Mo Willems is one of the most popular children’s book authors and illustrators and now, his books come to life in a new exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
He has many award-winning books, and you’ll find the characters from the books come to life in the exhibit he helped create with the Children’s Museum.
The entire exhibit was designed and built in Pittsburgh and the prototypes were tested by kids.
“We bring these ideas out on the floor in simple versions of them and test out the ideas and work out all the kinks,” exhibit designer Anne Fullenkamp said.
Fullenkamp is the director of design for the exhibit and worked directly with Willems.
“As we were inspired by him to create activities based on his books, he came here and we worked remotely talking with him every week, he was inspired by us,” Fullenkamp said.
Willems even created new artwork specifically for this exhibit, like the drawings for a praxinoscope.
Fullenkamp learned that the book “Knuffle Bunny” is actually semi-autobiographical. Willems’ own daughter lost her stuffed animal at the laundromat.
“I didn’t know that was a true story. And I think that’s part of the humor and appeal of books is that they’re true and things that parents and kids can really relate to,” Fullenkamp said.
Visitors can also follow Willems’ steps for illustrating his characters — starting with doodling, then tracing on a light board, then free form.
Willems wants parents to get involved too, whether it’s reading to their children, watching the new animated movie he created for the exhibit, stacking cartoon boxes, or flinging hot dogs at the pigeon and duck.
By Dr. Aisha White, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) Program
The debate about Black History Month is legitimate. One lonely, short month of learning does not offer enough time to study the history of the billions of people that encompass the African diaspora. Still, there is a way to take advantage of this special month and use it to reach an often-overlooked audience: Establish more Black History Month programming for young children. There are enormous benefits children ages 8 and under can gain from learning about their history, including developing a greater awareness of their race.
Unfortunately, the bulk of activities offered during Black History Month are geared towards adults. Imagine taking a young child to a scholarly lecture or to a two-hour documentary. Fidgeting, crying, requests for food, water, the bathroom — it has all the makings of a parenting disaster. Yet the information disseminated at these events is crucial to helping children develop affirming attitudes about their race.
Studies have shown that for African American children, knowing about their history is linked to having a positive racial identity, a quality that has been connected to affirming social, emotional, and academic outcomes. According to a 2002 study, 3 and 4-year-old children who experienced an Afrocentric home environment had greater recall of factual knowledge, improved behavior, and better problem-solving skills. February is an ideal time to begin exploring ways to use the month to replicate that environment for young children.
In our 2016 report Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education: Understanding P.R.I.D.E. in Pittsburgh, parents who participated in focus group sessions complained that while they wanted their children to know about Black history, they lacked the knowledge and the skills required to access or share information about it in developmentally appropriate or engaging ways. They had not learned much about Black history in elementary, middle, or high school themselves. They also were somewhat unaware of the few events being offered at local places like the Carnegie Library, the Children’s Museum, and neighborhood Black organizations. Along with changing our thinking about Black History Month, we also need to change the way we reach out to audiences. More organizations should consider child-focused programming, and events should be promoted with the same vigor as exhibitions, performances, and lectures for adults.
Our research is focused on one city, but the findings are instructive for the entire country.
For a moment, imagine that the institution offering the scholarly book lecture thought more intentionally about serving the whole family. They could provide exciting, age-appropriate activities related (or not) to the lecture topic for children while parents enjoyed the speaker. On the way home, parents and children could have a conversation about what they each learned. Children could share the Black History product they created in their session (it’s kid-friendly, so of course they have to make something), and the learning and sharing would continue into the evening.
Black History Month programming is not the sole responsibility of institutions, however. While some activities may require planning and research, there are a variety of ways for parents and teachers to get involved and engaged.
Parents, think about using themes to make learning about history exciting. The picture book ‘Charlie Parker Played B-Bop’ is a perfect segue to a conversation about the famed saxophonist, jazz, and Black music. If you’re not ready to jump into a music history lesson, begin with a theme as simple as ‘family stories’. If you can, add information to your personal stories about the problems people faced during the time period. Stay honest and share age-appropriate facts about the discrimination predecessors faced and the many ways they resisted.
Teachers, create activities that start before slavery. Black life, like all life, began in Africa, home to more than 50 countries and countless captivating topics. Try helping students understand that Egypt is a country in Africa. Share information about the people, their accomplishments, and the ways they exchanged knowledge and skills with Nubians in southern Egypt and the Sudan. And, just imagine the range of art activities you could develop with an Egypt theme.
