South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

The Fred Rogers Company finds a new home on South Side

Introduces new a new, fun learning game


The Fred Rogers Company not only has a new, fun program to spur learning and literacy -- WORD PLAY -- but a new neighborhood: South Side.

On June 3, the non-profit company begun by the late children’s television icon Fred Rogers in 1971 as Family Communications, and that produced his Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood show for decades for PBS, moved to Birmingham Towers on Wharton St. in the South Side Flats.

The 6,000-square-feet space is twice the size of the space it inhabited in the WQED building in Oakland for 40 years.

“We were in three different places in the building. We were running out of space, and they could not give us the space we needed.

“We thought if we moved we could get contiguous space to meet our needs,” chief operating officer Kevin Morrison said.

The new location includes two edit suites, a large conference room, new kitchen, storage area, and more.

Birmingham Towers was originally a warehouse for the Gimbels department store. In the late 1980s it was converted into an office building.

It was recently taken over by new ownership who wanted to upgrade and attract more tenants -- to the benefit of the Fred Rogers Company and its 18 in-house employees.

“The landlord said, ‘tell us what you want and we’ll do it for you.’

“It was nice to take a clean piece of paper and draw our ideal requirements. You can start fresh,” Mr. Morrison said.

The past summer was also memorable for the company for its expanded launching of WORD PLAY posters in 23 transit shelters throughout the city, and on Port Authority light rail cars.

In WORD PLAY, child-friendly public art provides images and words designed to serve as starting points for children and parents for having fun with words, sharing observations, comparing and contrasting pictures, and making up stories about them.

The program was developed by Margy Whitmer, a producer at the Fred Rogers Company, in collaboration with reading specialists at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It is about literacy, and about establishing better communication between adults and kids.

“The point is to play with words and talk to the child while waiting for a bus. Studies show the more you talk to a child, the more vocabulary they will have, making them better readers and better for kindergarten.

“Being able to read opens the door to a lot of things,” Ms. Whitmer said.

It also reflects the philosophy of Fred Rogers, who said, “Learning about language and sounds begins long before kindergarten -- when we talk with children, when we tell them the word names for things around us, when we read books to them, we’re building a sturdy foundation for children who will go off to school wanting to learn...about reading and anything else in this world.”

In South Pittsburgh, WORD PLAY posters can be found at bus shelters at Carson and 22nd streets, and at 18th and Mt. Oliver streets. They are also in all of the Carnegie Library branches, and in some childcare facilities.

The August poster’s theme was Summer Fun, and featured images of objects and activities associated with summertime, like sunglasses, goggles, strawberries, sandcastle, and watermelon.

September’s theme is an Outer Space Adventure, with space for the child to stand as if in an astronaut suit.

October will feature a Cityscape theme, with images of mailboxes, one-way signs, bridges, incline, and more.

Originally funded by the Sprout Fund, WORD PLAY was piloted last summer in seven shelters primarily in the city’s East End.

Additional funding to continue the project this year was provided by The Grable Foundation and the James F. McCandless Charitable Trust.

Mr. Morrison said the Fred Rogers Company is behind other notable productions of the past few years, like a video-based training program to help law enforcement officials increase their effectiveness and safety by building trust with youngsters. It piloted in Pittsburgh before going national.

The company’s new, co-produced, animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a hit for PBS, with just under 40 million people streaming it last month.

In the fall, PBS will premiere the PEG + CAT mathematics show for ages 4 to 6, with the Fred Rogers Company a creative partner.

Mr. Morrison said the company’s South Side site provides an added bonus as Schell Games, with whom the company has partnered for years -- including for games based on the Daniel Tiger character -- is a block away on East Carson St.

“We can walk there,” he said.

(For more on WORD PLAY, visit:


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