

What also brings me delight is the simplicity of each factory visit, and how we can zoom into one small segment and find thick layers to notice and describe.

Let’s try it together—to look and listen to one factory visit and notice what might be learned from its design and approach.

There are a number of factory visits posted at, a site of Fred Rogers Productions. Click on the “Places” page and scroll down to the section on “Factory Visits.” For our purposes here, let’s explore: “How people make wagons (1996).” [Note: click CC if you’d like to read a transcript as you watch.]

I invite you to watch/listen one time through simply for enjoyment. Then, play it again, this time to begin to name and describe what you notice that seems relevant in terms of design, process, content, pedagogy, or other elements interesting to you. You might want to write a list (and add to it each time you re-view the clip). You may also want to gather some friends—the more the merrier when noticing and describing factory visits.

Here’s my list of what I found through a lens of looking for what’s especially relevant and potentially impactful for educator practice:

Mm hm. Oh, yes. Oh, look at all of them. Boy, that machine works very quickly! Ooh. What is that!? | There’s a seamless presence of wondering, marveling, considering, listening, savoring, and unfolding alongside witnessing how a wagon is made. The awe is “caught, not taught”—it’s alongside, embedded, rooted in authentic appreciation of the process of discovery.

How does it do that? Oh, it trims it off. You’ll see how it works, watch. See? Oh, yes, there’s the extra. I see. Is that what’s happening here? But what about the middle of it? That’s what’s happening right now. There they are, there are the wheels. Each piece is half of a wheel. Oh. It takes people to make the machines work. That’s for sure. | The segment is saturated in questions and answers. There’s a ping-pong of content shared for depth of understanding, yet it doesn’t feel dense or heavy. It’s emergent and nested inside relational dialogue authentically grown from curiosity that’s contextualized and consistently mirrored (through repetition of what each other says). 

Soft music in background. Silence between the words. Short sentences. Continuous, fluid footage. | In a clip of 3:51, there is plenty of empty space for reflection, connection, and meaning-making. There’s time to savor, enjoy, and wonder with Mr. McFeely and Mister Rogers. It’s not slow; the talk in the clip is quite quick, but we feel a sense of slowness because there’s space between what’s said and there’s a steadiness in the flow of the sequence. And a calmness in presentation and focused clarity of content opens space to bring oneself into the learning.

Not too much of anything. Just enough. Simple and clear. | Oh, the power of a good edit. Not one word too many. Just enough information. Just enough named in each step of the sequence. Just enough new vocabulary. Plenty enough not mentioned and not explained and not shown. Beautiful example of perfect design as “not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery).

Oh, look at that red paint! What is that?!! That’s for sure! (laughter) Is that fun! The wagon’s ready to roll! | Also seamless and “caught, not taught,” yet worthy of being named separately from awe, is the presence of joyful exhaltation. The laughter. The ease of it. The glory of the ordinary, matter-of-fact meandering. The simplicity of delight to learn alongside a friend.

All of this in one factory visit segment—the richness of its less-than-4-minutes soil a landscape of inspiration and mentorship. Reminding us that opportunities for learning don’t need to be complicated. Authentic learning grows in small moments of wonder alongside others. The awe of it. The joy. The enoughness of its simplicity. And the enoughness of our presence with each other as we wonder about a wagon.


Melissa A. Butler is a Senior Fellow in Teaching and Learning with the Fred Rogers Institute. Connect with her: here and here.


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