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The artful Mr. Rogers

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For more than 35 years, Fred Rogers has been using television to sell children on self-esteem. But he and his nonprofit production company, Family Communications, don’t spend all their time making Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for public television. Since the early 1970s they’ve been issuing videos, books, and audiotapes. They also lend the name and familiar face of Fred Rogers to toys, sweatshirts, posters, and even shoelaces.

Of course, a guy so down-to-earth he wears his mother’s hand-knit sweaters isn’t going to give his wares the hard sell. Rogers doesn’t hawk his products on the air. In fact, even loyal Mister Rogers fans may be unfamiliar with the offerings unless they’ve gotten a Mr. McFeely tote bag or trolley patch as a giveaway in a public-TV pledge drive.

Most Mister Rogers items, displayed in a 13-page catalog (available from Family Communications), are designed to do what the genial TV star does best: nourish the emotional health of children.

We’ve surveyed the offerings and picked some of the best.

What About Love?
Mister Rogers talks about love and manages to simplify even this complicated emotion using puppet plays and his own earnest one-sided dialogue with young viewers.

In the puppet segments, when Lady Aberlin overhears an argument between King Friday and Queen Sara Saturday, she thinks her aunt and uncle don’t love each other anymore. But she comes to realize that people can get angry without destroying their love.

Percussionist Don Liuzzi pounds out a piece on the marimba to demonstrate one of the many ways people can express strong feelings.

This is classic Rogers, who, as usual, entrances youngsters with his sincere gaze and straightforward language.

Making Friends
One of a series of 10 First Experiences books featuring color photographs and uncomplicated text, Making Friends is designed for youngsters who are moving from playing alone to playing with one another. It will be especially useful for parents who are struggling to teach self-centered toddlers about sharing, compromise, and empathy.

Moving
The chief benefit of this book, another in the First Experiences series, may be giving young children whose families are moving some sense of how to manage the ordeal.

It’s hard for a 3-year-old to visualize how his bed and toys and clothes will get from one house to another. A family in the book packs belongings, watches furniture being loaded on a van, says good-bye to neighbors, and then unpacks and meets new friends at a new house.

Other First Experiences books cover toilet training, the arrival of a baby, visits to the dentist and the doctor, and traveling on an airplane.

A Piece of Red Paper
Sara Stein; illustrated by Otto David Sherman
Kids sometimes need a little help getting creative work started, and this imaginative book is designed to do just that. ”What if you found a piece of red paper. And cut it —,” the book begins.

The colorful illustrations show how construction paper can be torn and cut to resemble eggs, Popsicles, sandwiches, vegetables, and even table settings.

Mister Rogers cautions on the book’s flyleaf that the creative value of cutting paper is diminished when children are told what to make. The trick is for adults to supply kids with inspiring ideas.

Going to Sleep
This wonderful, wistful audiotape starts with Mister Rogers reminiscing about nighttime experiences from his boyhood: ”When I was little, I didn’t always like it to get dark outside. But I did like to watch the stars come out in the sky and see the moon. I liked to watch my mother turn the lights on in the house, and I liked to look through the window and see the streetlights come on.”

His gentle voice and the relaxing piano music in the background help draw the listening child into the world of the night, where scary thoughts of monsters under the bed and burglars at the window are banished without ever being mentioned.

The real nighttime sounds on the tape — a passing freight train, wind in the trees, a dog barking, crickets chirping — may also send adults within hearing range off to dreamland.

Wont’ You Be My Neighbor?
Music has always been one of the strongest components of Mister Rogers’ television show. Melodies are original, instrumentation is creative, and words seem to express just how children feel.

Every Mister Rogers fan will enjoy this compilation of his greatest hits. The opening and closing themes of his television show — ”Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and ”It’s Such a Good Feeling” — begin and end the tape. In between are ”Going to Marry Mom,” about a boy whose mother gently explains that she can’t marry him, and ”Sometimes People Are Good,” which points out that everybody is good sometimes and bad sometimes, glad sometimes and mad sometimes. These are simple messages that children and parents need to hear.

Mister Rogers’ Activity Kit Puppet Factory
This activity kit provides enough wooden , spoons, yarn, paper plates, socks, buttons, and other items to create 8 to 10 puppets. All of this may be stuff you have around the house, but it’s nice to have it packaged so kids know it’s available for their creations.

After materials are used up, they can be replenished and supplemented with other items suggested in the excellent booklet included here. Mister Rogers reminds parents that it’s doing the project that counts, even if the result is a creature with crooked eyes and tangled hair.

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