Mr. Rogers, Mister Rogers and friends
From Toledo and Dallas, a national outreach to kids in child care

Originally published in Current, Dec. 16, 1991

By Nancy L. Wolfe

In the winter of 1991 the Gulf War was in full force and the children in Cyndy Klein's Cradle and Crayon Childcare Center in Toledo, Ohio, were frightened. Some had parents in the military and others worried that a relative would soon be shipped out. But they were comforted when Fred Rogers, the calm, sweatered host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, appeared on TV to explain what war is and how it affects us all.

The children were participating in one of two public-TV projects--initiated independently--that teach child-care workers how to help young children get the most out of educational television. One was developed in Toledo by WGTE and the other in Dallas by Ralph Rogers and KERA, working with the Children's Television Workshop. Now both projects are going national after achieving success on the local level.

WGTE will hold a nationwide teleconference at the end of January for stations interested in joining the Mister Rogers project. Seventy-four had signed up at one point earlier this month, and the station is hoping for 100 by the Dec. 25 deadline. Stations can immediately begin work on the project.

Children's Television Workshop (CTW), meanwhile, has recruited 26 public TV licensees around the country to participate in its plan, which is based on Sesame Street; another 50 or so stations are expected to be added in the spring.

Karen Roadruck, an early-childhood specialist hired to coordinate WGTE's effort, is happy with the results of the project (it's called "Extending Mister Rogers' Neighborhood to Child Care"). "The children were less aggressive and more understanding of each other," she says. "Teachers slowed their pace, lowered their voices, and began speaking to the children rather than at them."

Reached 11,000 kids

Ralph Rogers--no relation to Mister Rogers--cites similar benefits in Dallas. "We could see kids come to life and participate," he says.

Rogers, a Dallas businessman and prominent citizen leader in the history of PBS--personally initiated a program similar to Toledo's. His goal with the Sesame Street Preschool Education Program (PEP) had been to reach 1,000 children during the first year, but the number mushroomed to 11,000 before two years were up. Encouraged by Rogers' results, Sesame Street's producer, CTW, decided to take the project national. KERA, Dallas, set about developing the pilot project.

In both Toledo and Dallas, the teachers or child care providers were trained to use workbooks that reinforce the programs' themes through exercises using drama, singing, counting and the like. Children were encouraged to actively participate in the shows, not just view them passively. In addition, the Sesame Street PEP project offered teachers specialized training in reading with children, helping to pick books as supplements to the show and making them available through libraries and other sources.

WGTE found that 82 percent of licensed child care centers in Toledo used television at some point in their day, but the sets weren't always tuned to worthwhile programs. Much of the TV viewing was little more than electronic babysitting.

Experts say that the pre-school ages between two and five are crucial to children's mental development, and with 60 per cent of children having working mothers now, Ralph Rogers points out that public television is uniquely qualified to reach out en masse to them at little additional cost.

Lessons in self-esteem and healthy attitudes from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood translated into the children's lives. Mary Richter, WGTE's ITV director and originator of the child care project, recalls the moment when one child wet his cot and the others told him, "It's okay--we all make mistakes."

In Dallas, Ralph Rogers was surprised to find how much the project helped the child care providers. "The providers ... came to us and said, 'We were doing this for money, and it was not very rewarding, but now we feel as if we have the most important job in the world.' "

Added spark for staff

Carolyn Madere, executive director of the Dallas West Child Care Agency, which serves black and Hispanic children from a low-income area, says that the PEP project has "added new spark'' to her staff's teaching styles and perceptibly increased the children's interest in reading. Now, she explains, it is not so unusual to see children gravitate to the book corner and thumb through a volume, or pretend to read with others.

For Mary Richter, the Mister Rogers project was a natural extension of her work with kindergarten teachers using PTV programs. She knew that the teachers dealing with even younger children in those centers were also interested in using TV effectively. WGTE targeted pre-kindergarten children in its five-year outreach program and later won a System Development Grant from CPB for the Mister Rogers project.

Richter and Joan Roadruck worked along with General Manager Shirley Timonere and station Human Resources Director Peg Emerson on the plan. Family Communications Inc.--producer of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood--gave WGTE permission to use the program's name and provided materials, including an activities workbook.

Ralph Rogers conceived the PEP project when he began thinking about the changes in society since he co-founded CTW 23 years ago. Today, many of the children with working mothers are in daycare--away from their homes and from Sesame Street. Preschoolers' PTV viewing was down. At the same time, he realized, viewing is now freed of the broadcast schedule by the VCR.

Rogers started out with the PEP project on his own, he says, through his foundation--the Dallas Foundation for Health, Education and Research. CTW developed the supplemental materials and ran the training programs, and KERA refined and worked out kinks in the plan and oversaw the spread of the project to PTV stations throughout Texas.

Using six-hour sessions, PEP staffers from CTW will train child-care providers in each new market where a station has signed on, and the teachers can then train others locally. The stations receive supplemental materials with program schedules and themes for each day, suggested complementary activities, and guidelines for interactive television viewing and reading. Each of the 26 new participating stations will receive an initial grant of $10,000 from CTW and the MacArthur Foundation for start-up activities. The stations can use the funds at their discretion, and decide whether to charge fees to participating child care facilities. After the initial training, PEP provides follow-up support through an on-site coordinator/trouble-shooter.

WGTE began preparation for national expansion last fall, mailing "how-to'' handbooks and other information to every PTV station. The expansion program will culminate with a national teleconference of interested PTV stations to be held on Jan. 29. The 90-minute, CPB-funded teleconference, produced by Family Communications Inc., will train invited child care providers at stations. Each station can determine its level of involvement in the Mister Rogers project. After the teleconference, stations will receive a newsletter and training tips, but Family Communications Inc. does not have a budget for the same kinds of follow-up activities CTW will conduct.

Although some early childhood educators may not agree that TV should be used as part of the pre-school curriculum, Mary Richter is a firm believer that "television is here to stay.'' For her, the benefits of the idea were summed up by a small boy in a Toledo child care center who was heard to say, "I may have holes in my socks, but I'm still special. Mr. Rogers said so."


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Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

Later news: By fall 1996, outreach work is an integral part of the PBS Ready to Learn Service, which is expanding to 95 stations.


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