Keep Building the Neighborhood

Words by Sarah Pitts

Photos by The Lynn Johnson Collection: Ohio University Libraries & Saint Vincent College

The Fred Rogers Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, works to continue the legacy of the extraordinary compassion and generosity of America’s most beloved children’s television personality by taking the basic ideas of human development and connection in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and applying them in the real world. Mr. Rogers believed in the fundamental importance of connection—particularly in forming caring, respectful, supportive relationships with those around us—which is the foundation of his conception of what it means to be a “neighbor.” The Fred Rogers Center aims to take the radical idea of the “neighborhood” beyond the TV screen and into the places that need it most in our modern world.

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The legacy of Fred Rogers is highly documented in the Center’s archives through episodes of his TV program, his many letters of correspondence with viewers, copies of his speeches and articles, as well as the living testament of those who grew up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers’ message was never meant just for children; it was also intended for the families of the children and for grown-ups in general. So much of what we learn, what we believe, and what makes up our foundation, will continue to grow with us into the future, impacting our own lives as well as those of others, and for this reason the goal of the Fred Rogers Center is to make Mr. Rogers’ legacy accessible, available, and understood.

One of the core initiatives of the Center is called Simple Interactions, which is an early childhood education method based on Mr. Rogers’ belief that human relationships are essential to children’s development and that this concept is grounded in current research evidence. Dr. Junlei Li, senior lecturer in early childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Center in its early years, has worked to identify particular places that most desperately need Mr. Rogers’ wisdom and to develop the Simple Interactions approach. This initiative began with a task laid out by Mr. Rogers himself: to “look for the helpers.” As a TV icon, Fred Rogers received countless letters from both children and grown-ups looking for help or advice. He himself would personally read and respond to every single letter, his replies always encouraging the people who sought his perspective to turn to those who were near them, to those who knew them. These are “helpers”—the people who can be most directly impactful in your life.

In practice, Simple Interactions focuses on strengthening the day-to-day interactions between children and the adults, or “helpers,” who care for them. Dr. Li, who grew up in China, began by taking this “helper” model exemplified by Mr. Rogers into Chinese orphanages because he identified this as the stereotypical place where conventional human relationships are most lacking. Although Dr. Li himself didn’t grow up “watching the neighborhood,” he found a strong resonance with Mr. Rogers’ work in child and human development—a resonance that transcended nostalgia for a time or TV program of the past. He saw how Mr. Rogers’ deeply human message could transcend and outlive the medium and the historical era.

So, in an effort to strengthen and grow the kinds of positive human relationships conceived by Mr. Rogers, Dr. Li and his team entered Chinese orphanages with the question, “Who are the helpers who know these children?” They knew it was precisely these helpers who could provide stable, lasting support for the vulnerable children in their care. In this particular case, the helpers were the caregivers who fed, bathed, and changed the children day in and day out. They were not particularly respected, not particularly acknowledged, but they nonetheless managed to tend to these children despite the utter lack of material and financial resources.

Dr. Li implemented a very simple technology to show caregivers the profound impact of their ordinary, everyday acts in the children’s lives: he used video recordings to capture the incredible instances of daily care provided by these caregivers. Often, it takes someone else to show us the extraordinary significance of our mundane actions; it takes someone else to show us ourselves. These caregivers would watch the videos of their own work—perhaps the first time any of them actually saw the remarkable effects of their seemingly simple actions for these children—and they would recognize that they were already capable of building meaningful relationships with the children in their custody, and that what they had to give was enough. Having just one positive, stable relationship can make a world of difference for a developing child, and Dr. Li’s aim was to identify the adults already filling this role and to show them their extraordinary importance.

This Simple Interactions approach, which began in faraway orphanages, has since grown to multiple states in the U.S. as a standard for early childhood education. It has been featured in keynote speeches in national and international meetings about child development, and it has even reached unlikely places such as children’s hospitals and group homes for youth in northern Canada. The initiative engages children’s caregivers through strength-based, practice-focused, and community-supported learning sessions. It does this by exemplifying the idea of the profound impact of simple interactions between children and the adults in their lives, and it “helps the helpers” by developing concrete trainings, programs, and even governmental policies in the field of early childhood education to ensure that our world’s young children will always have a helper near them no matter where they are. The initiative takes Mr. Rogers’ idea that the people who can help you the most are the people who are near you, and it works to figure out just what these people are doing in order to see it, describe it, and promote it, ultimately enhancing the simple but profound act of helping at the neighborly level.

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Beyond the work of programs like Simple Interactions, the Fred Rogers Center aims to expand Mr. Rogers’ legacy beyond its educational context in order to promote the universality of his message for people of any age. According to Dr. Li, “There are literally millions of people who have grown up with the program, and each of them is their own ripple of hope. Whatever is there in Fred’s legacy that can still serve as encouragement for these people as well as others—the world needs these millions of points of hope.” The Fred Rogers Center spreads this hope by reminding us how to respect and honor how other people are feeling and what they’re thinking. This respect is founded in what is perhaps the most universally-applicable suggestion from Mr. Rogers’ legacy: listening.

Indeed, all human connection must begin with listening. According to Dr. Li, to listen in the Mr. Rogers sense is “to be fully present in the place where you are in front of another human being, whether that human being is a baby or a struggling adolescent or an elderly resident of a nursing home. Whoever you’re with, you open yourself completely up with very little agenda. Be open and listen with all of you: your eyes, your ears, and your heart as well.” If we can learn from Mr. Rogers how to listen to each other, without bias or agenda, we can sow the seeds of faith and acceptance to build our world into the vision of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

In this particular moment and in every moment, whether we are a young child or a university graduate, we acutely need the wisdom of Fred Rogers. We must listen, connect, and work to become the helpers this world needs. We must strive to be neighbors, even with those who look differently, think differently, or speak differently than we do. The things that make us human connect us more deeply than any ideologies can divide us. This earth is our neighborhood, and in the words of Mr. Rogers himself, only we have the capacity to “bring courage to those whose lives move near our own—by treating our neighbor at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything we produce.”