Playing with Puppets and Children

Here we are, back to school! You’ve likely prepared in many ways to create a comfortable atmosphere for the children new to your classroom. You may already use puppets to bridge the gap into the children’s world and help welcome them. If you don’t, this topic is especially for you.

Working with young children, you are already masters of improvisation. Working with puppets can be a natural extension of what you do every day.

Some of us are natural animators. We can pick up a sock, a stuffed animal, or a piece of cheese and give it a voice and movement. At the other end of the scale are those of us who are intimidated by using puppets in our classrooms or homes. We may feel self-conscious or simply think it is out of our skill range. But, if there’s even a spark of desire to use puppets, it’s worth navigating the process of getting comfortable with using them.

The concepts and practices I’m sharing were developed for a class at San Francisco State University. At the time, I was performing with life-sized woven puppets, including one called Ms. Tree. She was a scary and very unusual looking tree (birds were afraid to nest in her branches).

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I often used Ms. Tree to illustrate making friends with what or who we are afraid of. Getting to know those who appear different from us encourages inclusion. (Of course, for preschoolers on the first day of school, I’d suggest using a friendlier-looking puppet.)

To Begin:

Before engaging in collaborative puppet play with children, let’s prepare ourselves with solo adult play. Start by choosing a puppet that you are attracted to. Your home or classroom likely offers many choices. There are many inexpensive and expressive ones that you can purchase. You can also make one of your own from socks, material scraps, or found/recycled materials.

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I. GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR PUPPET

Before engaging with the children, you will need to get comfortable with your puppet. Start by noticing your own levels of comfort or discomfort as you get ready to play with your puppet. If puppetry is a new tool, you will gain valuable insight into what we ask children to do day after day.

Our own experience deepens our understanding of what children may experience. It’s certainly helped me gain greater compassion for their resilience and willingness for ongoing learning. Our adult play becomes a bridge to the child’s world. An additional benefit of naming and navigating our emotions is that it becomes an avenue of developing the puppets character.

Remember dancing endlessly in front of your adolescent mirror before going out on the dance floor? Practice at home. When most uncomfortable, I think of all the things we ask children to do that they’ve never done before. It also gives me insight into the many ways we can respond to something new. And then I practice until the awkwardness diminishes.

Movement:

There is a range of movement that will be unique to each puppet. Play with it; see what is possible. Does it have a full body that is capable of varied movement you can explore? Or are there only a few parts of the puppet that are moveable? Does it have a mouth that opens when you speak? Or will you have to demonstrate who is talking by some gesture or slight movement when it interacts with another puppet?

Voice:

Explore and find a voice you can sustain without strain. I’ve discovered some varied and interesting voices through trying on different ones, but some chatty puppets cause my voice to strain. You want to enjoy this and create as much ease as possible.

Once you find a voice that fits your vocal range, you can strengthen it by having the puppet become a “tour guide.” Move through your home, having it point out things of interest. You can have it tell stories of where items came from. Using memories or future plans, let your puppet speak aloud. It may seem awkward at first, but it is all part of gaining a certain level of comfort before you leap into working with children.

Developing a Character:

If we are willing to lean into either our discomfort or our sense of fun and curiosity, we will discover everything we need to enliven our puppets.

Feeling shy? Have the puppet move in ways that express this through movement or voice. Would it hide behind you? Whisper to you? Stay inside its shell? I’ve made a family of turtles that I’ve used for years to express both shyness and “sticking your neck out.”

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How would your puppet move if frustrated, angry, sad, insecure or excited? Use the feelings you notice in yourself to give life to the puppet. The feelings we embody are also expressed through behavior we’ve observed from the children themselves. The puppets become relatable to the children when you enliven them in this way.

II. STRETCHING BEYOND YOUR COMFORT LEVEL

Once you are comfortable, you’re ready to have your puppet interact with children. You might want to start with one or two children. It could be your own, your neighbor’s, young relatives or any of the children new to your classroom.

