In 1968, when an American television host named Fred Rogers appeared on the airwaves for the first time, he brought with him kindness, compassion, and a collection of cardigan sweaters for which he is still remembered today. But Rogers also brought something else to children's television: the latest findings from the learning sciences.
As a children's advocate and a reporter — and as two people who live in Rogers' real-life neighborhood of Pittsburgh — we have spent several years studying and applying the methods Rogers used. As we detail in our new book, When You Wonder, You're Learning: Mister Rogers' Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, Rogers weaved psychology, pedagogy, and child development research so skillfully into his television program that even now, many years after his death, there's much we can continue to learn. Working with top psychologists, pediatricians, and artists, Rogers engineered every aspect of his television program — called Mister Rogers' Neighborhood — to enrich children's lives and nurture their growth as human beings.
Now, 20 years after the program's final episode, the science behind Mister Rogers' Neighborhood remains essential to children's success. The "tools for learning" that Rogers taught — curiosity, creativity, and communication, among them — have been shown to boost everything from academic achievement to overall well-being. The tools cost next to nothing to develop, and they hinge on the very things that make life worthwhile: self-acceptance; close, loving relationships; and a deep regard for one's neighbor.
There's evidence that these tools will grow even more important as the digital age evolves. In one striking example, Google discovered — through a years-long analysis involving some 10,000 data points — that the company's best bosses weren't necessarily the people with the best programming skills. Technical expertise mattered, but Google's highest-performing bosses were the people you could go to with problems. They were the people who could listen, ask questions, and help think through creative solutions. They could work with and lead different teams. And they cared about their colleagues, seeing and treating them as fellow human beings.
In that sense, you might call Mister Rogers' Neighborhood a blueprint for modern learning. Fred Rogers knew that when it comes to child development, the presence of caring adults outweighs almost everything else. "Love is at the root at everything," he once explained in an interview — "All learning. All parenting. All relationships. Love or the lack of it."
Scientists today have found that he was right. One long-term study, conducted by the University of Washington, found that when children's parents and teachers are taught to build strong adult-child bonds, the positive effects for children can last for decades.
Rogers also knew that learning environments matter — that in order to learn, children need to feel a sense of safety, warmth, and inclusion. That's why, during each episode of his television program, Rogers wore a sweater and spoke directly into the camera. It's also why he maintained predictable routines, doing the same things and singing the same songs at the beginning and end of each episode. He knew that routines build trust, and that trust helps children feel relaxed and ready to learn.
Here again, science has proven Rogers right. Returning to Google as an example, the company's internal review found that teams that lacked a sense of safety — teams where people felt inadequate, unworthy, or excluded by their peers — missed their sales goals by an average of 19 percent. But where people felt safe and included, teams exceeded their sales goals by almost the same amount.
In the presence of caring adults and safe learning environments, children can wonder about the questions that interest them. They begin to develop curiosity, creativity, and the other tools for learning that Fred Rogers nurtured in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. From Pittsburgh to Japan, the science he used on television continues to help children — and their families, too — excel at the very thing Rogers taught best: being human.
-  From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, January 15, 2019.
-  Bryant, Adam. "Google's Quest to Build a Better Boss." New York Times, March 12, 2011.
-  "Decades after a Grade-School Program to Promote Social Development, Adults Report Healthier, More Successful Lives." UW News, July 25, 2019.
-  "Re:Work—How Google Thinks About Team Effectiveness." Google, October 25, 2017.