Today, Fred Rogers would have celebrated his 87th birthday. The world is very different from what it was in 1968, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired and thousands of children tuned in to sing along or watch the trolley chug along to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In many ways, though, we’re still looking to him for guidance in this frenetic, screen-saturated world. His advice still presents a calm, balanced, and thoughtful voice.

Being a father of two young girls, I have a love-hate relationship with our devices just as many parents do. Steve Jobs famously banned his own iPad from his kids. But in dismissing these apps and devices, are we overlooking a new window for learning and growing?

Fred Rogers was not a fan of television for children. But he also realized that it wasn’t going away, so he asked: What good can we do with it?

And when Fred spoke of technology he said, “No matter how helpful computers are as tools in the classroom (and of course, they can be very helpful tools), they don’t begin to compare in significance to the relationship between the teacher and the child that is human and mutual.”  

We at the Fred Rogers Center take Fred’s approach seriously. We believe the conversation should not just be about screens and screen time, but how we can use them to help our children grow and develop. Media and technology use is a fact of life for families and children, so how do we make the most of our opportunity and use these tools appropriately?

Here are some answers we are developing with the help of parents, educators, and researchers:

  • Media can help young children learn, but only when these tools are used intentionally, with parents and educators sharing the experience and in ways appropriate for each child’s stage of development. For how we interpret Fred’s message as it applies to present-day technologies, please read our position statement with the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  • Time with adults still matters most. Learning is most likely to occur when children are having warm, meaningful interactions with their adult caregivers. That goes for media, too. It doesn’t mean you can’t sit your child in front of an iPad or “Caillou” while you make dinner, but it does mean being careful not to allow technology consumption to replace human interaction. As my colleague Michael Robb said, our iPhones, computers, tablets, and digital cameras are here to stay. But, relationships still matter most.
  • Don’t insert technology when a real-world experience will do. Preschoolers need tactile experiences: digging in the dirt, experiencing the natural world, and reading physical books. If you can do an activity just as well without technology, you should consider whether you need it at all. Technology should be used to enhance what’s already going on in children’s lives and in their classrooms, not supplant it. Or as Fred said, “a computer can help you learn to spell h-u-g, but it can never help you know the risk or the joy of actually giving or receiving one.”

So how can we achieve this delicate balance where screens can be windows to wonderful experiences, especially when coupled with warm, supportive interactions with adults? We feel we can start right here in Fred’s neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where we are fortunate to be part of a team of researchers, game designers, early education professionals, and many others working together to support early learning with new media for young children. This tight network of colleagues in the region allows us to brainstorm, share innovations, and learn.

One of those innovations, for example, started from a simple question: How can technology improve children’s learning and growing in classrooms? Melissa Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Pittsburgh Allegheny, and Jeremy Boyle, a resident artist with Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, took the question to heart and developed simple circuit blocks to teach 5-year-olds about noticing details, being precise, and being persistent in a very hands-on way.

The experiment has since grown and branched out to become the Teachers’ Innovation Project—a partnership among the Fred Rogers Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow University, Clarion University, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and The Sprout Fund –in which researchers from our Center and partnering universities are documenting the exemplary teaching practices in the project to further professional development with digital media.

This is but one example. Many more are happening in Pittsburgh, and that is one reason why we are very excited to be a part of the Remake Learning Council. The commission, composed of leaders from the education, government, business, and civic sectors, is committed to helping all kids in our region acquire the knowledge and skills they’ll need to navigate lifelong learning in the digital future. The networks in Pittsburgh allow all of us to dream bigger and find passionate and committed people to support new ideas—ultimately putting the children first and advancing positive change.