Happy Birthday Mister Rogers

"Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life," wrote Fred Rogers, “is a hero to me.” At the core of Fred’s 40-year career in public television was the understanding of how critical the support of caring adults is to the lives of really young children.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday would have been Fred Rogers’ 85th birthday, and although he passed away ten years ago, we think he’d be pleased to see his legacy of nurturing children and their creativity continue in our region. We see it all over in our network, in the work of folks who, like Rogers, are using the latest technology to invent new ways to support kids learning and development.

At the core of Fred’s 40-year career in public television was the understanding of how critical the support of caring adults is to the lives of really young children.

Writing at the Fred Rogers Center blog this week, biographer Max King says that at the center of Rogers’ work was the understanding that children’s media can be used to reach these caregivers as well as the children themselves.

As a young man, he studied child development at the University of Pittsburgh under Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Margaret McFarland, both leaders in the field. He learned at an academic level that nothing makes more difference in the life of a young child than the sincere, authentic engagement of a caring adult. And he dedicated a significant part of his work to helping parents, grandparents, and teachers understand this and understand how they could be helpful to the little children in their lives.

This legacy continues in the work of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, whose blog covers the potential of digital media for learning in the early years. The blog aims to host conversations between media developers, educators, parents, and researchers to better understand how adults can use today’s media—like apps, websites, games, and ebooks—to support children’s learning and development. (For example, see their post Are All E-books Created Equal?) The center’s Early Learning Environment (Ele) is a web-based support system that provides resources in language literacy and media literacy for parents, home-based care providers, and early childhood educators.

Similarly, the Fred Rogers Company’s new animated series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS is a new program for preschoolers ages 2 to 4 that builds on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s social-emotional curriculum focusing on helping young children cope with and understand their feelings.

Hedda Sharapan, who worked alongside Fred Rogers for years and now directs the company’s early childhood initiatives, is also working to extend Rogers’ legacy to early childhood educators. In a new essay, Sharapan says she’s heard many early childhood educators express anxiety about new demands to teach STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) concepts to younger children. But Sharapan says that looking back at Fred’s work helps remind educators that Fred taught “core STEAM concepts in natural, everyday, developmentally appropriate ways.  Just look at the ever-popular factory videos, like the crayon factory, and his songs, like ‘If you will look carefully, listen carefully…there’s a lot that you can learn’ or ‘Did you know when you’re wondering, you’re learning.’”  Sharapan says this often helps educators trust their instincts and gain confidence in teaching STEAM learning concepts.

Luckily PBS is now streaming episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for free online. And educators can sign up for Sharapan’s professional development e-newsletter, which is sent monthly to more than 10,000 subscribers.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Pittsburgh region, the Children’s Museum holds an annual free celebration of Mister Rogers’ birthday featuring a visit from David Newell who played Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But if you’re not a local and you still want to celebrate, you can wear a sweater and “do something neighborly” in Fred’s honor (as the Fred Rogers Company suggests), or sign this online petition to make March 20 a national holiday.

Published March 20, 2013