November 17, 2017

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Bringing Fred Rogers Forward

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Courtesy of The Lynn Johnson Collection/Ohio University Libraries.

Photo courtesy of The Lynn Johnson Collection/Ohio University Libraries.

When Fred Rogers wanted to teach children something new, he rarely had to travel far. In the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001), aimed at children ages two to five, life lessons were never more than a few blocks away. Trips to schools and factories taught about things like education and industry. Through letters and packages, mailman

Mr. McFeeley brought the outside world to Mr. Rogers’s living room. A fantasy realm—with kings, queens, and tigers—could be reached by a trolley.

For the last 12 years, the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, based at St. Vincent College in Rogers’s hometown of Latrobe, PA, has been carrying on his life work of emotionally supporting and educating very young children. The Center hosts symposia, including the biennial Fred Forward Conference, and sponsors career fellowships. Its many resources include publications and curriculum toolkits. The stated mission: “Staying true to the vision of Fred Rogers, we help children grow as confident, competent, and caring human beings.”

The organization also uses Rogers’s own archives—some 16,000 letters, recordings, and other documents—to inform its current work. Executive director Rick Fernandes says that he challenges his team to consider, “How do we bring Fred back into it?”

Influential research, such as a 2012 joint position paper with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, offers guidance on the use of digital media with young children. Much of this kind of work still begins in a neighborhood—the broader Pittsburgh area—with inquiry taking root at local schools and libraries before extending nationally.

Fred Rogers Center executive director Rick Fernandes with the piano that Rogers used to compose most of his music. Photo courtesy of the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College.

Fred Rogers Center
executive director Rick Fernandes
with the piano that
Rogers used to compose
most of his music.

Photo courtesy of the Fred Rogers Center
at Saint Vincent College

Advocating for media, VCRs to iPads

Perhaps best remembered for his red cardigan sweater and ability to connect with children on a simple, deep level, Rogers, who died in 2003, was also a forward-thinking national advocate. He came out in favor of home VCRs when much of the TV industry opposed them, arguing that the devices would let families watch important educational programming at their convenience. In 1969, he testified in favor of preserving $20 million in funding for children’s programming on public television through the new Corporation for Public Broadcasting, stressing the power of the medium to deliver important content to the nation’s children.

“We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood….getting a haircut, the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations,” Rogers said in his testimony to Congress.

Today, Fernandes and Center staff see iPads and tablets as the leading way to reach young kids. On a local level, the Center provides funding and staff support to allow Pennsylvania libraries to lend out tablets to families to ensure that the benefits of this new technology aren’t limited to the families who can afford a new tablet or laptop.

“It’s simple on purpose”

A focus on identifying best practices, rather than presenting its own agenda, is a defining characteristic of the Center’s approach to research and professional development. Rather than go into a local school with preestablished ideas, staff members ask teachers to film themselves teaching and interacting with students—and then identify existing best practices that can be replicated by other teachers. “It’s simple on purpose,” Fernandes says.

“Often teachers don’t realize the best work they’re already doing and they take it for granted,” he adds. The goal is for exercises like these to become sustainable, with teachers able to continue filming themselves, evaluating, and sharing best practices long after Rogers Center staff has left.

The Fred Rogers Company, which produces TV shows, is a separate entity from the Center but shares common values, and occasionally, staff. The values of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood influence shows, such as the cartoon Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the PBS production set in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe from Rogers’s original production. The Center also consults with companies developing or producing content for young children, advising how to best deliver quality educational material.

Junlei Li, codirector of the Center, says while the Company’s content is often compared to programs such as Sesame Street, the Rogers programming focuses more on cognitive development than academic skills. In addition, he says, the content is designed to be noncommercial, with a less mainstream aesthetic and fewer celebrity guests than might be seen on Sesame Street or Nickelodeon.

“Fred…prioritized the noncognitive development of a child,” Li adds, noting that his work focused more on qualities such as emotional maturity, curiosity, and persistence. “So whereas you would have your shapes and letters and Count Dracula [on a show like Sesame Street], Fred focused on feelings, on growing on the inside, on respecting one another.”

The approach informs the Center’s activities and distinguishes it from traditional academic research, Li says. For instance, rather than entering a low-resource school with reports and binders of spreadsheets, Center researchers bring a few, simple resources. “We want to do it in a way that [anyone] can intuitively understand and articulate what she is doing with a child.”

Teacher Melissa Butler is co-creator of the Children’s Innovation Project at Pittsburgh Public Schools, a collaboration with the Center that includes professional development for K–5 educators. Photo by Ben Filio.

Teacher Melissa Butler is co-creator of the Children’s Innovation
Project at Pittsburgh Public Schools, a collaboration with the Center
that includes professional development for K–5 educators.

Photo by Ben Filio

Quality interactions

That focus on quality interactions between adults and children is especially important today, Li stresses. In an era when rigid curricula and high-stakes testing are pervasive, play and imagination are profoundly important to child development. “It’s so easy for a teacher to forget that ultimately what matters is her interaction with the kids,” he says.

“Fred Rogers was really one of the first adults to take children seriously,” adds Jennifer Brown, director of the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College in New York City, which offers graduate degrees in early education. “He models for other adults how to talk to children in ways that make them feel safe and validated.”

To Fernandes, that lasting influence matters far more than the original TV show. “To me, it’s OK that kids don’t know Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as long as they know about Fred Rogers the man.”

This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Matt Collette About Matt Collette

Matt Collette is a reporter and radio producer in New York City. He has reported for organizations including NPR, WNYC, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter: @matt_pc.

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