What Makes You Feel Better:
Have the children interview the puppet. In the process you’ll continue to develop its character. You can pretend the puppet is a new student at school. It can be the puppet’s first day as well. Have it express the myriad of feelings a child may have from withdrawal to elation.

With a withdrawn child, you can have the puppet ask for help. “What makes you feel better when feeling shy or uncertain?” The puppet may have to supply the answers, asking whether holding a stuffy, sitting on a lap, drawing a picture or writing a letter home to parents helps. In the process of the interview, you will learn much about what makes that child more comfortable.

When You Were My Age:
Have the children ask something they’d like to know about the puppet when it was their age. There are no incorrect answers. You might want to use your own childhood or those of your children.

Again, you may prefer to have the puppet whisper to you as if shy, and you speak the answers. Empathy develops with the puppet as you express more of how it feels and speaks of childhood events. Expressing vulnerability and transparency through the puppet is a way to create rapport between child and puppet

III. READY, SET, LEAP

Chatting with Puppets:

I often use this exercise for the first day of school and many of the days that follow.

Children will often talk to puppets with more ease and confidence than they might an adult new to their life. They are more open and willing to share their thoughts and feelings. A puppet is a “door” into a child’s world.

The more you practice and play with your puppet and children, the more you’ll learn about it. As you build its character, it takes on a life of its own. At times, I am convinced that I’m simply standing back and watching. I often have to stop myself from laughing aloud at the unplanned antics.

Each of us has a reservoir of creativity within. We also have a storehouse of behaviors that we’ve observed in our children. Some of us will intentionally emulate the children and some of us will intuitively call forth movement, gestures and often the children’s own words.

In the process of playing with puppets and children, you may find great enjoyment, fun and possibly a new passion!

Resource: Jacobs, Elyse. “Puppet Play Explores Feelings and Emotions,” Scholastic Pre-K Today, 1989.

Below are some product recommendations, from Discount School Supply, to get you started:

Excellerations™ Tabletop Puppet Theater

Excellerations™ Standing Puppet Theater

Animal Hand Puppets – Set of 12

Around The World Puppets – Set of 6

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Young Children as Collaborators with Parents and Teachers

I have been reviewing manuscripts written for or with my now-adult daughter from when she was a young child. One is called “Tell Don’t Yell.” In total transparency, twenty years ago, I often expressed myself through yelling when I was frustrated.

People who know me now are amazed that I was ever less than peaceful. Back then, I was less than peaceful, both inside and out. I had to learn how to find the peace I now teach others.

My motivation for change was my beloved 8-year-old daughter’s response to my behavior. “Mom,” she said one day, “Tell don’t yell. When you yell, I feel like you don’t love me anymore.”

Tears spring forth from that memory, which sparked a journey into becoming a more loving parent, a more compassionate teacher and a better person.

“Tell Don’t Yell” was a one of the manuscripts we wrote together. Our collaboration built a bridge between us that my yelling was knocking down. Effective communication between adults and children is something we all desire. Yet, old patterns and habits can be a roadblock.

I can still vividly recall when I attempted to hurry her morning cat-play, so that she’d get to the school bus stop on time. I was sprouting an abundance of words that began to grow louder as my efforts became less effective.

At the exact moment before my amygdala took over and my intellect lost control, my daughter took the cat off her shoulders.

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She stood and looked up at me, her earnest little face illuminated. She spoke aloud her young child wisdom, as if reading a page in our collaboration:

My mother yells too much.

She yells in the kitchen.

She yells in the hall.

I’d be on my way to school right now

If her words weren’t blocking the door.

With that I laughed, hugged my brilliant co-writer and reached for a pen to capture her exact words.

Her words stayed with me until, with consistent motivation and innovation, I learned to tell, not yell.

