Tips for Teaching Kids From Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers) hosted a television show by his name for children from 1968 to 2001.  He was also a Presbyterian minister.

Fred was displeased by the way most television shows addressed children.  So he began writing and performing local shows in the Pittsburgh area.

The new show was a big hit and gained nationwide distribution in 1968.  Fred became a television icon of children's entertainment and education.

At first glance, the show seems very laid back and at ease.  But under the surface was a strategy for engaging kids with the message that was being shared.

Let's take a look behind the curtain for a few minutes and see why Mr. Rogers was so successful at connecting with kids.

Tip #1 - Communicate with Attention to Detail.  Fred went to great lengths to make sure every part of the show effectively connected with kids.  Here's an example.  One of the episodes was in a hospital.  A nurse was inflating a blood-pressure cuff and her line was originally, "I'm going to blow this up."  Well Fred, decided to change it to "I'm going to puff this up with some air" because "blow it up" might make kids think there is going to be an explosion.

As simple as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood appeared, every detail in it was the product of a tremendously careful, academically-informed process.

Tip #2 - Partner with educators.  Fred often talked with academic researchers and education experts to make sure the show was effectively connecting with children based on the latest research.

A few years ago, I decided to tell the story of a man who worked at a railroad bridge.  I'm sure you've heard it.  The man's job was to raise and then lower the bridge when trains came through.  He brought his son to work with him one day.  His son falls down in the gears that raise and lower the bridge.  The father has to decide if he is going to leave the bridge up and all the people on the train would die.  Or he could lower the bridge to save the train and His son would be crushed by the gears.  The father decided he had to lower the bridge to save the lives of those who were on the train.

I thought it was a great example of God sacrificing His son, Jesus, for us.  But many of the kids did not.  Some became visibly shaken and began to cry.  I had to drop the story to prevent children from being traumatized.

I could have avoided that happening.  How?  There were several teachers who volunteered with us. I could have ran the story by them before sharing it with the kids and asked if they thought it was appropriate for the children.

Mr. Rogers was smarter than me.  He asked for input from educators and other people who gave him insight.

If you want to make sure your lessons are appropriate and will connect well with kids, ask some of your volunteers or other people in the church to be your advisors.  Let them see your lessons before you teach them and suggest any changes that need to be made.

Again, as simple as the episodes appeared, behind the scenes, hours were spent making sure every detail was carefully planned and measured before being seen by kids.

Tip #3 - Think like your audience.  Mr. Rogers was very good at thinking like a child.  He knew that most children up to a certain age, take things very literally.  So he prepared his show looking through the eyes of a child.  He used terms and wording that even preschoolers could clearly understand.  Here was his strategy.
  • 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. ​​​​​​
  • Use positive words.  Example: It is good to play where it is safe. 
  • Rephrase it in a positive manner.  Example: It is good to play where it is safe.
  • Rephrase your words that may not apply to all children.  Not all children know their parents.  Instead you could say "Your favorite grown ups will tell you where it's safe to play."
  • Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.  Maybe: "Your favorite 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."
This strategy is obviously geared toward preschoolers.  While older kids may not be inclined to watch the show, it is a great model for preschool ministry.  

Thanks Mr. Rogers for your heart for children.  You inspired us to give our very best at connecting
with and reaching the next generation.