In almost every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a toy trolley brings the viewer to The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. This is a separate world within the Mister Rogers Universe, full of talking animals, magical characters, and the like. When that segment is over, the trolley takes the viewer back to the “real” world. Mister Rogers never shies away from reminding the viewer that the neighborhood of Make-Believe is a fantasy to ensure the viewer understands the difference between the real world and the imaginary one, which is never too far away.
Launched in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the first of several PBS kids shows that combined life-like toys with human beings to tell stories and educate children. Sesame Street made its debut a year later.
In one episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, King Friday — a puppet from The Neighborhood of Make-Believe — holds a drawing contest. Contestants are to draw The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Another puppet named Lady Elaine boasts that she’s going to win. Handyman Joe Negri, a human character, leads the conversation towards Lady Elaine’s siblings. She says of her sister: “She was always winning everything; she was a drag.”
“Couldn’t you win when she was around?” Joe says.
“No, she had a corner on everything,” Lady Elaine says. “But when I grew up, I started doing the winning.”
“But there was a time when you knew how it felt not to win.
Back from The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Mister Rogers immediately discusses Lady Elaine’s competitiveness. He laments that she can only focus on winning, because “it should be the fun of doing it that’s important.” He suggests to children watching that they could draw their own Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Then he sits down at an easel and draws his.
It’s remarkable how many lessons Mister Rogers imparts in just this one segment: helping children identify and talk about complex emotions, teaching kids empathy, encouraging children to use their imaginations. But, Mister Rogers doesn’t do all this on his own. Lady Elaine articulates feelings children might have about their siblings or peers; kids can more easily identify those emotions in themselves when they come from a puppet.
Joe functions almost as the adult, helping draw out Lady Elaine’s feelings for children and give them context for other adults. Mister Rogers serves as another adult figure; as the PBS explains, “in that role, he also could be the mediator after that segment, helping children think about what they've just seen and be more aware of the overall message in the Make-Believe story.”
Sesame Street often has a similar interplay between puppets and human characters. In one episode, Elmo tells a human character Maria about a happy dream he had the night before. He asks if he can sleep in Maria’s shop so he can go back to his dream. “Dreams aren’t like storybooks that you can read whenever you want to,” Maria says. “With dreams, you never know which one you’re going to have.”
In this case, Elmo is literally living in his dreams, whereas Maria has more real-life knowledge. When Elmo describes the night leading up to his dream, he says “mommy tucked me in.” He consistently reads as a young child throughout the series. But Big Bird, who seems more grown-up, keeps a teddy bear named Radar. Ernie, who lives in an apartment with just Bert and no parents, has a rubber ducky. The puppets’ ages are unclear; whether they’re actually children or not, they’re easily relatable for children.
Writing for The Fred Rogers Center, early childhood development expert Hedda Sharapan explains how puppets are also useful for adults: “Puppets can be powerful learning tools for you [the adult] too,” he says, “because they can open the door for some important conversations; they can help you gain insight into what children are thinking about and how you might support them.”
Fred Rogers (1928 - 2003) was always thoughtful about what he was presenting and why. Every time Mister Rogers enters his house on the show, he puts on a sweater and sneakers. This helps give kids a sense of routine and a smooth transition. He also sometimes uses that time to talk to kids about tying their shoes. He always hangs up his coat, to encourage children to look after their belongings.
On April 6th, 1992, PBS launches a new show called Barney and Friends. Each episode begins with a group of kids talking about a particular topic. When they need to solve a problem, they bring out their toy dinosaur. The doll then transforms into a sentient being. This is Barney. Like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, much of Barney and Friends takes place in the “real” world. The kids are regularly encouraged to use their imagination, the only element of fantasy in the episode is Barney himself.
Barney and Friends’ main focus is on things like creativity, socialization skills, and identifying emotions. The kids on the show are varied races; the show seems to encourage understanding of each others’ shared humanity. It teaches community. In the 1990’s, The Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center did a series of studies about Barney and Friends’ educational value. In one, the authors J. Singer and D. Singer wrote, “Barney is nearly a model of what a preschool program should be.”
In one episode about what the kids want to be when they grow up, Barney brings them to their classroom. He wants to illustrate how it all starts there. The kids are confused; they only learn little things in class, not how to be an adult. Barney leads them into song. The chorus says: “We learn big things a little at a time. To go right up a mountain, first we learn to climb.” Much the same way Mister Rogers hones in on the message conveyed in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segment, Barney and Friends uses music to draw out the overall lesson and help it stick.
Using a doll-turned-sentient brings to life (literally) a lot of what kids already imagine. It adds an element of distance to help kids take in the message, but it also adds hints of wonder and magic. Kids are drawn to that, too. Like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it works with the fluidity of kids’ imaginations.
As Fred Rogers once said, “Play is the real work of childhood.”