We all thrive on loving connections. If there is a disconnect between ourselves and our children, we are very capable of initiating a reconnection. While we often feel uncomfortable, ashamed or embarrassed at momentarily “losing it,” we need to forgive ourselves for not being the perfect parents or teachers we’d like to be and move forward. One thing I know to be true: we will always be given another opportunity for more generative communication with our children.

Guidelines for Collaboration:

  • Writing a story or book together is one form of adult/child collaboration.
  • Making up songs together are another way to collaborate. (See June 4, 2013 blog on Spontaneous Song)
  • Improvisation or puppet shows can be extremely fun activities for both adults and children. Here is one activity you can add to your collection of tools.

 Let’s Trade Places (You Can Be Me, I Can Be You)

  • Have the child play the part of the parent or teacher; the adult plays the part of the child.
  • Use a current topic/issue: such as “getting ready for school” for parents; “clean-up time” for teachers.
  • Set the scene: you can have the children determine where it takes place, what has just happened or is about to happen.
  • Allow the children as much responsibility as possible for setting the storyline. With very shy children, they may need prompting. Sometimes, having an extroverted child in a “director’s” role will move the improvisation along. You can also ask for audience suggestions as to “What Happens Next?”
  • In expressing yourselves from each other’s point of view, you come to a better understanding. I’ve had a very accurate mirror of my behavior reflected by children who pretend to be Elyse. Humor is so important when initiating change, reducing conflict or finding creative solutions.

In our collaborative story, Arianna was my teacher. I had daily homework: practicing telling, not yelling. Loving her as I do, I was a very willing and successful student.

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In the years following our collaboration, I’ve dusted that retro chalk dust off my hands and learned to be an effective communicator, especially when frustrated.

Peace in our homes and classrooms begins with us.

Peace,

Elyse

Next Blog: Playing with puppets and children. You’ll receive detailed activities I used in teaching an adult class, Puppetry and Its 500 Hats, at a local university.

YOUNG CHILDREN AS MENTORS

 

“But I don’t knooooow the marriage dance,” the 3 year old lamented, interrupting the ”wedding” in the dramatic play area. “Now I can’t get married!”

The wedding party stood frozen. What would happen next?  I continued to observe as the “groom” stepped forward saying, “It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” He gently took her hand.

She began to follow his lead and soon they were co-creating their dance. The others smiled and went back to work, laying down a paper aisle for the reunited couple.

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Children often naturally mentor each other. We, their teachers and parents, can support and encourage them by noticing.

I witnessed a more-hesitant child focusing on a very skilled classmate. The girl was designing a process for making a stuffy. When the shyer child was asked if he’d like to make one, he shook his head vigorously.

“But I don’t know how,” he qualified. I waited to see if he’d ask or if someone would volunteer to help him. He glanced at the others who were all attending to their own work, but seemed unable to ask for help.

I paused, and then asked the girl, “When you’re finished, would you please teach your friend what you’ve discovered? He’d like to make a stuffy, too.”

She agreed, and with great patience and generosity, mentored him. He was then able to join her in celebration, joyfully parading their stuffies around the room, singing with glee.

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As I was writing this blog, two alumni appeared at the cafe. I asked the siblings if they had ever taught each other. They each nodded. The older brother then demonstrated by placing a green clown nose over his own.  He just happened to be carrying it in his pocket after finishing a week of clowning camp!  I love synchronicity!

From that same deep pocket, he withdrew a pack of cards. He then mentored his sister through clowning tricks he had just mastered.

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GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS:

  • NOTICING:
    • “Catch them doing good” is what I first heard it called, while I was teaching language through the arts in a public elementary school.
    • Call gentle attention to a behavior we value through oral appreciation of what we have observed.

“I noticed that when your friend felt sad because she didn’t know the dance you taught her. Now she, too, knows how.”

  • INCLUSION:
    • Partnering children of different practical or social skill levels encourages scaffolding and greater participation. It contributes to an inclusive environment.
    • When a child asks for help, encourage a child who has mastered that skill to be a teacher. “You were able to figure that out. Can you now teach your friend what you’ve learned?”

