The Neighborhood of Make-Believe

Again, it’s been an interval. Parenting, of course, does a number on my free-time. And I’ve never been a quick writer. But I’d like to pick up essay-writing again, so I’m going to just loop back to the topic of “things that influenced my way of thinking” and pick some topics and write.

Due to the aforementioned parenting, I’ve had a lot of opportunity recently to think about children’s television. And one thing that’s really stuck in my mind from my own youth was a contrast between the approach two iconic television shows took to the topic of imagination: Mr Rodger’s Neighborhood (1968-2001) and Barney & Friends (1992-2010, though I doubt I saw anything from the last half of that run).

If I had to summarize the central metaphor that each show took to imagination, I’d say that the former used “imagination is like a place you can go to” and the latter “imagination makes things real”. Neighborhood‘s central metaphor strikes me as useful and largely correct, allowing it to teach a variety of useful practical lessons about imagination by correctly emphasizing the fundamental unreality of imagination: You can go there when you want, you can bring in things that you’re grappling emotionally with in the real world, you can consider different ways things might play out, you can leave if it gets uncomfortable. Mr. Rodgers has a great deal of willingness to pull back the curtain on the unreal elements of the set

Barney, on the other hand, implies that the better you imagine, the realer the imagined thing is. Which strikes me as not as good a metaphor for teaching children about the value and beneficial use of imagination because it’s fundamentally incorrect! On the other hand, it’s a great metaphor to want your audience to adopt if you sell toys. You can take the unreality of toy commercials and imply that if the customer’s interactions with the toy don’t live up to the ad’s imagining, it’s not because you’re misleading them, it’s because they’re not imagining skillfully enough.

While I was thinking about this post, I came across this excerpt from a 1999 interview where Fred Rodgers discusses that topic. It starts with some trivia about the characters, but then it gets to discussing how that fits into the structure of the show. He describes a sort of psychoanalytic three-act structure:

I really feel that the opening reality of the program, we deal with the stuff that dreams are made of. And then, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, we deal with it as if it were a dream. And then when it comes back to me, we deal with a simple interpretation of the dream.

Personally, I feel like the sophistication of this approach really did shine through to me, even as a child. (Though more watching the show with my younger siblings as an older child than when I was in the preschool-age audience.) I haven’t really seen anything in more modern children’s television that approaches the topic quite so well, or attempts the same sort of structure. Daniel Tiger, the closes thing to a direct sequel, takes on some of the same characters and issues, and doesn’t really take a very different view of the topic of imagination, but it has an entirely different structure than its predecessor.