The Old Neighborhood
 
Play 2 Podium Magazine

Children’s television programming has covered the gamut of concepts and characters over four decades of kids’ shows, but no series has had the same lasting impact and legacy as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

“When children play, they’re working. For them, play is a serious and necessary business, and it’s one of the most important ways children learn and grow,” summed the famed program host and neighborhood namesake.

For more than 40 years, Fred Rogers brought the beauty and importance of play to the television screen every day. But Rogers, who died in 2003 at the age of 74, was always much more than the program’s host; he was a visionary and a strong advocate of play and its importance in childhood development. A naturally playful person, Mister Rogers was also a caring friend to his young viewers. Born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred was an only child until the age of 11, when his parents adopted his sister. He brought the same whimsical creativity and imagination that he employed as an only child to his grown-up TV neighborhood. Music, puppets and play were a staple each day.

Rogers also used the program as a vehicle to help children work through the trials, tribulations and joys of childhood, and a forum to discuss important topics – from going to the doctor, losing a pet or moving to a new home. Rogers used puppets to engage kids, and parents, in conversations about things that were difficult to talk about in real life, and through his characters children could discover solutions to their own problems. Rogers’s desire was for parents to watch with their children, learn from the child development theories he was presenting, and apply them in their own families. “He always said, ‘as a parent, you know your child better than anyone – trust your instincts’,” says Roberta Schomburg, Professor of Early Childhood Education and Associate Dean and Director, School of Education at Carlow University. “He would help parents, teachers and caregivers understand their children differently, but he never tried to tell people what to do.”

“Fred hoped there were parents watching the program, that over-the-shoulder parenting education,” explains Hedda Sharapan, Director of Early Childhood Initiatives at Family Communications Inc., a non-profit company that Fred Rogers founded. “Fred simply wanted parents to understand how important play is in the life of a child and to find ways to encourage it,” she adds. “In today’s age of electronic games and fancy gadgets, Fred’s message was that you don’t need a lot of fancy toys — you could often use what you had at home or just your imagination and ingenuity for rich play.” Says Margy Whitmer, producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “If he were here today, he’d say ‘find out what your child wants to do and encourage them. Express to the world who they are. You’re the only person in the world like you, the way you do things in your own special way. There will never be another person exactly like you.’ He wanted every child to be the best they could be.” It was a conviction in which Rogers stood steadfast. Mister Rogers firmly believed that every child was special and unique, and was a strong proponent of inclusion. From visually-impaired musicians to wheelchair basketball players, he often visited with both children and adults with disabilities on his program.

Sharapan recalls one episode of the program in which Rogers was talking about dancing. He said, “You can dance to the music. If you can’t dance with your feet, you can dance with your hands. And if you can’t dance with your hands, you could dance with your eyebrows.” She remembers receiving a letter from a mother who had just learned that her baby might never be able to walk, and how comforted and relieved she was to hear Rogers’s message of inclusion. “Fred was an excellent listener and was able to speak to such a vast range of people, making play possible on all those different levels,” Sharapan offers in admiration.

Since his death, Rogers’s remarkable impact and legacy has continued. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood still airs on Saturday mornings on PBS. His work is being carried on by his company, Family Communications Inc. (FCI), which is currently in the process of creating another television program based on his overall approach. “Fred’s impact is really deep, and I think it’s because he understood the power of television to have a relationship through the camera,” says Sharapan. “When he talked to the camera, you felt he had a genuine care for who was watching.” Fred Rogers’s legacy is also perpetuated through the Internet, which allows FCI to offer meaningful play activities for children in ways that expand upon what he was doing on the program. Clips and activities from the program are available on the www.pbskids.org/rogers website. There is also a wealth of materials, including parenting material, DVDs and books, on the www.fci.org website.

A Storied Career - Sidebar

Fred Rogers also had a lifelong love of music, and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in music composition from Rollins College. Music was a huge part of the program, and Rogers composed all of it for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. After his undergraduate studies in music composition, Rogers began working at NBC. He later returned to Pittsburgh to work for educational television station WQED. During that time, he took classes during his lunch hours at a seminary, and obtained his Masters of Divinity degree. He became ordained as a Presbyterian Minister, with a special charge of serving children and families through television. He then undertook graduate studies in child development at the University of Pittsburgh. “He was an extraordinarily gifted communicator,” tells Hedda Sharapan, Director of Early Childhood Initiatives at Family Communications Inc.. “He could translate extremely complex theories and communicate them in ways that even young children could understand. Fred’s ability to relate to children and parents also made him unique. But what made him a pioneer was his ability to use television as a powerful communication tool for young children. Fred would often say ‘the child is in me still and sometimes not so still.’” Rogers always held true to the concept of play. That learning starts on the inside out, not the outside in. Children have to develop the capacity for learning, and that comes through play. Imagination. Creativity. And once children have those, they can explore in the context of learning.

 
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