The new movie documentary about Fred Rogers and his remarkable TV show is an unexpected summertime box office hit. But even though Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is no longer on the small screen, the show’s spirit lives on for today’s children.
Between 1968 and 2001, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a trusted and much loved video friend for millions of American kids. Now grown, those kids are packing the nation’s movie houses to see the documentary about the show and the man who brought it to life. That movie, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” has become a top-ten box office smash. But for today’s kids, Fred Roger’s television legacy lives on, thanks to Angela Santomero.
“All of the things I’ve put into the shows in child development theory, like play and repetition and pausing. These are elements in every one of my shows and I think that we can use them, and I have in parenting and in the classroom with kids, to empower and inspire them,” Santomero remarked.
Her first children’s TV production job was on Nickelodeon where she co-created “Blue's Clues.” Then Santomero landed at the late Fred Roger’s production company where she re-imagined his iconic show as the animated series “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” She also created “Creative Galaxy,” “SuperWhy!,” and “Wishenproof.” There are, of course, a lot of other kid-content out there. And Santomero, whose new book “Preschool Clues” contains her educational programming philosophy, says that poses a challenge when it comes to selecting programs that will have a positive impact on kids.
“On a basic level, it’s looking for something that’s educational and not just that it says it is. We need to look into it by either watching a show or watching our kids after they watch to see what they’re modeling and picking up from the show. Making sure that it’s entertaining and that kids will want to watch it. We can’t make them watch a program if they don’t want to. We want them to come to the TV.”
Another Santomero point: do the kids watch passively or get involved in the show? “Either like directly interacting like a ‘Blue's Clues,’ or more like a ‘Daniel Tiger’ where it’s bonding and Daniel’s your friend. Or even just where you’re interacting where you’re being thoughtful and want to go outside and experience something or you’re being thoughtful and it’s inspired something in you to go play.”
Another Santomero suggestion is to simply do some old-fashioned Internet research.
“What was the creator’s intent and vision and if it was the intent to teach? If it was the intent to make sure that kids are leaving the show better off for watching, it’ll be very clear that that’s the case. And I think there are a ton of articles online if you want to research or do a Google search on a show, there will be some information there so you can figure that out.”
For instance, superheroes have been a stable of kids’ shows since forever. In Santomero’s programs, all these characters’ powers have a higher purpose.
“SuperWhy has the power to read. And our AlphaPig has alphabet power. So all of our characters have these powers that we then use to solve problems and help us move through our stories and adventures.”
But even infancy is not too early to start selecting good content for kids.
“Preschool is the most critical age group and I don’t think we can say that enough. It’s the time when their brains are really forming and we can be educating them in such a way that it’s ‘sticky,’ that they’re mastering these concepts and the synapses in their brains are making connections.”
And one last point: Santomero said, just like the old cereal commercials used to say, even the most educational content should be considered just part of a balanced breakfast for young minds.
“So when you think about it, putting that in addition to wonderful and great classroom with wonderful teachers and parenting and what we do at home. So basically we’re surrounding kids and think about what we’re giving them and I think giving them a voice is really important. We see it with teenagers, right? In terms of what’s going on in the news, giving them a voice and ability to feel that they go out there. And not just feel, but that they can change the world and I think those are the kinds of things we want to teach kids how to think and not what to think.”
That philosophy closely mirrors the core principles of that much-loved predecessor program that Fred Rogers first put on the airwaves a half-century ago.