My kids were immersed in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. They loved it. And not because it was the only TV show I (usually) allowed during their pre-school years.
They were riveted. And so was I. Here I was all grown up, and I felt like Mister Rogers was talking to me.
It felt like being IN Mister Rogers neighborhood. With my kids.
If your child was starting kindergarten, how would you answer this question:
“How can we be helping our child at home to succeed in school?”
You might expect answers like these:
- Read stories together
- Work on ABCs and number identification
- Make sure he gets a good night’s sleep
And so on.
When my son Colin started kindergarten, we attended an orientation in September. A parent asked that very question– “How can we be helping our child at home to succeed in school?”
The teacher, Mrs. Bjelland said, “Spend time together. Bake cookies. Read. Snuggle. And let them watch Mr. Rogers, NOT Sesame Street.”
Surprised? Think about it. First of all, to understand the context, Mrs. Bjelland had been teaching since the 1960s. Fast forward to 2002 when Colin started school.
In the span of over 30 years of teaching kindergarten, she witnessed a huge drop of students’ attention spans and a new expectation of being entertained, even at school. She noted the difference between students who had been raised on Big Bird and Cookie Monster versus Mister Rogers.
Sesame Street began in 1969, the year after Mister Rogers. While Sesame Street conveyed educational tidbits in saccharine spoonfuls, with abrupt changes in content, volume, scenery, or camera angles, Mister Rogers invited children to cozy up and hang around for a leisurely, nourishing visit.
Whether discussing pets or hosting a trumpeter, he offered the substance of time and conversation to savor, served with ideas to think and wonder about. He spoke to viewers as if they were in the same room.
A Little History
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran over thirty years with 895 episodes. It debuted in the U.S. on Feb. 19, 1968 and continued till August 31, 2001. Fred Rogers, its creator, developed fourteen puppet characters and composed over 200 songs. The show changed the nature of children’s television. (More on that next time.)
Fred Rogers had one main purpose: to help children feel good about who they are.
“There is only one person in the world like you,
and people can like you exactly the way you are.”
— Fred Rogers
From the moment he saw the first television set in his parents’ home, he had a vision for the power it could wield–power for good in the lives of children.
He took this calling seriously. He saw the important of conveying a message from the heart–from his honest self.
“The space between the television screen and
whoever happens to be receiving it…
I consider that holy ground.”
How did he convey the value of each child? Through conversation, puppets, songs, and guests. One time Daniel Striped Tiger wondered if he was a mistake. Daniel and Lady Aberlin talked through his feelings at length. Other times, Mister Rogers would sing “It’s You I Like” or “I’m Proud of You.”
“I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved
exactly as he is now, appreciated for what
he is rather than what he will be.”
–Fred Rogers, 1967
In Mister Rogers Neighborhood, feelings matter. Whether one is mad, sad, scared, jealous, disappointed, frustrated, or worried, feelings are viewed as normal. They must be expressed and talked through. When artists or musicians visited the show, Mister Rogers often asked how they expressed their emotions–including anger–in their art or music.
“Whatever is mentionable can be more manageable.”
“When we can talk about our feelings, they become less
overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.
The people we trust with that important talk
can help us know that we’re not alone.”
Respect and Appreciation for Everybody
Fred Rogers demonstrated everyone’s value by showing respect and appreciation for his neighbors and guests. He listened, asked questions, and thanked them for their time and sharing of talents. Most of all, he enjoyed them.
Rogers also made sure his viewers knew how much practice guests put into developing their talents, whether artist, dancer, architect, or athlete.
“The thing I remember best about
successful people I’ve met all
through the years is their
obvious delight in what they’re doing
… and it seems to have very
little to do with worldly success.
They just love what they’re doing,
and they love it in front of others.”
Over the years, his guests included:
- Julia Child, chef/author
- Yo-Yo Ma, cellist
- Eric Carle, children’s book illustrator/author
- Tony Bennett, singer
- Dance Theater of Harlem
- Stomp! percussion performers
- Sylvia Earle, marine biologist
- Wynton Marsalis, jazz trumpeter
- Maya Lin, architect
- Margaret Hamilton, actress
In 1975, when Margaret Hamilton visited the neighborhood, Mister Rogers asked her about playing the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.Understanding viewers’ fears of scary on-screen characters, he also asked about the hard work it took to become that character.
She emphasized that it was pretend, that anybody can dress up and pretend like she did. On camera, she donned her witch costume, hat and all, then spoke and laughed using her witch’s voice.
“You’re learning how important you are,
How important each person you see can be.
Discovering each one’s specialty,
Is the most important learning.”
—Fred Rogers, from the song “I’m Proud of You”
Everybody Makes Mistakes
Along with practice and perseverance in learning a skill, mistakes are a part of learning. In fact, to prove this point, mistakes were not always edited out on the show. Mister Rogers often asked guests about their own errors throughout the learning process.
Curiosity and Wonder
Mister Rogers encouraged children’s curiosity and wonder with his own questions. He chose an idea and fully developed it, inviting viewers along for the ride. He visited factories to show how things are made: from crayons to balls, towels to wagons, macaroni to sneakers.
“Did you know that it’s all right to wonder?
Did you know it’s all right to marvel?
“There are all kinds of marvelous things . . .”
—Fred Rogers, from the song “Did You Know”
Going to the doctor or dentist or starting kindergarten can be overwhelming, anxiety-producing experiences for a young child. Mister Rogers took his viewers through these situations to show what will happen during such visits, thus relieving some anxiety.
No Topic Is Off Limits
Mister Rogers even tackled issues of racism, divorce, and death, plus scary events in the news. After Robert Kennedy was killed in 1968, Rogers prepared a show dedicated to discussing assassination.
King Friday’s Domain
Every episode took viewers on a vicarious trolley ride to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, another place to nourish the imagination. But whether in the real world or the imaginary puppet world, children learned about managing feelings and appreciating others.
Dozens of songs wove through each episode. Some of the favorites are:
- “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
- “You’re Growing”
- “Good Feeling”
- “I’m Proud of You”
- “There are many ways to say I Love You”
“All these songs are really songs about
how we feel about ourselves.
How children feel about themselves is
what I care about most.
If we can help our children feel accepted
and valued when they are small,
they’ll have a better chance of growing into
adults who can feel good about who they are, too.”
— Fred Rogers
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?”
—Fred Rogers from the song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
Back to my son’s kindergarten teacher . . . Mrs. Bjelland had it right–whether referring to the show’s pacing or the content. Mister Rogers Neighborhood offered children everything they needed for successful learning in school.
As the official Mister Rogers site says, those learning tools are “a sense of self-worth, a sense of trust, curiosity, the capacity to listen and the ability to sustain attention. Mister Rogers created a place for children to cultivate those tools through the program’s pace and production, his honesty and authenticity, his rituals and routines. Those tools are not only tools for school, they’re tools for learning all through life.”
As parents, grandparents, or teachers, we can all take lessons from Mister Rogers in how we show love to children every day.
Though the show ended in 2001, your kids or grandkids can watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood via DVD, Netflix, or Amazon Prime.
Do you have any special Mister Rogers Neighborhood memories or messages that have been meaningful to you (as a child or a parent)?
I’d love to hear from you!