Carnegie Science Center teams with Family Communications to launch a first-of-its-kind workshop to encourage curiosity in the youngest learners.
By Elaine Vitone
It’s a scene many of us would find as familiar as a childhood friend: A man enters a room, changes into his sneakers and a zippered cardigan sweater, and sings: Won’t you be my neighbor?
Fred Rogers will forever be remembered as a great teacher, even though his program devoted far more airtime to singing pleasant, encouraging songs than to reinforcing letter and number lessons. Hedda Sharapan, director of Early Childhood Initiatives for Family Communications, Inc., (FCI) the production company behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, says that this was no accidental omission—it was a choice that was central to his philosophy and a reason Rogers was such a gifted educator. “Fred didn’t teach,” she says. “He helped children develop the tools of learning.”
Continuing this legacy, Carnegie Science Center and the Girls, Math & Science Partnership teamed up with FCI to launch a workshop focused on one of the most important learning tools of all—a program that would’ve made Rogers proud.
Let’s Explore, a hands-on workshop designed to help educators, caregivers, and parents encourage curiosity in children under six, debuted in January thanks to funding through the National Science Foundation. The training part of the program is available at the Science Center or at requested locations, such as day care centers or Head Start.
Already it’s giving teachers a new outlook on early learning. “Here we are, bonding, learning, and having a wonderful time together,” says Mandee Pogue, a West Virginia teacher who attended one of several pilot runs of the workshop last year. “I find myself coming back to all the things we learned time and time again.”
Ron Baillie, chief program officer for Carnegie Science Center, says that Let’s Explore is not meant to teach young children science. “It’s about nurturing what is probably the most significant aspect of science learning—exploring.” And this can be as simple as a bucket of water or a magnifying glass in the backyard. Children just need an opportunity to observe and digest.
“It’s important to remember that today’s scientists started life as curious young children,” says Joanna Haas, Henry Buhl, Jr., director of Carnegie Science Center. “Young children explore, experiment, observe and develop their own theories about their surroundings. As they grow, much of their play involves manipulating, problem-solving, and discovering things about the world—just as scientists do daily.”
“This has been a natural outgrowth of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Shara-pan adds. “It’s a way of continuing Fred’s understanding of how important it is to support people who are working with children.”
A seasoned trainer of early-childhood caregivers and educators, Sharapan says the workshop fills a significant need for those who work with children, because encouraging young children to think inquisitively isn’t always easy—particularly in the time crunch of group-care settings. However, by reminding them of the benefits of a healthy sense of curiosity —openness to learning, adaptability to change, and problem-solving skills, to name a few—Let’s Explore makes that extra effort all the more worthwhile.
Another challenge is that adults often feel uncomfortable answering children’s questions about the world—the old why-is-the-sky-blue conundrum. “But adults don’t need to know all the answers.” says Margy Whitmer, producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighbor-hood and project director/video producer for Let’s Explore. “This workshop helps them understand that they can learn with the kids. What’s important is the process—listening to the children’s questions and figuring it out together.”
Throughout the workshop, participants watch a series of video segments, including a clip from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and footage of children exploring the world around them: an infant touching her toes, a toddler following a bug, preschoolers looking through magnifying glasses. Together, they identify examples of children exhibiting curiosity and the ways in which the adults around them are encouraging it. After lively group discussions, they leave the three-hour training with a renewed confidence, their heads filled with new ideas.
Included in the one-time fee for the half-day session ($500 for up to 30 participants) is a collection of materials FCI designed to allow attendees to duplicate the workshop for others they work with: an interactive slide presentation, handouts, video clips, and a detailed manual for presenters. “It’s trainer training,” says Baillie.
The Let’s Explore workshop, the first Carnegie Science Center training of its kind, is just one piece of a broader initiative to promote the Science Center’s resources for early learners. To lead parents, teachers, and caregivers through relevant exhibits and experiences at the Science Center, staff educators plan to release a guide also called Let’s Explore, which will be downloadable from the Carnegie Science Center website.
Through the continued and sustained efforts of FCI, Carnegie Science Center, its partners, and the community they serve, Fred Rogers’ legacy lives on, his message as clear now as the day he sang his song “Did you know?” in 1979: