“This whole notion that learning needs to be difficult to be effective is just wrong. I always used to say a laughing child is a learning child— science proves it now.” Gregg Behr, co-author of When You Wonder, You’re Learning, and Joan Koenig, author of The Musical Child, come together to talk to Zibby about the importance of emphasizing wonder and creativity in young kids’ lives. The three all share ideas about how to make imagination a daily habit in the classroom and at home, which of Mister Rogers’ lessons are still essential to teach young children today, and why it is so important that your kids see you express joy.


Zibby Owens: Welcome. Today, I have two guests, which is so fun. The first, Joan Koenig, The Musical Child: Using the Power of Music to Raise Children Who Are Happy, Healthy, and Whole. I will use anything to make my children happy, healthy, and whole, even pick up some sort of violin or something. Also, Gregg Behr, whose coauthor is Ryan Rydzewski —

Gregg Behr: — Rydzewski.

Zibby: Rydzewski, I was close, When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids. I would also do a lot for that, so there you go. I feel like with both your books, we’ll have perfect kids if we take all these skill sets.

Gregg: Maybe slightly more good kids. There’s still a lot of work to be done, isn’t there?

Zibby: Gregg, why don’t you go first and tell listeners about your book and what inspired you to write it and what the main takeaways really are? Mister Rogers, this is amazing. I grew up with Mister Rogers, as so many people did.

Gregg: So did I. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for having me. It’s a joy to be here together with Joan. I’m a Western Pennsylvania kid, which is important because Fred Rogers also was a Western Pennsylvania kid. Like you, Zibby, I grew up with Mister Rogers. Those model houses, the community gardens he went to, those were my houses, those were my gardens, and so I’ve always had a deep emotional affinity for Fred Rogers. Second, in this little corner of the world in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, educators in and out of school, so early learning centers, museums, libraries, other sites of learning, have really been working over the past fifteen years to fundamentally change our learning landscape. They do so in a way that’s very much like the neighborhood. Yes, schools are important, but Mister Rogers built a neighborhood, not just a classroom, not just a home learning space, but a neighborhood. It’s that work over the past fifteen years that really inspired us.

The aha for me and Ryan, my coauthor, was really starting to see Fred Rogers not just as that loving, caring person that we knew on television, but as someone who, in fact, was a learning scientist. They didn’t use those words fifty years ago, but in fact, he was a learning engineer who was taking advantage of whole-child development theory and really applying it in ways that today the field of learning science would say makes him a learning scientist. As Ryan and I were reading papers from MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, increasingly, they seemed like scripts from the neighborhood. We thought, you know, there’s a story to tell about Fred Rogers not just as that loving, caring person that we all knew, but as someone who was deliberate and intentional about creating learning environments and someone whose work each of us, in our own ways, could emulate, whether it’s in our homes or in a classroom.

Zibby: Awesome. I love that. Great. Joan, we’ll talk a little about your book. Then we’ll meld the two. Go ahead.

Joan Koenig: Absolutely. I think it’s pretty easy for me to segue in here because I’m quite fascinated by what you just said and the fact that — neuroscience is very recent. We only started being able to look at how the brain worked a little over thirty years ago. There were people who were studying learning a long time before that. There were a lot of people doing amazing things, but you couldn’t put the absolute science label onto it, for example, the multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner at Harvard, and this kind of thing. When you were saying that Mister Rogers was actually an education scientist, I think there were a lot of them out there, but they didn’t have the label. They didn’t have that scientific signpost saying, yes, this is valid because we can look in the brain and we see how the brain is functioning. Neuroscience is amazing, but sometimes I feel as though a lot of these things, they were working wonderfully forty or fifty years ago, and some of them should be brought back as opposed to thrown out because they’re not new. Obviously, music has been around as long as the world has been around. Its presence in all societies is undeniable, and also, the fact that most of us have had some major moment in our lives that’s marked by music. When we have big moments in our lives, we go to music for support, for solace, for happiness. Children do as well.

