Monday, May 22, 2017

In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

By C.J. Hirschfield

“My hunch is that if we allow ourselves to give who we really are to the children in our care, we will in some way inspire cartwheels in their hearts.”  -- Fred Rogers

On Mother’s Day, instead of having breakfast in bed, I was on an early-morning plane to Latrobe, Pennsylvania – birthplace of Arnold Palmer, Rolling Rock beer, and Fred McFeely Rogers – to participate in a symposium about developing and disseminating messages to improve outcomes for children and families.

I left Latrobe two days later with cartwheels in my heart.

C.J. Hirschfield with a photo of Fred Rogers at the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.


I’m not ashamed to admit that I often ask myself “What would Fred Rogers do?”—and not just in my interactions with toddlers at Children’s Fairyland. Rogers educational preschool television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968–2001) featured his kind-hearted, uncynical, soft-spoken personality, and showcased his ability to connect in a sincere way with his audience. His message was acceptance, gentleness and the importance of kids’ social and emotional development.

With the goal to bridge and build the fields of early learning and children’s media, last week’s Fred Forward Symposium brought together researchers, technologists, media creators, educators and advocates to explore current and emerging issues impacting the healthy development of children birth to age 8.

Fred Rogers with puppet.


I was surrounded by kid-focused rock stars. My fellow attendees included the Kids Category Manager for Netflix, the director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University, the head of global security at Facebook, the director of the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative, and the director emeritus at the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

And you probably won’t be surprised to learn that all of them were amazingly … well, nice. I mean really nice.




“Living well with media” was the focus of the gathering, with the goal of helping parents move from “screen worried” to screen wise. It really is a balancing act, and one that Fred Rogers understood. He may have been a television star, but relationships and storytelling were what he was all about. Now decision makers at new-media and social- network companies are recognizing the importance of shared experiences, invitations to create, personalization – and, yes, even peace and happiness.

Screens can — and do — bring families together. Mama Dragons – Mormon moms with LGBT kids — is one example of social media (in this case, Facebook) being used to build a supportive and engaged community. It was a “mommy blog” that mobilized needed supplies to families after Hurricane Katrina, even before the government could react. Daddy groups also facilitate meaningful connections via social media.

Community-based brick-and-mortar spaces are also important places for families to connect and share positive messages. The president and CEO of the Coin Laundry Association spoke about his industry’s Free Laundry Days: Families can come to a participating launderette, do their laundry for free, and take part in special family programs that encourage literacy and family fun. 

Here’s another example of creative thinking: The Bodega Association of the United States has a program in New York that educates families – right in the bodegas where they shop – about the importance of introducing more vegetables and organic products into their lives. 

The symposium's stated goal is to extend Fred Rogers mission beyond educators to parents, and that's why I was there. Fairyland already partners with families through organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Daddy and Me, Head Start, Lotus Bloom, CASA (for foster kids), and many others. We definitely have much more in common with Mr. Rogers than the fact that we've used puppets for decades to reach kids with positive messages.

Fred Rogers and puppets in a display at the Fred Rogers Center.


Fred Rogers' messages from 50 years ago could not be more relevant today. Families still want to know how to thoughtfully engage media and technology in ways that strengthen and enhance adult-child relationships.

At least one of his messages seems particularly appropriate right now: "It's so essential for us to be mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial."

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C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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