When I parked myself in front of the TV to revisit Mister Rogers Neighborhood, I didn’t expect to get lost in it. I grew up with the Neighborhood. I have very fond memories of watching Mister Rogers on days when I stayed home sick from school long after I had outgrown it (right up through my senior years in high school). And, yes, I cried like a baby on the day Fred Rogers passed away. Even so, I assumed I would watch a few episodes, feel drunk on nostalgia, and be done with it. But after only a few episodes, I was hooked, and soon found what I learned leaking into my work at the library every single day.
It occurred to me that I wanted, nay, needed to share this children’s media treasure with a new generation. The library seemed like the ideal setting for such a revival. I decided to develop a joint media engagement experience for kids and their caregivers. After all, Fred Rogers always encouraged parents and caregivers to watch the program alongside their children. In fact, Family Communications (now the Fred Rogers Company) wrote a brilliant activity book to support active co-viewing of the show: Mister Rogers Plan & Play.
MRPP offers parents, caregivers, preschool teachers, and librarians a roadmap for providing a rich, interactive experience for every single episode ever filmed in chronological order. Not only are the activities great, but the discussion guides have helped me to make Neighbor Time so much more than simple movie+craft program. I wanted this program to offer kids a chance to think deeply about the content presented in the show. I wanted to put particular focus on the deep emotional thinking that is the foundation on which Mister Rogers built his Neighborhood.
In storytime, we librarians use all sorts of strategies like dialogic reading and visual thinking strategies to enrich and engage childrens’ experiences with books. I wanted to take a similar approach to watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I am deeply interested in how young kids process and think about screen media. Watching MRN with a (more or less) consistent group of children over the course of a full school year was mind-boggling. During our screenings, I observed them closely to learn what drew their attention and sparked their delight. During our discussions, I listened to their vividly detailed descriptions of their favorite moments, and how they related the content to their day-to-day experiences. Mister Rogers talks about important social-emotional ideas and experiences in every single episode. In so doing,he opens the door for viewers to talk about these big ideas, experiences and feelings with their loved ones. Supporting this sort of discussion was one of my big goals for Neighbor Time. I wanted to make time for reflection and connection between kids and the grownups that love them.
Mister Rogers: Timeless and Authentic
Fred Rogers never set out to create a television show. In fact, he kinda/sorta hated television…especially children’s television. He told his friend, author Amy Hollingsworth that “he got into television because he saw people throwing pies into other peoples’ faces and he said ‘that is such demeaning behavior, and if there’s anything that makes me mad, it’s one person demeaning another.'” (Mister Rogers and Me) At the same time, he knew this new-at-the-time technology offered a unique opportunity to communicate with young children in a way that had never before been possible. Through the television, he could zip over the folds of time and space, and befriend children all over the world.
The secret ingredient of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is woven so delicately into the show that it’s difficult to believe it is even there: authenticity. Fred Rogers was exactly who he said he was. As a kid, I personally felt I could rely on him. He was there every weekday when I came home from preschool. He took me to real places. He showed me how real things worked. Most importantly, he looked me straight in the eye, and talked to me about big ideas, important feelings, and who I was deep down inside. That meant something to me when I was little. And it means just as much to me today.
And I wasn’t alone. In Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood: Letters to Mister Rogers (public library), fan mail from his youngest viewers shows just how brilliantly Fred Rogers (and his crew) managed to pull this off. The first chapter, “Are You Real” is full of heart-wrenchingly adorable letters from children like this one:
Dear Mister Rogers,
Are you for real? Are you under mask or costume like Big Bird? Are you for real? Are you for real or not? My birthday wish is I want to know if you are for real.
Timmy, age 5
The answer to Timmy’s question was an unequivocal yes. Rogers wrote,
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I’ve always thought of that opening song of ours as an invitation. It’s an invitation to be close. To share thoughts and feelings. To talk about things that matter to us.
His vision for the show was to make sure every child had a friend who would “help them understand the world, and how to live well in it.” He follows through on this vision with astounding rigor and dedication. When it comes right down to it, the show isn’t just brilliant, it’s downright futuristic. If you’ve ever tried to maintain a relationship with a child via Skype or Facetime, you know how difficult it is to make the experience feel real. But Mr. Rogers gazed through the screen and into our eyes, and we knew we were loved.
The show was designed to feel real. Every “television visit” felt like a real visit with a real neighbor. Even when it didn’t necessarily look real, it always felt sincere. Mister Rogers referred to the set as his “television house”, and he often made the distinction between this and his “home” in real life. When it comes down to it, every moment has a purpose that fills out a little piece of the Neighborhood so that it became real to young viewers.
Rick Townley talks about how “Fred’s Shoes” became a symbol of Rogers’ relationship with his young viewers in an essay you can find in Mister Rogers Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers (public library)
A young viewer watching Mister Rogers change into his playtime sneakers cannot help sensing that here is a man who’s willing to meet the child halfway. That one action tells him that Rogers has a grown-up life of his own somewhere else, but that he has set aside this time to pay full attention to the children’s concerns. By the time the sneakers are laced…Mr. Rogers has invited and welcomed the child into a safe, familiar, and caring world.
When Rogers walked through the door of his “television house”, he was dressed in the kind of clothes he wore while working in the offices of Family Communications. And he changed into more casual clothes better suited to hanging out in the Neighborhood. And those sweaters? They didn’t come from wardrobe. Fred’s mother knitted those sweaters with her own loving hands, and gave them to her son as a Christmas present. In these sincere, simple ways, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood balanced reality with fantasy throughout the run of the show.