We have this kind of conundrum, which is that music is as old as the hills. It’s nothing new. It has been denigrated by school systems, I’d say, for quite a while now. Yet all the neuroscience of the past thirty years is showing us that music is absolutely part and parcel of how we develop as human beings. It gets even more specific. The fact is that there are so many salient links between processing music and processing language that when you do them both together, children are just going to have better conversation skills, literacy skills. You can avoid some problems. There are extraordinary links between dyslexia and the lack of the ability to sense pulsation in music or feel a beat. The science is all there. It just begs you to put music back into the schools in a big way. I’m very curious about why we’re not doing it. It’s kind of like the Mister Rogers thing. Is it because it’s not new? We want something new. We want something with a shiny label on it. I have decades of experience firsthand right now about seeing how it works. I just want every child in the world to benefit from this.

Gregg: Zibby, may I share? I’d love to make a connection between music, science, and Fred Rogers.

Zibby: Take it away. I’m just going to sit here. Go, please.

Gregg: I love what Joan just said. We are distracted by the shiny, new things. Really, innovation is finding something new and something familiar. That’s what we found in the work of Fred Rogers that dates back half a century, seeing it in some new ways. Ryan and I took the title of our book, When You Wonder, You’re Learning, from a song that Fred Rogers wrote in 1979 called “Did You Know?” Among other things, Fred Rogers was an amazing musician and lyricist writing hundreds of pieces of music. As Ryan and I looked at that song Fred Rogers wrote in 1979 and compared it to a learning science paper published by researchers at the University of California in 2014, they basically said the same thing. The research paper talked about curiosity, and curiosity as a vortex, and a vortex that sucks you in and absorbs your learning but also prompts you to start learning other things around you whether or not you want to be learning those things or not. That’s essentially what Fred Rogers’ song and the lyrics to “Did You Know?” say. That, he wrote in 1979. I think it’s so important, as Joan just said, seeing something new in things that are familiar and, in fact, emotional to us as we think about the things that we need to do for kids today.

Joan: Absolutely. There are things that have never changed. It’s just that right now, we can actually measure them. I feel like quoting Greta Thunberg saying, just listen to the scientists. In fact, we remember things better when they’re set to music. All the boring things that children have to memorize, they can be set to music. When they are, the memorization part is just a snap. In terms of the notion of emotion, we now know that a brain that is happy is a brain that’s flooded with nice hormones like serotonin and dopamine and that those are the maximal conditions for the child to be learning. A child who’s upset or stressed cannot learn. This whole notion that learning needs to be difficult, draconian, and austere to be effective, it’s just bullshit. I always used to say a laughing child is a learning child. Science proves it now. The more fun that the children are having and the more they’re encouraged to wonder about things and to realize projects together, the happier they’re going to be and the more these early years will count later on in their entire approach to learning and, I would also say, their entire approach to learning with other people.

Zibby: Very true. I could sing to you all of the fifty states if you would like, but I won’t. I could never say them. My kids had to do that song. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Joan: Of course.

Gregg: Yes, of course.

Zibby: “Fifty Nifty” or whatever.

Gregg: “United States from the thirteen original…”

Zibby: I knew was going to do it. It wasn’t going to be me.

Joan: I’m too old for that one. Imagine that you can actually have a day in which most of what’s going on, things that need to be said are said in music. For example, when it’s time to come sit down on the circle, and actually sit down as opposed to standing up or cross your legs or become silent and listen to the person who’s speaking, when you do it with musical ques, none of the teachers have to shout. Nobody raises their voices because the children are automatically listening for that little que. They like hearing it. They like identifying it. Everything that they sing together, there’s this hand-holding quality that music allows because the melody and rhythm pull you along even if you can’t quite remember what the word is. The next time you sing it, you’re probably going to get that word because the melody and the rhythm just you along. Even if you couldn’t get that thirty-nineth state, one of your friends did, and so you might watch them. We know that this works. I just want to invite schools and parents to use it. Especially in a post-COVID world, imagine if your learning days is more than fifty percent in music, the enjoyment, the feeling of togetherness children will have. Even before they go to school, there are things they can do with their parents. I try to put a maximum number of exercises in the book because it’s all about communication.

