With 'Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,' Child Development Plays a Role On Air and Online

Aug 14, 2014

Chris Loggins, Margaret Whitmer and Mallary Swartz (left to right), staff members of The Fred Rogers Company, read through the script of an upcoming episode of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood."
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

It’s a Thursday morning and a small group, including several child development specialists, is gathered around a table at the South Side offices of The Fred Rogers Company.

They are dissecting a script of an upcoming episode of "Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood." Everything is scrutinized: Are certain phrases under copyright? Would a 4-year-old use that word on their own? How much assistance should a character with physical disabilities receive?

They’re making sure the show aligns with Fred Rogers' vision to grow children into competent and caring beings and that every scene and line is age appropriate and holds meaning.

"Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood" is an animated PBS show. It’s based on characters from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe from the beloved "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that ran for 33 years on public television. 

"Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" is based on characters from Neighborhood of Make-Believe featured in the long-running "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
Credit Courtesy image / © 2014 The Fred Rogers Company

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" are crafted from the same DNA. Many of the episodes in "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" are directly based on episodes from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," whether it's visiting the doctor for the first time or going to school for the first time.

"It’s a lot about first-time experiences," said Paul Siefken, vice president of broadcast and digital media for The Fred Rogers Company.

So when Mister Rogers taught kids not to be afraid of new things, 4-year-old Daniel Tiger learns that lesson with Mom Tiger. Both Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger wear red cardigan sweaters and sneakers. Even the music is similar. And they both speak directly to the viewer.

Those are not coincidences. The show's creator, head writer and producer Angela Santomero, grew up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The show spoke to her and stayed with her. After studying education and child development, she decided against teaching and went into television.

"Child development is still basically the same, but on the other hand we keep learning and the brain research keeps telling us more about how children grow too. It's a dynamic field."

She created "Blue's Clues," which took cues from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and used similar pausing and pacing. Through her work, she forged a relationship with Fred Rogers himself. Years later, when his company contacted her about creating a new show, she was game.

Hedda Sharapan and others work on a script for "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood."
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

"I kind of went back to my preschool roots and how I played out the show and wanted the characters to grow up and get married and have babies of their own is kind of the way that I would play it," Santomero said, "and so that’s what we did for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is literally do the next-generation."

She said socio-emotional learning through television is different than in real life.

"It’s a marriage between child development theory and the theory of how kids learn from television and instructional technology and media, because there is a difference between playing on the floor with a kid with a lesson plan than it is than when your literally putting a medium like television or the iPad or whatever in front of them," she said, "and we want to make sure that we’re translating whatever it is that we’re learning through that."

Hedda Sharapan is a child development specialist. She’s been working with The Fred Rogers Company for nearly 50 years, since Mister Rogers' very first episode was shot in black and white. Now, she’s working on "Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood."

"Child development is still basically the same, but on the other hand we keep learning and the brain research keeps telling us more about how children grow too. It’s a dynamic field," Sharapan said.

Writing for 2- to 5-year-olds is different than writing for other audiences.

For one, Siefken said, kids are very literal.

"They need to be spoken to clearly because sometimes the metaphor or use of overly descriptive language can be confusing to a kid," he said. 

Although the show uses music, it tries not to be overstimulating or frantically paced. Sharapan said that while children’s television has changed drastically, this is deliberate — and the show’s audience has proven that this kind of programming is welcome.

"I remember Fred Rogers saying even in the '90s that if he was starting out today with his slow pace and his quiet program, there might not have even been a place for him," she said. 

Along with moving the characters forward a generation, the show has moved into our modern age in other ways.

Jesse Schell
Credit Courtesy Schell Games

While parents may have watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on their family TV, millions of children are watching Daniel Tiger on computers, tablets and phones. They’re also using those devices to play games.

Schell Games is a Pittsburgh company which focuses on transformational electronic games. They’ve partnered with The Fred Rogers Company and have created games that go with the program.

But these are games for children who don’t yet know how to read. They just want to play. So these games have to reflect that. In one game, Daniel Tiger takes the trolley, and friends get on, get off and say thank you.

"For children that young, the whole world is new to them," said Jesse Schell, founder and CEO of Schell Games, "and there are a lot of things that can make them nervous, so something like showing how public transportation works and modeling how someone should behave when you get off and on a bus, like that is something that sort of introduces you to the world."

The games were initially made available for desktops — but Schell Games has recently launched an app so they can be played on mobile devices. Schell said the games were designed for desktops so they could be accessible for everyone.

"Tablets are still kind of a luxury item," he said. 

Making a game for that age group aligns with the show’s vision — everything on the screen has a purpose and every experience is a learning one.

The show, now two years old, is going into its second season.