Black History Month is about more than remembering well-known historical figures who came before us. For Black children, it’s about helping them learn about the experiences of African people across the globe in ways that make them feel good about their race, ethnicity, and heritage so that they can feel good about themselves too.
I don’t remember when my son became fascinated with Pittsburgh’s inclines.
It turns out his intense interest in inclines is perfectly normal, according to child behavior experts. Many kids, especially boys, take on unexplained but deep interests in things like trains, dinosaurs, airplanes, cars … But more on those experts later.
First, my son Teddy, who is 4. Anytime I ask what he wants to do during special time with daddy, the answer more often than not is “ride the incline.” For whatever reason, Pittsburgh’s inclines have a special hold on him, as well as the routines that surround our trips there. At the Duquesne Incline, we ride to the top and walk to the “Point of View” statue on Grandview Avenue before returning to ride back down. At the Monongahela Incline, we park in Station Square, walk through the Freight House Shops building, then get a hot chocolate at DiFiore’s Ice Cream Delite up on Mt. Washington.
He never tires of these trips. And I never tire of snapping a photo to share with family and friends on social media. After one such trip – captioned, “Aaaaaaand we’re back” – a former colleague who now works for Port Authority suggested a tour. After all, he reasoned, the kid clearly loves the inclines. Why not nurture that fascination?
Why not, indeed.
So Teddy and I walked into the Monongahela Incline and found Sean Neiznik, building maintenance supervisor, waiting for us. Neiznik presented Teddy with an orange Port Authority vest, a conductor’s hat and a wooden train whistle. Then he led us below the tracks to look at some incline tools, including a wrench almost as tall as my son.
“Hey, Teddy,” Neiznik said. “This is where we do the cable adjustments!”
Teddy stared with fascination at the thick cable as it towed the lead car up the cliff. Then he blew his whistle. Repeatedly.
The inclines are controlled by computers, “and the computer only controls one car,” Neiznik continued. “This is the lead car. The other is just following. It’s all on one cable.”
Into the incline we went, with Neiznik pointing out more features: The “slow down switch” on the track, which tells the computer to slow the incline from its top speed of 4 or 5 miles per hour so it can ease into the docking area. The metal boxes containing batteries for the incline lights under the seats. And the yellow call box that allows riders to talk to the operator.
At the end of the line, after an elevation change of 367 feet, Neiznik led us into the machine room below the tracks and explained safety measures, including a second cable that would prevent disaster if the primary cable breaks.
Outside, a steady snow fell, but Neiznik told Teddy that not even a blizzard would shut down Pittsburgh’s inclines. “It’s a beast,” he said of the 148-year-old Monongahela Incline. “Nothing shuts it down.’
Finally, he brought Teddy into the control room.
“See this lever here? OK, you’re going to push it forward and hold it forward. Hold it that way,” he said as the incline started its descent. “There it goes. OK … see the car going down now? You made it move!”
It was a day my son will never forget.
And he retained more than I expected. On our next trip, 10 days later, Teddy parroted everything Neiznik had told him.
“This happens in kids and it is very typical,” says Dr. Yadira Sánchez, a Duquesne University professor in the School of Education whose work covers supporting curiosity and creativity in children. “They get a sense of curiosity and wonder. We (parents) find it, maybe, unusual and wonder why, but it is very common.”
The American Psychological Association published a study of 177 children in which nearly one-third developed “extremely intense interests.” The study also noted that boys are more likely to develop intense interests, as girls gravitate towards pretend play and art while boys show signs of being “systemizers” and focus on a specific topic in order to better understand it.
But what happens next is up to parents.
And we can do our part by nurturing such interests, Sánchez said.
“There is nothing wrong with having a particular interest unless it’s something harmful like fire,” Sánchez said. “Parents should facilitate or be neutral. Some parents are like, ‘ah, I don’t want to do this,’ but they should look at a skill that we are not seeing now, but as an adult can have a lot of value. They should not discourage, to be sure, but start integrating other skills, like math.
“Interest is vital. It’s what makes us productive. We need that interest.”
For parents with kids interested in inclines, the Port Authority suggests a guided tour at the Duquesne Incline.
As for me, I intend to continue our regular trips until Teddy loses interest. We’re even planning a trip to Johnstown, home to an even bigger incline than the two here in Pittsburgh.