Zibby: I was going to ask both of you, for the parents at home who’s just looking to raise a good kid and get through the day and all of that, what can they do? It seems like there’s so many things that both of you could do to impact change on a societal level from the education side. Gregg, I know you started Remake Learning. You have a whole thing dedicated to effecting change on a widespread scale. Your books are mostly designed to take all this stuff that you’ve learned and then give parents tools to use, not just for educators. If you had to pick a couple things that a parent might not know that you have found from all of your research, and whether or not educators adopt some of your things that I’m sure would be better off, what are a couple take-home suggestions? Should I be singing when I try to get my kids breakfast and out the door in the morning? They would run screaming, so yeah, maybe they’d get in the car faster. What should we do at home?

Gregg: What you’ve just asked and what Joan shared is really about creating an atmosphere for learning. I will not pretend to be a perfect dad. I make a lot of mistakes during the course of the day. Something that Ryan and I tried to do in our book is curate examples from educators really around of the world of doable things, things that you and I can do in our own homes, or a teacher or a librarian in the places where they are. One of my favorite examples is the ask-it basket. Hedda Sharapan, an educator herself, who worked alongside Fred Rogers beginning on production in 1968, shared with us walking into a classroom and seeing that the teacher had this wicker basket in the front. She thought, that’s interesting. What is that? As the classroom went on, she was observing how this teacher had created an atmosphere that invited questions. Kids would ask questions. You know what it’s like. Some of the questions were right on point. Some of them came from right over the left-field wall, like, what was that question?

What the teacher did is this. One, she wasn’t quick to answer it. Two, she acknowledged the question. She paused, acknowledged the question. Three, she took a post-it and took time to write it down. Four, put it in the basket and said, you know what, later, we’re going to wonder about this question together. That very simple thing, which is something you and I could do in our own kitchens — you know how many questions kids ask as you’re running to get ready for school or on a Saturday night at home. Each of us can have an ask-it basket. What that did is it created an environment where the kids felt respected. They felt like they belonged. They felt like it was comfortable to be curious. It was an atmosphere for wonder that was inviting, joyful, and permissible. To me, that’s a beautiful example of a small thing that each of us can do. In our book, we try and give some other examples that we’ve borrowed from great educators around the world.

Zibby: I feel like my ask-it basket is Google. I just pick up Google and answer their question.

Gregg: Or Alexa.

Zibby: Maybe Siri. Siri and Alexa are my helpers here. What about you, Joan? What’s something we can do really easily at home?

Joan: First of all, I’d like to say something. It may sound a bit strange. I raised my children in France. It’s a different time. This is thirty years ago. It’s also a different country in which the idea of being a parent is just part and parcel of what you do in life. The notion of parenting or being the greatest parent in the world, there was not this pressure on me or any of my friends. I think we had much more of the idea that we were enjoying our children. Society was not expecting us to be perfect parents. I think that the biggest thing that characterizes my experience with my own children in early childhood was we just had a lot of fun. Because we had so much fun, when things needed to be sanctioned, if there was a real problem, they knew very well that they were going to lose that fun because of what had just happened or what might happen if they decided to really do something awful. Frankly, it lasted into adolescence. It really did, this idea of this privileged relationship.

On a very basic level, I’d like to come back to the music thing. When you have little songs for getting dressed in the morning — I’ve got to put a few more on my website — putting shoes on, brushing teeth, and so, you’re creating this temporal moment when you’re doing something together with the child. You’re really in unison with them. It’s not you asking them to brush their teeth or put their shoes on. When you’re both doing it — we’re going to brush, brush, brush, brush, brush, brush, brush up and down, side to side — and you’re both doing it, your child is just going to jump in there with you. They’re not going to want to get out of the song. Same thing with getting the shoes on. I think that combining the idea that you’re enjoying doing it — yes, it’s a pain in the neck to put your shoes on and get all dressed in the morning, especially in a cold New York winter, but if you’re singing through it, you’re bringing the children into it in a way that engages them. They’re having fun with you doing it.

Gregg: Which is something, Joan, that Fred Rogers did so well. In fact, the producers of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the animated modern version for today’s parents — I think all of us who have young kids who are maybe watching shows like that, we sing these songs when we’re getting ready in the morning or getting ready at night. What do you do with the mad that you feel? It was something that, among other things, Fred did so well, using music to do exactly what you’re describing.

