Book Review: 'When You Wonder, You're Learning'
By Kevin Johnson
When You Wonder, You're Learning: Mister Rogers' Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids
By Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski
New York, NY: Hachette Books, 288 pp.
Today’s parents (as well as children) need influences in their lives who model Christian virtues. They need to see someone who is kind and gentle, someone who says he/she loves and demonstrates love, someone who lives life pointing others toward Jesus.
Where can parents/caregivers find someone who models Jesus’ characteristics and is an advocate? Authors Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski agree that the world continues to need Fred Rogers. Their new book, When You Wonder, You’re Learning, notes that qualities demonstrated by Fred Rogers are elements that parents and children desire to see from the world. The writers believe we can learn to do what Fred did.
When You Wonder, You’re Learning isn’t the typical book about Fred Rogers. Over the past few years, his resurgence into modern pop culture has produced a comprehensive biography along with a documentary and biopic starring Tom Hanks. Those materials teach us about the man and delve into his philosophy. This book is different. This book enables us to discover—by listening to children—Rogers’s understanding of life’s purpose. Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, calls it, “the blueprints my husband left us.” According to Behr and Rydzewski, if we follow these blueprints, we can help children grow up to be people who can build stronger, more inclusive communities and a more just and loving world. The authors make this community visible to parents, teachers, and anyone else who cares about children. The main takeaway from the book: It’s all about relationships.
The authors of the book challenge children’s advocates and parents to wonder how to make characteristics like kindness and goodness attractive. They remind us that, as adults, we are not connecting to children the way parents and teachers once did. We can learn, in this time of rapid change, how children learn, what is engaging, relevant, and ultimately what really matters. The subtitle of this book, Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, points out three “keys” found on the journey from childhood to adulthood. The book also addresses both the pandemic and racial justice issues that advocates for children must navigate today.
Human beings, Behr and Rydzewski note, are born creative. Creativity can be defined as generating new ideas. A non-creative behavior is a learned behavior. I wonder where you find creative ideas and implement them into your life as adult. Rogers carved out “free time” daily for devotions, prayer, and, of course, swimming. He used these times during the day to foster creativity. The authors warn us that if we don’t nurture and sustain creativity in children, there will be a growing creative crisis.
This book reminds us of the relevancy of Fred Rogers, but also of the lofty yet attainable acts of kindness we are able to achieve. “Who better to turn to when kindness seems lacking than the kindest person we’ve known?” asks Joanne Rogers in the book’s foreword.
For children, play is a vital part of life that plants seedlings of creativity. Psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer name play as a willingness to explore the possible. They identify four essential ingredients needed to employ that willingness to explore. (1) An adult who inspires, encourages, and joins in children’s play; (2) a dedicated “sacred space” for play; (3) unstructured free time; and (4) simple objects that enrich imagination. Fred Rogers, the authors explain, had plenty of those ingredients.
Can the same thing be said about our churches? Do we have those essential ingredients in our church’s children’s ministries to develop young, creative theological minds? There is power found in play that allows the child to speak to us without saying a word.
“Play is the seed from which creativity sprouts” (64).
A good rule of thumb when working with children is to engage all five senses in every ministry opportunity. There is an element of wondering and inquiring with children in what they see, what they smell, and what they hear in the world around them. Physical movement helps locate faith formation in the life of the child. Children’s reflections, such as “I remember where I was when I…” should be incorporated into the faith formation of children. The engagement of the sense’s piques children’s curiosity.
I wonder where you will find creative ideas from your childhood and implement them into your life as a parent/leader. I also wonder if you have those essential ingredients in your church’s children’s ministries to develop young, creative theological minds?
In When You Wonder, You’re Learning, the authors discuss the importance of creativity in the life of a child. They also stress the importance of play as vital in a child’s development. Creative wondering leads to a life of curiosity.
