In an era of fast food and fast imagery, both of which may be indigestible, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stands out as an island of peace and coherence leavened by humor and a gut-level sense of how children come to understand and master the awesome developmental tasks.
dr. nancy e. curry, professor emerita, university of pittsburgh, psychoanalyst

Inner Drama

Fred knew that children’s television had the potential to be more than entertainment—it could meet its viewers’ age-appropriate developmental needs. The groundbreaking approach to children’s media that Fred pioneered on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood spoke to the inner drama of children.

“I think that somehow you must remember what it was like to be a child,” Fred offered, when asked later how to replicate his program’s success.

Structure

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood explores the major themes of childhood through dialogue, songs, interviews with guests, and puppet stories.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONSHIP

By speaking directly to the camera, as if to a single “television friend,” Mister Rogers establishes an immediate intimacy with his viewer that is heightened by his easy, conversational style. Fred borrowed the technique from television cowboy pioneer Gabby Hayes, whom he met while working at NBC. When Fred asked how Hayes managed to feel comfortable talking to millions of viewers he couldn’t see, Hayes replied, “Freddy, I just think of one little buckaroo.” Hayes affirmed Fred’s sense of television as a personal, even intimate, medium.

The pacing of each program is meticulously planned and approximates the pacing of a visit between two friends who have important things to talk about. Fred has time for wondering aloud, for simple tasks like changing into a cardigan and sneakers, for feeding the fish, or even for watching in silence as a minute goes by on a kitchen timer.

The camera lingers, giving viewers ample time to look carefully at a face, an object, or a demonstration. Mister Rogers often is seen talking with, rather than to, the viewer. And viewing children often join in the dialogue; the program is sometimes credited as the first interactive medium for children.

THE FOCUS ON TOOLS FOR LEARNING

When a reporter once asked Fred why his program did not spend more time teaching “numbers and letters,” Fred replied, “I would rather give them the tools for learning. If we give them the tools, they’ll want to learn the facts. More importantly, they’ll use the facts to build and not to destroy.”

Over the years, research confirmed that watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped children develop emotional and social skills as a foundation for future school learning. Viewers learn about managing frustration, paying attention and following directions, playing imaginatively, and cooperating with others, along with other important behaviors and attitudes. When adults watch with a child, children show even greater gains. As educational media leader Dr. Milton Chen has said, “Fred believed that education for the heart is as important as education for the mind.”

THE VALUE OF PLAY AND IMAGINATION

“Play is the real work of childhood,” Fred said. Play validates a child’s direct experience of the world and encourages creativity. “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning,” Fred explained. “But for children, play is serious learning. At various times, play is a way to cope with life and to cope with adulthood. Playing is a way to solve problems and to express feelings.”

Fred often brought an open-ended activity to the Neighborhood, using toys such as a truck or a set of blocks to model different kinds of imaginative play. He understood that play allowed children an empowering sense of control and authority.

Fred Rogers is a teacher.... And what’s so important about what Fred Rogers does on television is that it is unlike anything else on television. There is nothing else…no one else like him. And what is he teaching? How to count to ten? No! How to name all the capitals in the United States? No! Here’s what he’s teaching: “You are like nobody else. There is only one person in the world like you, and… people can like you exactly the way you are.”
david mccullough, historian
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