Joan: That’s fascinating. We have to talk about this another time. That’s fascinating. I have a dim recollection of Mister Rogers too. I think I must have been too old, but I can picture him perfectly well on a black-and-white TV set and hearing him sing all the time. Maybe I was unconsciously affected by Mister Rogers.

Zibby: He’s everywhere. I still sing the song — my mother used to sing me this ad for some sort of toothpaste called Ipana or something. “Brusha, brusha, brusha with a new Ipana.” Some ad jingle from 1952. She used to sing it to me when I brushed my teeth. I sing it to my kids when I brush my teeth. I’ve never even looked up this toothpaste. I should really go look it up now that I’m saying this out loud. Nor have I actually thought about this consciously unless I’m in the toothbrushing mode. Now that you mention it, I guess I do that as well.

Joan: If we want a way to bring children together, one of the things we do a lot, of course, is using music to learn foreign languages because everybody knows that it syncs in differently. In a lot of cases, we can have as many as twenty different nationalities in a classroom. In a lot of countries that are dealing with a lot of immigration, singing, it’s a pathway in for children. We see children that speak neither English nor French singing songs before they can actually speak. There are just so many ways in which music — it’s such a tool for so many things. Once again, I think the question is, why isn’t it back in the schools, especially in early childhood? The thing that I really want to bring home most to people is that children are born musical. Their auditory systems are fully developed. Their limbic systems, their emotional systems are also fully developed. Those two things alone are the groundwork for musical practice. A lot of studies are showing that children prefer music to actual speech. When they’re very, very young, their own speech sounds like music.

There are so many benefits, one of them being that when children make music together, they begin to synchronize. They actually begin to tap their feet to the beat. This is one of the biggest things that separates humans from other mammals. The ability to synchronize with another person determines a lot of things including whether the child might have trouble with finding themselves on the autism spectrum. Lack of synchronization indicates a lot of potential problems that I personally think could be helped a lot if the child started a musical practice early enough. I like to say nobody would dream of not speaking with their children and just taking them to a weekly language class, but that’s what we do with music. It’s a once-a-week class. A lot of parents don’t feel comfortable singing with their children. They think that if they put on Freddie Mercury that that’s not good or that’s not right or something. You know what? If the parent loves Freddie Mercury — I’m a classical musician, but I love Freddie Mercury. The dance parties you can have with your children listening to a lot of good, very rhythm-based music, that’s a togetherness that — you don’t need years of professional classical training to be able to do this with your children.

Zibby: Gregg, I love that you keep raising your hand. You might be the first person who’s ever raised your hand in a Zoom, but I love it. Here we go to education.

Gregg: I respect the two of you so much. I don’t want to interrupt. I love what Joan is saying because there’s a joyfulness. Kids observing joyfulness in the adults in their setting is so absolutely critical. Whether it’s music or making a cake or whether it’s me skateboarding down my street and pulling out my own skateboard from my childhood, kids seeing the adults around them participating in creative things that they love is absolutely critical. Fred Rogers used to borrow from Margaret McFarland, a premier child psychiatrist of the twentieth century, someone with whom he worked, someone with whom he studied. Dr. McFarland borrowed that Quaker sensibility that attitudes are caught, not taught. Part of creating that atmosphere for joyful learning is the adults engaging in joyful things in front of their kids. There was this great story relayed about Margaret McFarland. She had helped create the Arsenal Children’s Family Center here in Pittsburgh, among other things. She did so with Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson. There was a convergence of some amazing whole-child development theory, pediatricians and practitioners of the twentieth century from whom Fred Rogers benefitted. The three of them, among other things, brought this world-renowned sculpturalist to this early learning center, two, three, four-year-olds. The sculpturalist said, “What is it that you want me to do?” Dr. McFarland said to him, “I just want you to love the clay in front of the kids.” It was that sensibility of being joyful in the thing that you do. That little moment you described, Zibby, of singing the toothpaste song with your kids, or if it’s pulling out your own guitar and just playing it and start smiling and joyfully remembering what that means to you, those moments are impressionable and important in kids’ lives.

Zibby: That whole thing was designed for you to tell us that you were a good skateboarder when you were growing up, right?

