The 20th anniversary of Fred Rogers death passed earlier this week. Aside from making me (and I’m sure a bunch of other people my age) feel both sad and old, it was, as these anniversaries often are, an opportunity to revisit the incredible influence Mister Rogers and his show had on my generation, and to remind ourselves how relevant and important his message remains today. I read so many tributes to his lessons about kindness, selflessness, self-affirmation, and acceptance of others, all of which are well-deserved. These are lessons which are, if anything, more important today given the current state of society, but one thing I did not see, which I would like to address here, is the way he encouraged us to be creative, to play, to make believe.
Every episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood included a trip to The Land of Make Believe, a portal-fantasy world accessed by his model trolley, where Rogers’ puppet characters interacted with the human actors to address the theme of that week’s series of episodes. The stories were fantastical, often featuring characters visiting from The Purple Planet or making use of a magical boomerang, and worked to reinforce the lessons Rogers taught in the real-world segments of the show.
The importance of make believe fit with Rogers belief in the importance of play. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
The inclusion of both the real-world and fantasy elements separated Mister Rogers Neighborhood from the other major educational programs of my childhood. Most programs were either entirely fantasy, like Sesame Street, where humans and Muppets existed in the same world, or entirely based on a non-fiction conceit, like Reading Rainbow.
Mister Rogers always emphasized the difference between what was real and what was pretend. It is was important to him that kids knew the difference. For example, he would only let Big Bird guest star in The Land of Make Believe segment because Carol Spinney, the puppeteer who created and performed Big Bird did not want to reveal that Big Bird was pretend on the non-fiction portion of the show. While one can debate Rogers and Spinney’s views on presenting fantasy to children, the dichotomy which Rogers drew between the real and pretend segments of the program reinforced the concept that The Land of Make Believe constituted play time.
Despite this dichotomy, Rogers would often take elements of the make-believe portion of the show into the real-world setting. In one episode, he creates a pet on a stick puppet and sings the same song to it that King Friday sang to his pet on a stick. He would also often engage on other forms of creativity, like drawing with crayons or playing with a toy truck.
As a creative child, I appreciated the emphasis on creativity and play. In a world which seemed to devalue it as I grew older, it was nice to see a respected adult make time for it each day. As an adult I appreciate it even more. The older we get, the less time there seems to be for active play. So much of our time gets taken over by work and responsibility, and play disappears from most of our lives. Adult leisure time consists largely of passive activities, like watching television and movies, listening to music, and reading, which though it requires a more active mental participation, still has a predetermined ending (and path to that ending) created by someone else. Even more nominally creative activities, such as wine and paint nights, often offer a step-by-step processes where the participants all end up with the same painting at the end of the night. Very few adults engage in real, unstructured, creative play.
Art is one way adults can engage in creativity and play. I’ve written about the way my writing functions as play in this space before. Kurt Vonnegut, who is a much greater authority on writing and art than I, also advocates for creativity–real creativity for creativity’s, not commercial success’ sake.
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake,” the famous American author wrote. “Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Many adults say they want to be creative, and yet say they do not have time for it. The answer, as is it so often, is to do what Fred Rogers would do: Make time for make believe. Acknowledge its importance, and schedule creative time as part of your day. Yes, the “real” part of your life is important, but so is your creative time.
Make time for make believe.
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