Press play on any episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and you’ll find yourself invited to slow down and notice something. Settle in, take your time, look carefully, listen deeply.
The beautiful slowness in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes is not simply for the sake of being slow. The slowness allows depth to grow from the simplicity of noticing. Look at one thing, meet one person, savor a single memory, listen to a song, say hello to the fish, feel a whole feeling, “Hmm, let’s think about that.” Clear, direct, simple, and grounded in consistent practice of sustained attention. The slowness creates the space, but it’s the noticing—and the trust that noticing is enough—that creates the depth.
Let’s glimpse two moments from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:
At the beginning of episode #1542, Mister Rogers shows a pot of flowers and says:
I like to look carefully at things like flowers. Let’s look carefully and quietly at these flowers together. [While looking, there is silence. Then, Mister Rogers gently touches the flowers and says, “hmmm.” He shares a personal story about once picking a flower he shouldn’t have picked. Later he sings Look and Listen while continuing to look at the flowers.]
During episode #1721, Mr. McFeely and Mister Rogers share “How People Make Fortune Cookies.” Here’s some of what they say while the silent video plays for four minutes:
Another bag of flour? – It takes a lot of flour! – Are those the eggs? – Hmm – Do you see what he’s doing? He’s turning this wheel to close the door and then presses this button to start the mixer. – Oh, so inside all of that is mixing together? – What’s he adding now? – Oh, that’s very pretty to watch. It looks like a painting. – Then what happens? – Oh, that’s fun to watch! – What’s that? – Ooh – No wonder it’s your favorite part! – There they are.
No object or moment is too small for deeper appreciation and closer attention. Each theme week, each episode, each moment inside each episode… every single layer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is an artful stretching-out of a single, simple idea for us to notice more of what’s right there in front of us—flowers, cookies in our cupboard, a neighbor, knock at the door, pair of shoes, one of our worries, the first peek of a new bean sprout.
This artful stretching-out to notice more is something educators in Educators’ Neighborhood are learning from Fred Rogers. And this learning is not only for connection and application to children and families. It’s also the foundational practice for how we notice and learn together from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes. We focus in on one small episode segment at a time and stretch out space for rich, layered description so we can notice more of what’s there. We sustain our focus with a simple question: What do you notice? and we trust that there is always more to find and that we will notice more together than we’d notice alone.
Let’s glimpse two moments of what educators noticed from the same two episodes mentioned above. The clips were no more than five minutes long. Educators described what they noticed in small groups and took notes of ideas shared:
Descriptive protocols are not new, especially for educators. I still remember participating in my first Descriptive Review protocol in 2002 with the National Writing Project. We focused on describing a single piece of student writing for almost two hours. This led me to study the Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review of the Child which led to all sorts of playful practice with various protocols for description, listening, and collaborative learning.
Educators need opportunities for conversations based in rich description of children’s learning and educator practice. But what too often happens is this: Open-ended description protocols get reduced to formulated templates with boxes for educators to fill out to identify specific items they “noticed,” often with a lens for interpretation and evaluation (strengths/weaknesses, glows/grows, :)/:(, standards met/not met, etc.).
Imagine if Fred Rogers asked us to notice flowers with a directed purpose to identify and name their parts or asked us to watch how something is made with the goal for us to use key vocabulary in context. Imagine if we asked educators to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in order to identify two of Fred’s strengths and two areas for improvement.
This shifts the experience, eh? This shifts the learning. In fact, it utterly stifles the learning. It pulls down the window shade, turns out the light, and puts us in a corner of a closet away from the vibrant experience of being alive in the world, alive inside the mess and complexity of living and learning in community.
“Anything essential is invisible to the eyes (The Little Prince, p. 63),” yet once you know the essential element in a practice of noticing, you can see it present or not-present instantly, everywhere you look. Yes, noticing has the potential to create depth of learning, but it’s the trust that noticing is enough, and that we are enough in our noticing, that is essential.
Fred Rogers didn’t tell us what to notice in the flower because he trusted us to bring our full selves to our noticing, including our daydreams, feelings, questions, and stories. We don’t overly structure educators’ focus about what to notice in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood because we trust them to bring their full selves to their noticing and description. We trust that there’s immensity in each moment of every episode and we trust that there’s immensity in what educators already know.
Oh, the beautiful abundance that grows from the empty space of an open-ended question. Settle in, take your time, look carefully, listen deeply: What do you notice?
Melissa A. Butler helps people slow down to notice more. She is the project lead of Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Institute. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog: Noticing Matters.