Gregg: Actually, this is funny. Well, it’s a pandemic story, which isn’t funny. In the first month of the pandemic, here we are at home. I went into my garage. It, admittedly, looks like an episode of Hoarders. It’s a bit embarrassing. I found my old Madrid skateboard. I hadn’t pulled that thing out in thirty-five years. I just got on the skateboard. I didn’t put on a helmet. I didn’t put on my elbow pads or anything. I just started skating down the incline of a hill that’s in front of our house. I was laughing hysterically because all of those emotions, the joy, the fun of skateboarding came back to me. Do you know that today, a year-plus later, there are eight girls on my street who skateboard? Now, I can’t draw a line from A to B, but I can tell you those eight girls saw me skateboarding down the street, saw me laughing, and were probably provoked to say, what is that? I want to try that. If it brings him happiness, maybe it’s something that I might enjoy too. They tried it and liked it. Now they’re certainly better than me.

Zibby: Wow. Maybe you need to brand your own line of skateboards, Wonder Mobile or something.

Gregg: That would be fun.

Zibby: You never know. I just wanted to know what advice both of you have for aspiring authors as we close out this session. I feel like these are all therapy sessions for me in some way, shape, or form. What advice would you have for aspiring authors having these new books out today? On the market, not that they’re out today. In today’s world, I should say.

Joan: I’ll start because I’d like Gregg to finish because I think, actually — this is my first book, Zibby. I have to tell you a funny story. I admire what you’re doing so much because I am a self-confessed read-a-holic. I used to hide in bed with the flashlight when I was five years old reading. I’ve never stopped. Reading and music, if you take either one of them away, I’m probably just going to wither and die. My own experience with it, it was a joy to write. I think I immensely benefitted from having a great editor, Alexander Littlefield at HMH. I didn’t start the book with a book plan. I’m not sure I would do that again. I was so excited to start. I discovered that my mind goes in all sorts of directions. My basic advice would be maybe work with a great editor. Be very clear about where you’re going with the book when you start.

Zibby: Excellent.

Gregg: For me, Zibby, it was just starting. I’ve had the opportunity to write and speak for decades in the work that I’m privileged to do. I always had the idea of a book in my head. Writing a book was scary to me. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I will acknowledge that, for me, having a partner, a coauthor, made all of the difference. It just allowed me to open that door and say, okay, we’re going to try this. Fortunately, we did have a plan, but it took us three years, three years of research, three years of writing, three years of getting it to where we wanted it to be, and feel completely lucky that earlier this year Hachette released When You Wonder, You’re Learning. It’s been an absolute joy sharing this book with educators, with parents, and others, not only those who have an affinity and an emotional connection to Fred Rogers, but everyone out there in the world who’s trying to do better and right by kids as we create the learning futures that they deserve and that we adults need to create for them.

Zibby: Excellent. There’s a little that we can take away as adults too. It’s never too late to learn.

Gregg: That is true. Joanne Rogers, Mrs. Rogers, who wrote the forward to our book, said this about Fred Rogers. No one worked harder at being Fred Rogers than did Fred Rogers. For me and Ryan, there’s so much instructive for us as adults about the things that we can continuously do to just be better humans. I do feel like I’ve become, or maybe I’m becoming, a better human because of what I’m learning, still, from Fred Rogers.

Joan: Wow, beautiful.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you, both, so much. It was a delight to chat with you today and learn what I should be doing with my kids. I’m going to think about the ask-it basket. I really am. We’ll see if I can delay my compulsion to —

Gregg: — You can get a Tupperware bowl. You can do anything. Just put it there next to the Alexa.

Joan: They want to hear your take. The difference between Google and the ask-it basket is that you’re taking their question out of there, and you’re thinking about it. You’re attributing importance to it. You’re thinking about it, not the machine. Even if you secretly research it on Google before you speak to them, still, it’s showing that you are caring about that question. You’re trying to give it your best.

Zibby: I do read it out loud to them. Okay, fine, I get it. I won’t do it again. Thank you, both. Thanks for your great books. Take care.

Gregg: Thank you, Zibby. Bye, Joan.

Zibby: Bye.

Joan: Bye-bye.


WHEN YOU WONDER, YOU’RE LEARNING by Gregg Behr & Ryan Rydzewski

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