Most Australians wouldn’t look to American television as a leader in communication with children, but we might be missing something truly wonderful in the science and discipline the late Fred Rogers brought to his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Amplify’s editor Bec Lloyd shares her appreciation of the writing craft behind the man, and finds some fellow fans to join her story.
Discovering Mister Rogers
Like many Amplify readers, I grew up with Playschool (I’m showing my age as a Benita and Don devotee) and so did my children (highlights were Jay and Justine).
Trained as a journalist and specialising in education, I’ve been fascinated by stories about the sophisticated work that goes into writing the Playschool scripts which sound simple and natural. Any professional writer will tell you it is harder to write short than write long, and that it is much harder to write well for children than any other age group – and as educators, you already knew that.
But after reading this year about the discipline behind legendary American children’s television show Mister Rogers Neighborhood (it kills me to leave out the ‘u’), I’m reassessing my benchmark for hard. Fred Rogers’ rules for speaking with and writing for children show an extraordinary level of empathy for young people that I’m betting most of us would struggle to match.
(Don’t believe me? Check out the Let’s Talk Freddish guide below and see how many steps downthat list of adaptations your instinctive and professional language takes you, then share your ‘rules’ with us in the comments).
While the show may not have been aired regularly (or at all) for Australian audiences, you’d have to be a very low-level media consumer in this global information age to not have even a vague awareness of Mr Rogers. The 38-years-running show (1968-2001) was an institution of American childhoods and has been mentioned in hundreds of other programs ranging from Seinfeld to The Bear in the Big Blue House.
It’s been the subject of two documentaries, one of which started my recent reading on his work, and in 2018 a biopic featuring Tom Hanks is said to be underway.
Like Sesame Street, which is far more familiar to Australians, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a public broadcast that spoke directly to children and is remembered for blending social justice and ‘difficult’ topics into many episodes without beating up the story. When racist colour bans were in place in some American public swimming pools, for instance, Rogers created a story where he cooled his feet in a paddle pool and invited an African American character from the show to share the water with him (see header image).
Today you can watch whole episodes on Youtube to form your own opinion, and visit the website for the Fred Rogers Centre here to explore the connections to early childhood education.
Discovering Mister Rogers
While researching this story, I had the joy of meeting others interested in Rogers’ language and philosophy for children, who saw the value of his material through their educational lenses and gave me permission to share their views.
First up was Jackie from Victoria:
Love Mr Rogers! Especially his focus around language for children on expressing their feelings, encouraging descriptive words over physical actions in a program that they could relate to, using accessible resources… You do not get that on any Australian children’s program. For his time, he was way ahead. I have some of his quotes in my office at work, very inspiring [see picture below]. My children watch episodes of won’t you be my neighbour from YouTube.
With all the stereotypes and the way things are moving with social media, this is what I always preach to my children. You are you, there is nothing wrong with being you, stay true to yourself.
Then Ange, from New South Wales, told me:
Love his focus on emotional intelligence – we sing, “It’s you I like” every morning. It’s a really lovely ritual- you see the children’s faces light up as we sing it.
And how did Ange hear about him?
The first time I heard about Mr Rogers was a quote that travelled around social media after a terrorist attack that occurred quite a few years ago. It was such a beautiful way to inspire hope in such a meaningful way – that then sent me on a quest to find out more about him.
I think his work is so unknown in Australia and I’ve found him to be such a great reference for working with young children.
Back to the words
Australia’s early childhood education sector puts a lot of focus on professional use of words and imparts a power to language that isn’t always well understood or accepted. It’s been many years now since the sector shunned ‘child care’ in favour of early learning or education, for example, but what did the Commonwealth Government call the new subsidies?
So discussions of language used with and about children is always of interest. While the Freddish rules below were prepared by a couple of American scriptwriters in the 1970s, you might find they hold additional insights for you and your colleagues even today.
Let’s talk Freddish
Ahead of a new book about Fred Rogers and his show, writer Maxwell King shared some beautiful insights in an article in the Atlantic Monthly.
Quoting another writer from the show, King recounted:
There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called Freddish.
There were nine steps for translating words into Freddish:
- “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.
- “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
- “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
- “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
- “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
- “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favourite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
- “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favourite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
- “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
- “Rephrase your idea a ﬁnal time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favourite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.
What are your personal ‘rules’ for speaking to and writing for children? Be a good neighbour and share them in the comment box.