Home Health & Education Mister Rogers’ Lessons for Young Learners (and Their Families, Too)

Mister Rogers’ Lessons for Young Learners (and Their Families, Too)

by PRIDE Newsdesk

By Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski

It has been off the air for more than two decades, but Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood still matters — a fact that might not surprise the program’s creator. “I’ve always said the best time for our program is once it’s over,” Fred Rogers explained, “and the television is turned off.” It sounds counterintuitive. But as we document in When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, Fred knew a thing or three about how learning happens best.

“Television,” he said, “can be fairly passive.” It is one thing for young children to absorb information from a screen; it is another thing entirely when caring adults help kids use that information in living rooms, classrooms, libraries, and all the other places where kids and their caregivers learn. Modern science backs Mister Rogers up. Young people with families and caregivers who are actively engaged in their learning tend to do better in school, and not by a little: Students with engaged families are up to 81 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 95 percent more likely to report physical and mental well-being. Studies suggest that engaging young learners today –– playing with them, holding them, doing whatever we can to strengthen our bonds with them –– will pay dividends tomorrow, and even for decades to come.

That is the good news. The bad news is that it isn’t always easy to give young learners the time and attention they deserve, especially when the rent comes due and affordable child care grows ever more scarce. Fortunately, we can look to Fred Rogers to help us spark wonder — anytime and with any child when the television is on and long after it is off.

1. Wonder Aloud

Fred brought his joyful curiosity to every episode of The Neighborhood, where he permitted himself to ask the questions that were on his mind (and on the minds of his viewers). Today’s adults can follow his lead. Hedda Sharapan, who worked on The Neighborhood for decades and who writes a wonderful newsletter for the Fred Rogers Institute, shares the example of an “Ask It Basket” she once saw in a classroom: “When the children would ask a question, [the teacher] would write it down and say, ‘That’s a great one to put into the Ask It Basket.’ That simple action told children that their questions matter.”

What if every family had an Ask It Basket on their kitchen table? What if, occasionally, we took some time to wonder aloud with young children — to ask questions big and small, and to search for answers side by side?

2. Schedule Unscheduled Time

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was full of moments in which nothing much happened, like when Fred showed viewers the length of a minute by letting one pass in silence. He even had a song about such moments: “Let’s Think of Something to Do.” Fred knew that wasting time is not always a waste of time. “When a child has nothing to do and must fill the time, creativity can emerge,” write Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. “It can be right there in a file drawer or a kitchen cupboard or those shiny new markers lying on the table.”

What if, once or twice a week, families made a point of wasting time together? What might we dream up when we are not rushing from place to place, scrambling to finish a project, or staring at our screens?

3. Do More of What You Love

The Neighborhood’s viewers remember Officer Clemmons — the Black police officer played by François Clemmons. In addition to famously sharing a swimming pool with Fred, Officer Clemmons also shared his deepest creative passion: opera singing. Fred knew how important it was for children to see adults indulging their creative side. “The best teacher in the world,” he said,” is the one who loves what he or she does, and just loves it in front of you.”

What do you love to do? Whether it is singing or painting, reading, or taking a walk, it is essential to love these things in front of our kids. Even if young people decide that our passions are not for them, they still get something worthwhile: They see an adult who loves to learn, and who cares enough about them to take them along for the ride. And that may be the most valuable gift we can give young learners. As Fred himself reminded us, “A love of learning has a lot to do with learning that we are loved.”

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