When we entered the television home of Fred Rogers, we found ourselves in a world where all our senses were engaged. Rogers understood the importance of multiple intelligences as he incorporated different ways to learn. When Rogers was unable to provide an opportunity to engage a sense, such as smell, he always inquired of the viewers if they could imagine the smells involved.
“The more you know, the more you want to know” (27).
Children instinctively are curious, and curiosity engages all the senses. Curiosity is powerful, but it tends to fade as we journey into adulthood. Rogers reminds us to wonder, “Why do you think this happens?” In a world where technology diminishes natural curiosity, Rogers reminds us that learning comes down to asking and answering questions. Behr and Rydzewski remind us that children will ask questions about anything. According to the authors, home, and school (dare I add church?) can sometimes squelch a child’s natural curiosity. In adulthood, the focus shifts to priorities and established curricula, which can eliminate curiosity.
Curiosity is about wondering. Wonder is about discovery and finding our own way to connect to the world around us. Adults are fact-driven, which may negate curiosity. Fear and anxiety also dampen the curious mind. As adults, we are driven by certainty and avoid wondering with the children. The solution Rogers taught us, and the authors remind us, is to slow down and engage in open-ended conversations with the children.
Along with asking questions of children, there is a need for deep listening to the child’s response. Vietnamese poet Thich Nhat Hanh suggests “loving speech are instruments for restoring others and relieving suffering” (75). Deep listening and asking questions creates and engages caring approaches to relationship. Mister Rogers used caring approaches both in and out of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program. Caring for the other includes loving communication, deep listening to one another, and compassion without judgment. Deep listening allows us to reframe the question from “What can I give to children?” to the more important, “What are they bringing to us?” Adults have a wonderful opportunity to learn from what children are noticing, asking, and wondering. The authors of the book remind us to take time to wonder together as adult and child. This connection allows both adults and children to grow in their faith.
The authors of When You Wonder, You’re Learning discuss the importance of curious exploration and wonder in the life of a child. There is power in relationships formed with a child found in deep listening and asking questions. This approach allows for the transformation of the heart when interacting with others. The demonstration of a caring heart is one of the enduring lessons for raising creative, curious, and caring children.
An adult with a caring heart has a vision of kindness and goodness that is celebrated in a healthy relationship with children. A caring culture then is lived out within the family. A life of love is to be lived out by demonstration and not simply verbalized. Love is a cornerstone of our character. A life of love involves working together. Adults with caring hearts recognize the image of God in others.
“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So, in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred” (116).
Throughout the book, we are reminded that love was at the root of all things for Rogers. Learning can be found in love. Conflicts are resolved collaboratively. Relationship and connection with others are human necessities.
For Rogers, “life is meant for service.” Rogers discovered this quote during his college days, but that profound statement shaped his life. He felt that his number one job in life was to be a good person and to be good to other people. Most of us would agree.
“To become loving and caring people, kids first have to know that they’re worthy of love and care themselves” (197).
The instillment of a life of kindness and goodness also denotes authenticity that is essential with faith formation.
Fred Rogers was a parent and a child advocate. He followed his calling into ordained ministry. He learned by learning about children from children. He worked hard at this paradigm shift. When we instill this shift into our homes and churches, we begin to restore a connection that we may have lost. We must be curious about children. We must allow them to be creative with play. We must deeply listen to them. We must talk honestly and lovingly with them. Finally, we must be present with them if we want them to be present with us.
As the authors suggest, our calling inspires us to raise creative, curious, and caring kids. This calling is foundationally shaped with the promises offered in the holy sacrament of baptism.
This wonderful new book reminds us that we need to learn about curiosity from our children. We must allow them to be creative with play and deeply listen to them
At the end of each chapter of When You Wonder, You’re Learning, the authors provide suggestions of implementation. These suggestions provide family activities to grow and learn together.
I wonder what you will learn about your ministry upon reading this book. More important, I wonder what your faith community “might do” with the children and families you serve.
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.