As teachers and parents we have ongoing daily opportunities to create a more-peaceful and integrated classroom, family and community.

FOCUS AND CONCENTRATION: Enhanced through the Expressive Arts

Once motivated, a preschooler’s ability to focus and concentrate can expand far beyond our expectations. At times, it is the mastery of the skill itself that attracts a child’s attention. Learning to cut sticky tape at 3 years old can be frustrating, yet the challenge is also exciting. Once the skill of cutting tape is learned, it opens the door to a new world of connecting.

I am often amazed at how a young child can stay focused on the project of his or her choice. My classes are for an hour and a half. During one session, I observed the progress of a 3-year-old girl choosing her materials from the recycling boxes.

Green plastic berry baskets first caught her eye. When there is a limited amount of one item, I usually tell all the children to only take what they need. I suggest starting with one or two.  As we get to know the children, we can discern who might need prompting about “supply and demand” and who has made an intentional choice. In the case of this 3-year-old, I observed her careful selection of four berry baskets and made no comment as I continued to observe.

Her interest moved to segments of cardboard fruit holders. They’d been given to us, just that morning, by a teacher who offered her caterpillar project for expressive arts repurposing. Four blue cardboard ovals were chosen. This child had something in mind. She then chose the color of her tape and scissors with as much attention as she did the other materials.

After carefully cutting pieces of tape, she used them to outline the top of the berry baskets. I noticed that as she progressed from basket to basket, her estimates of the length of the tape that would fit each side of the basket grew more exact.

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She’d stop taping now and then to work on another part of the project. She decorated, also very precisely, the cardboard fruit ovals with sticky jewels (see “Sticky Jewels,” blog; July 5, 2012) and then placed one oval in each basket. Then she’d return to the challenging task at hand, the tape trim for the baskets, with renewed concentration.

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I’ve attempted to teach this concept of “taking a break” from an arduous task and working on another part of the project. This child innately knew what to do.

She continued with her project for 50 minutes. When it was time to return to the classroom, she placed the four baskets, with great care, in a little shopping bag to take home. She looked up, smiled, and joined her classmates at the door.

TEACHER SUGGESTIONS:

Materials:

  • Keep recycled materials fresh.
  • New and interesting items for repurposing can be gathered by the parents and from your own and other classrooms.

EFFECTIVE PROMPTS I’ve used with children:

  • Take what you need and save some for your friends.
  • Start with one or two. After you connect them, come back for more.
  • “No collecting without connecting” began as a necessity because the children filled their pockets with the treasures from Expressive Arts.

ADDITIONAL SUGGESTIONS for teachers:

  • Being able to play with the materials in the room but needing to connect them in order to bring them home becomes the motivation for building with the materials. (See “No Collecting Without Connecting” blog; April 25, 2012)
  • As we get to know the children, we can discern who might need prompting regarding selecting materials and who has made an intentional choice. In the case of this 3 year old, observing her careful selection of four berry baskets, I made no comment.
  • When a child is able to master a skill or has found his/her own way to accomplish a task, we teachers can remember this for later.

I plan to be able to say to this savvy 3-year-old, when a classmate has become frustrated with an extended project, “Remember when you were making the berry basket art and you had four baskets to trim with colored tape? I noticed that you would stop and work on decorating the cardboard ovals with sticky jewels and then go back to taping. I liked how you gave yourself a break from the very hard work of taping. Do you think you could help your friend to learn how to do that with his project?”

  • Peer mentors are often more effective than our own instruction. They may be thinking, “If my classmate can do this, so can I.”

My next blog will be on Young Children as Mentors.

Love,

Elyse

Postscript: Upon seeing these photos, the 3-year-old’s dad said jokingly, “I love that she’s got her bike helmet on while using the scissors. Safety first!”

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