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Research & Resources

Mister Rogers' Educational Legacy

Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean, College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education

March 11, 2003 - I join millions of others in mourning the loss of Fred Rogers, host of the public television program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He spoke to children like no one else on TV ever has. Mister Rogers knew his audience and his intent was to communicate, not entertain. And, he communicated beautifully. Children all over America literally run to the television room whenever they hear his quiet tenor voice singing his opening, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, would you be mine, could you be mine?” His run of over thirty years in delivering love and care to children ended in 2000.

What was his secret? How could such an unassuming man, from his cardigan sweaters to his sneakers, be so successful with children? What can we learn from him in this Matrix-age of entertainment? What is Mister Rogers’ legacy?

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and was once asked about his ministry with children. He said, “What if someone allowed you to have an hour of television every day? Wouldn’t you want to fill it up with something of value?”

Network executives, lend him your ears!

His touching and instantly classic interview with Jeff Erlanger, a child bound to a wheelchair, physically impaired since infancy by the removal of a tumor on his spinal column, brought forth the best in Fred Rogers. The unrehearsed segment was a picture of sincerity, love, and honesty, not pity. It was capped by a duet, Jeff and Mister Rogers, singing “It Is You I Like.” Mister Rogers was the same on television as he was in real life, and children recognized this in him. And loved and trusted him for it.

He showed daily how much he liked children. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions was the distinction he made between reality and fantasy. His puppets and props engaged children in a world of fantasy. But Fred Rogers always took them on the trolley car back to reality. It was a soft and sensitive reality, however. And, it always seemed to end on a note of emphasis of individuality: “There is no one exactly like YOU, never has been, never will be.”

The perception that most adults have of Mister Rogers is very different from a child’s view. Adults do adult things: buy houses and cars, have divorces, pay bills, have cynicism. Eddie Murphy’s hilarious skit on “Mr. Robinson” showed how easy a target Mister Rogers was for comedy. After all, comedians do not poke fun of non-icons because they know it is not funny.

But children inhabit a different cognitive and emotional landscape. Fred Rogers was one of the few communicators who spoke to their world of childhood. The best teachers and parents seek to temporarily inhabit that landscape—and, conversely, the worst educational results come from adults who utterly fail to conceive that the two worlds are very different.

So, what can we learn as parents and teachers from Mister Rogers? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Be ourselves. Be real. Be the same genuine person every day, everywhere.
  2. Communicate that we care in all the small ways: look children in the eyes, smile, talk softly. Prize children as though there is no one like them.
  3. Try to walk a mile in children’s shoes—we may need sneakers—by empathizing emotionally with those we are charged to teach.
  4. Separate reality and fantasy for children. Media and movies obscure the line for us as well as children, only more so for children. Limiting children’s exposure to electronic entertainment will help.
  5. Do not teach young children as though they are adults in their cognitive ability. They simply cannot grasp symbols and abstractions. Give them the concrete material, the subject matter they can grasp with their sensory powers.
  6. Use music to teach. Brain-scientists say that music primes the neural pathways. Use it to communicate not entertain.
  7. Be firm in expecting responsible behavior. The neighborhood is dependent upon our teaching each generation anew.

We in education, at home and in the classroom, will miss Fred Rogers dearly, but let us all honor his legacy by sharing his secrets.

This article appeared in The Jackson Sun on March 9, 2003

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