Real People, Real Friendships
In “The Gentle Tongue: How Language Affected the World of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” Louisa Danielson says,
Through his language, and lyrics of his songs, Rogers implements a system of emotional survival. He shows his viewers how to understand themselves, and from his position as the chief adult in the show, Rogers yet again fulfills the grown-up role of informing and comforting his audience in the mores of emotional responsibility.
Mr. Rogers brought wonderful people from the real world into the Neighborhood so that he could introduce them to us, his television neighbors. Occasionally, a special guest would return for multiple visits. This would deepen the experience by adding old memories to new experiences, just like friends do in real life.
Some of these these repeat appearances, cellist Yo Yo Ma and gymnast Cheney Umphry appeared, occurred several years apart. But one of my favorite Neighborhood visitors isn’t famous or flashy. She is a little girl named Chrissy Thompson. Chrissy was cast as Mr. and Mrs. McFeely’s granddaughter when she was six years old, and returned many times as she grew into a self-assured young lady.
Chrissy first appeared on the show in episode 1324 in 1973. Mr. Rogers runs into Chrissy and Mrs. McFeely while they are having a soda in Brockett’s Bakery. After a few minutes of conversation about their plans for the evening, Mrs. McFeely and Chrissy prepare to leave. Mrs. McFeely asks Chrissy if she needs help her with her braces. Chrissy agrees by sticking her legs out. As Mrs. McFeely begins to strap on her leg braces, they joke around bit. They talk about the fact that these are new braces. As Chrissy adjusts Mrs. McFeely’s work, she talks about how it was difficult to use them at first. Then she says that once she got used to them, she started walking faster than ever before.
Chrissy appeared on the show several more times over the years. Then in 1985, she made a very special visit to the Neighborhood in episode 1543 to talk to Mr. Rogers about her recent high school graduation. They discuss the challenges Chrissy faced growing up with spina bifida: facing people who didn’t accept her, finding true friends, and dealing with the frustration of her physical limitations. They also talk about the good times she had: going to camp, making friends, and proving to the world (and to herself) that she could accomplish great things in life.
Throughout the conversation, you see her and Mr. Rogers thinking deeply about these experiences. Their conversation is completely natural. There isn’t a single moment that feels scripted, stagey, forced, or rushed. They pause to think, considering their words and memories. Note in the screenshots below how the composition of these close-ups gives kids a chance to see how long-time friends talk to each other about serious stuff. The way this scene is filmed is so intimate, you feel as if you are kneeling on the bottom step of the Mister Rogers’ porch. As the camera turns from Chrissy to Mister Rogers, and back again, it pulls in so close that you can see their very real thoughts and feelings play across their faces.
It is impossible to miss the fact that being on the show meant the world to both the real-life Chrissy and Fred Rogers. As Mr. McFeely returns from his errand, Mister Rogers is concluding a particularly primo Mr. Roger-ism, “There’s lots between us. Lots of years of growing, and lots of very wonderful memories.”
Now, for the most part, previous visits with Chrissy would have occurred before the show’s target audience was even born. So, why even bother digging into these memories? Well, for one thing, young children are always finding themselves in situations where all the grown ups remember events they don’t. This isn’t always a comfortable moment for kids. Experiencing this sort of conversation with Mister Rogers’ gentle, supportive help is a great way to help young children navigate this type of situation in real life.
What’s more, how often to children get to witness deep conversations like this in real life or in the media? It’s rare, if not completely unique. Is there a better way to introduce young children to art of the heart-to-heart conversation? What happens if we don’t learn to navigate this sort of caring talk in our early years? I shiver to think! Having a heart-to-heart with a friend is just about the best thing a person can do to appreciate all life has to offer. Mister Rogers had a particular gift for this sort of gab, and he shared it with young children so they could grow to be happy, healthy adults.
Make New Friends, and Keep the Old
When it comes down to it, this library program has been a true labor of love. I started putting it together because it just made me feel so darn sad to think that the children in my library were growing up without Fred Rogers in their lives. Don’t get me wrong, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is an awesome show. My storytime kids know all the wonderful songs and characters that made the leap from live-action to animation. The producers have done an amazing job developing a new approach for Fred Rogers’ original vision and curriculum. In fact, we had a lot of Daniel Tiger fans showing up to Neighbor Time this year.
This gave the caregivers and me a chance to talk about how we watched the old show when we were young. We talked about the “New Neighborhood” and the “Old Neighborhood”. We discussed how television shows, like people, can change over time, but still retain what is most essential and important.
On the last day of Neighbor Time, we actually discussed Daniel Tiger vs Mister Rogers, and discovered that the kids didn’t want to choose one over the other. The shows felt like two completely different experiences, and they wanted both. I suppose that was my goal from the beginning. Kids have easy access to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood; but for the most part, they only watch Mister Rogers at the library. When I asked if they thought Mister Rogers seemed “old fashioned” the kids and grownups all said no. In fact, the grownups all gushed at how well the show stood up to time. They agreed that this was a show they actually loved watching with the kids in their care. They found it soothing and engaging. One parent jokingly complained that she often get so involved in the show that she forgets to check her phone for incoming text messages. I consider this a win, no matter how you slice it.
So this is Part 1 of what will hopefully be a series of posts. As you may have already noticed, I didn’t get to any of the nitty gritty as to how this program really works. But I had to do a little reflect on whys and wherefores. I will attack that in Part 2: Getting Down to Business.
As it happens, one of my very favorite people in the blogosphere, Rebecca Zarazan Dunn is including some stuff about Mr. Rogers in her epic post about Homeschool Planning & Daily Rhythms. So go see her post because she is a 🦄. Thanks for the kick in the pants, friend-o. I needed it.