And I’ll enjoy every trip. It’s fun, even for adults, and maybe his deep fascination with inclines will lead to a career in a field like engineering. Plus, I’m a writer — maybe my son’s “intense interest” will launch a second career for me. I mean, “Teddy the Incline Operator” has a nice ring to it, a kid’s book about a boy whose dream comes true the day he gets to operate an incline …
Does your child have an obsession with dinosaurs, unicorns or another subject? We’d love to hear their stories. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
We love to take Maker Monday outdoors with projects, such as these Bird Seed Cakes. These decorative bird feeders hang outdoors on tree branches, offering delicious snacks for birds that stick around all winter long. It is so much fun to peek out the window and see which birds show up for a nibble.
Visit the Audubon Society’s Guide to North American Birds or download the Audubon Guide Bird App to learn more about the visiting birds. You can make a chart and keep track of the birds who dine on your ornament bird seed feeder. Pay attention to the location of the most popular ornaments. Are they more attracted to ornaments hanging under cover or out in the open? Do they feed more in freezing weather or on sunny days? Which birds feed most often?
Your journal will help you recognize backyard feeding trends and offer a fun way to learn about natural science.
½ cup water
2 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons corn syrup, light or dark
¾ cup flour
4 cups wild bird seed mix
Nonstick spray or shortening
Parchment paper, waxed paper, or non-stick aluminum foil
Drinking straws, cut into pieces about 2 inches long
String, yarn or ribbon
Cookie cutters (optional)
Spread a sheet of parchment paper, waxed paper, or non-stick aluminum foil on a cookie sheet. Spray the inside of the cookie cutters (if using) with non-stick spray or grease with shortening.
Mix the flour and bird seed in a large bowl until well combined.
Microwave the water in a glass Pyrex measuring cup for 30 seconds until heated, but not boiling. Stir in the gelatin until dissolved. Add the corn syrup and stir. Slowly pour the liquid into the seed mixture, stirring with a large spoon until well mixed into a thick form.
The seed mixture will be sticky to work with, so spray hands with non-stick spray or grease with shortening. Push the seed mixture into the cookie cutters, pressing until it is compacted. Or mold with your hands into a circle. Push a piece of the straw into the cake, piercing through, to make a hole for the string. Aim for the center of your cake so it will not break off.
Carefully remove the ornament from the cookie cutter, wiggling a bit until loose. Reshape edges by hand as needed. Place on the parchment paper. Repeat with the rest of the bird seed mixture. Continue to spray or grease hands and cookies cutters as you go.
Dry overnight in the refrigerator. Clip the straw overhang to the edge of the cakes. Thread the straw with a length of string, ribbon or yarn and tie off.
Your Bird Seed Cakes are ready for outdoor hanging!
For more Maker Monday projects and other fun stuff for kids, visit the Kidsburgh Activities page.
Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe and lived in Pittsburgh. Yet, as host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his kindness, creativity and gentle passion for communicating with children impacted families all over the country. From Feb. 19, 1968, to Aug. 31, 2001, the show featured 895 episodes, each of which Rogers wrote and executive produced.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first episode and pay tribute to the late Fred Rogers, all manner of events – from the community level to the heights of Hollywood celebrity – are on the calendar.
“ ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was a show that touched people on a very personal level, granting children permission to feel feelings,” says Paul Siefken, president and CEO of The Fred Rogers Company. “That was so empowering for children who might not have heard that otherwise. People remember the show as adults and how much it meant to them.”
Here’s an overview of Fred Rogers celebrations ahead:
“Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like”
WQED will air a special PBS 50th anniversary retrospective, “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like,” at 8 p.m. March 6, hosted by Michael Keaton, a Pittsburgh native who worked as a stagehand and made appearances on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the 1970s.
“He let all his young neighbors know that they were all special and that he liked you just the way you are. But the more you learn about Fred, the clearer it becomes he was truly the special one, a really wonderful neighbor,” Keaton says.
Featured on the special will be cast members David Newell (Speedy Delivery Mr. McFeely) and Joe Negri (Handyman Negri), who will share personal stories about Rogers, as will musicians Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, who appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Celebrities including John Lithgow, Whoopi Goldberg, Esperanza Spalding and Sarah Silverman discuss how the show inspired them.
“It’s fascinating to hear from people who teared up when they told about how comforting and encouraging his messages were,” Siefken says.
Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College
The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first national broadcast of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” by hosting a screening of the first episode and a panel discussion at 7 p.m. Feb. 19.
The panel discussion will be moderated by Paul Guggenheimer of Primal Interviews. Participants include David Bianculli, creator of “TV Worth Watching” and TV critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air”; Dr. Junlei Li, chair of early learning and children’s media at Saint Vincent; and Marge Petruska, retired program officer for children, youth and families at the Heinz Endowments.
The event is free, but seating is limited. To request a seat reservation, call 724-805-2750.
PBS Kids Special TV Programming
During the week of Feb. 26, PBS Kids will feature a week-long programming event featuring back-to-back theme-related episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and its award-winning animated spinoff series, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” Check the PBS Kids website, too, for fun games, activities, songs and cool videos.
Heinz History Center
Heinz History Center in the Strip District will celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” beginning in March with special exhibitions and programs.
In 2015, the History Center became home to the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” display. Visitors will find the show’s original living room, King Friday XIII’s Castle, the Great Oak Tree home of Henrietta Pussycat and X The Owl, Mr. McFeely’s Speedy Delivery tricycle and puppets from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Fred Rogers’ iconic sweater and shoes will be displayed beginning March 20, which would have been Fred Rogers’ 90th birthday.
Also in March, Heinz History Center will install new “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” artifacts and interactive features in Discovery Place, a fun learning space for kids to explore Pittsburgh innovations.
Video portions of episodes from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” that highlight the themes of courage and bravery will screen, along with Fred Rogers’ 1968 testimony to Congress, exemplifying his courage in standing up for his ideas.
Educational programs to commemorate the milestone include:
Aug. 22 and Oct 24: Hop Into History programs designed for ages 2-5 will explore the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” through music, dance and games.
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
“Happy Birthday Mister Rogers Days: A 50th Anniversary Celebration” will take place March 17-20 at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side. Special events include:
March 17: Meet Mister McFeely.
March 18: Daniel Tiger walkabouts and neighborly themed creative activities.
March 19: Meet Daniel Tiger.
March 20: Free admission for the 16th celebration of the anniversary of Fred Rogers’ birthday.
For further details and information about the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh events, please click here.
‘Be My Neighbor’ Day of Volunteering
WQED’s annual Family Volunteer Day is expanded this year to include a live pledge show on WQED-TV on March 20, a community-wide Family Volunteer Day on April 21, and a thank-you party on April 22.
“We want the community to see WQED as Fred imagined it, with neighbors helping communities to grow and come together,” says Gina Masciola of WQED multimedia and education department.
To get everyone in a neighborly mood, a family viewing event on March 20 will feature the original “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episodes, alongside Daniel Tiger’s shows that highlight the common theme of kindness to others. Families can participate by pledging to volunteer in the community on April 21, selecting from a variety of community partners.
April 21 is “Be My Neighbor: Day Community-wide Family Volunteer Day,” when an estimated 2,000 or more volunteers will be in communities, performing a variety of service projects.
On April 22 families that pledge at least two hours of service will be invited to a thank-you event at Highmark Stadium that will include family activities and opportunities to be neighborly throughout the year.
Dedication of Mister Rogers postage stamp
A “Forever” postage stamp honoring Fred Rogers will be dedicated at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio in Oakland on March 23. Postmaster General and CEO Megan J. Brennan will attend the first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony at the studio where the first “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode was made.
The event is free or you can view the ceremony live on the U.S. Postal Service’s Facebook page.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” documentary
Another Rogers’ tribute, a new Focus Films documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” by Academy Award-winning producer/director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”), will open in theaters on June 8, following its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
“The Fred Rogers I discovered making this film is at once comfortably familiar and completely surprising. I believe Mister Rogers is the kind of voice we need to hear right now,” Neville says.
Idlewild Park, Ligonier
Idlewild Park, which opens May 20, features a trolley ride through “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and a “Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Day” stage show four times daily. Daniel Tiger’s Neighbor Days takes place July 9-13 with visits from Daniel, Katerina, Miss Elaina, O the Owl and Prince Wednesday.
“You Are My Friend” biopic
Production is set to begin in September on “You are My Friend,” a biographical movie for television with actor Tom Hanks in the role of Fred Rogers. The TriStar Pictures film is inspired by a real-life friendship between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. A 2019 release date is expected.