March 20 is Fred Rogers’ birthday, as well as Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day in his honor. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood may not have aired in 15 years, but it is still the bar by which I measure all other kids’ programming.
Television started as a rainy day treat. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages screen time before age two, a 2007 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine reported that 90% of kids 24 months and younger regularly watch television or videos. I held out for a good 16 months, but when we’d exhausted the library, finger painting, reading, listening to music, and baking muffins, at a certain point resistance seemed futile.
So began my search for quality programming that we both felt good about.
In a report on their 2015 media research symposium, the AAP wrote, “media content matters more than the media platform or time spent with media. If quality content is available, the child’s interactions with media can have a positive impact.” Not that I live or die by the AAP recommendations on screen time, but this seems like pretty solid advice.
As we dipped our toes into the wide, over-stimulating world of multimedia aimed at kids, we tried a few currently popular shows. For the most part, they would either turn my son into a motionless zombie or lose his attention in a few short minutes. Let’s just say I wasn’t impressed.
Then I discovered that Mister Rogers, a personal childhood favorite, was available for streaming. I hadn’t watched the show in over 20 years, and I was unsure of how my toddler would react. It’s not flashy. It’s slow in its pacing. There’s music, but not big choreographed numbers with pop music beats. Yet my son was riveted. And not just staring blankly at the screen—he was engaging with it and excited by what he saw.
Fred Rogers famously said, “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” And in that first episode we watched, there he was, on the floor playing with blocks. It seems so simple. Silly, almost—a solitary, grown man playing with blocks as he talks directly to the children on the other side of the screen as if they are on a play date. But as my son pointed excitedly at our television, I realized that Rogers was onto something.
Because of the way that Mister Rogers directly engages his audience, it becomes a more interactive experience than most TV programs. When Mister Rogers showed a video of the crayon factory, my son grabbed his crayons and started drawing. Another time when Ella Jenkins played folk music on the ukulele, he picked up his ukulele and strummed along.
For all his talk about the importance of play, though, Mister Rogers also addresses serious issues in a judicious and heartfelt manner. In one episode from 1981, Rogers has an open, honest, respectful conversation with a kid in a wheelchair about how cool his chair is but also why he needs it. And in the Land of Make Believe the grown-ups help Prince Wednesday deal with his anguish over his parents fighting, and his fear that they will get divorced and it will be his fault. I mean, damn. I don’t mean to sound old, but they just don’t make kids’ shows like this anymore.
Mister Rogers celebrates the nobility of all professions, from factory workers to astronauts, and the guests are diverse without seeming like he’s trying to fill some quota. The show also gives kids exposure to an impressive array of cultural experiences. Through Mister Rogers, my son has watched the Dance Theater of Harlem rehearse, sat in on a jam session with Wynton Marsalis, and been absorbed by a performance of the Westminster College Bell Choir.
Fred Rogers understood the power of television, and that it was here to stay. When he didn’t like what he saw, he decided to make it better. “In a young child’s mind,” he said once in an interview, “parents probably condone what’s on the television, just like they choose what’s in the refrigerator or on the stove. That’s why we who make television for children must be especially careful.”
Now, at 21-months-old, my son begs for Mister Rogers, and has also grown fond of the contemporary cartoon spin-off Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. And while I am firm in setting limits on his media consumption, I also feel confident in these choices.
Ways to celebrate Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day
- Channel Mister Rogers by breaking out your favorite cardigan today
- Watch an episode of Mister Rogers (it’s available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon, and there are many full episodes on PBS and YouTube)
- Talk about prejudice, acceptance, managing your emotions, or another difficult subject you’d like to tackle with your child
- Be a good neighbor – do something nice for someone else
- Take a moment to appreciate the little things, or to think about how something you take for granted was made