I am a child of the 80’s, which means I grew up watching Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. Now I have a four year-old daughter and she is now requesting to watch Mister Rogers episodes ever since I showed one to her on YouTube. She watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is the modern day iteration of Mister Rogers. But you just can’t beat the original Fred Rogers, in his cardigan sweater, talking and singing so gently to you as if you were right there in his little enchanted house.
Today, as I watched an episode with my daughter, something struck me about Mister Rogers that I had never pieced together before. I of course knew that he always spent the opening moments changing his jacket and shoes. But it wasn’t until today that I suspected the reason why he always did that signature quick-change.
The wikipedia article on Fred Rogers claims that he changed his shoes because his dress shoes were too loud stomping around the set during filming. So he opted for the softer sneakers instead.
While that may be true, I have a theory that there is something more to his change of shoes and jacket – whether he intended this or not. I believe it was a way of leaving the world of distant adults and connecting with the children audience to whom he always spoke. Notice that he addresses children directly in his episodes, a common characteristic of successful children’s programming (such as Dora the Explorer and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood). By taking off the stuffy business coat and the dress shoes and replacing them with a hip zip-up cardigan and Chuck-like sneakers, he is leaving the boring world of adults and entering into the world of children – meeting them on their level. That is the mark of a brilliant educator. Again, he may have never intended that (though I think he did). But regardless of his intention, I still believe it communicates the idea of connecting with children nonetheless. And children notice things like that too, if even on a sub-concious level.
I often wear “Chucks” in my juggling shows (Converse All-Star sneakers). It’s amazing how many comments I get from kids (and adults) who say, “I like your shoes.” Wearing shoes like that takes about 20 or 30 years off your appearance – without needing plastic surgery! When you wear something that looks like what kids wear, they suddenly warm up to you and see you as one of them in some ways. Once you build that bridge, the ability to communicate with and influence those children is remarkable. It tells them that you care. You care enough to walk in their shoes.
Incarnational education is nothing new. Jesus Christ met us on our level – in the flesh and here on earth. He changed out of his heavenly post and into our cold, dark world in order to connect with us and buy us back from the grip of sin.
It should be noted that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. It seems that he learned a thing or two from the master teacher, Jesus, on how to connect with people.