Puppets Talk, Children Listen
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2013 Issue
By Christie Belfiore
The young faces of the children in a Toronto-area Montessori classroom illuminate as their teacher, Carina Cancelli, brings out the puppets to help enact the lesson of the day. Simple gestures with her hand bring life to the inert puppets, moving their little arms and mouths to animate a topic. Easy to operate, the children too can play with the puppets—bringing them to life and attributing personalities, characteristics, attitudes, and more. The puppet can become anyone or anything he or she wants. A best friend perhaps. Maybe even a sibling, teacher, or pet. It does not really matter because the world children create with puppets is entirely their own, a world without boundaries that they can freely explore. When used in the classroom, these puppets can help boost creativity and stimulate kids’ imaginations, from the preschool age up to early teen years. The innate interactivity draws children in and encourages them to be actively involved in the learning process and share their thoughts and observations.
A puppet is defined as a movable inanimate object or figure that is controlled by strings, rods, or by placing one’s hand inside its body. There are various types from finger puppets to hand puppets, pop-up puppets to paddle puppets, and marionettes to shadow puppets. A very ancient art form believed to have originated 3,000 years ago, puppetry has been practiced among many cultures throughout the history of civilization. The expressiveness and dramatization of puppets have not only entertained people for thousands of years, but have been used to educate and inform. In early Asian society, puppets were described in literature such as the Mahabharata and the Ashokan Edicts, as preachers of religion. In China specifically, shadow theatre—the casting of shadows of puppets onto a wall or screen as the puppeteer narrated a tale—was a popular form of entertainment. In parts of ancient Europe, such as Greece and Italy, puppets dramatized scriptural stories about creation and life. In areas of Africa, puppetry was often incorporated into healing rituals.
Today, puppets can be used to teach an array of secular topics, particularly in the classroom. Pre-school children ranging from ages one to three, can be overly active and easily irritable or cranky. Puppets are perfect for grabbing their attention because they are safe, fun, and a natural progression from educational cartoons they likely watch at home. “My students are very excited when I use puppets. They love watching them and acting out scenarios of everyday life,” explains Cancelli who teaches a busy classroom full of two- and three-year-olds. “Finger puppets, particularly, are the most effective for my children because they have such tiny hands. By putting puppets on their fingers, they are able to transform their fingers into anything they want,” she adds. Puppets are also effective for teaching storytelling and the arts. Cancelli explains enthusiastically that puppets “are amazing as a visual aid for singing and dancing, they help children to be inventive and artistic, and they allow for children’s visions and inspirations to come to life.”
For kindergarten children, puppets are simple and effective tools for delivering information. “Often times, [my students] quote things I have said in lessons, or things their parents have said at home. The puppets allow them to project things that they observe and relate to in their lives,” explains Cancelli. When puppets are incorporated with play-based learning, children retain knowledge more effectively. The puppets then become tools for sharing or retelling what they have learned and observed.
Primary students can benefit from puppets through oral and language skills development. When a puppet speaks, children can listen, identify, and understand different words and phrases emphatically performed by their teacher who stresses proper enunciation and pronunciation. Similarly, the act of speaking out loud is much different than thinking the thoughts in your head. So when children are required to make short presentations or simply answer questions in class, the pressures from their peers or evaluation from their teachers can be intimidating. When puppets are provided however, these shy students can speak via the puppet, shifting the audience’s attention away from them and onto the puppet. With a crutch in their hand, students can gradually grow more confident with public speaking.
Some of the main benefits of puppets for middle school children revolve around the developing a child’s social skills. It is around this age that kids begin communicating among larger settings and partake in social activities without the presence of a teacher. They begin learning how to interact with the different personalities of their peers. When two puppets are animatedly speaking to each other first, it can help break the ice between students and initiate natural conversation. By exploring different communication techniques using puppets, students can apply the same to regular conversations.
Children in latter grades can use puppets in a more profound way. Puppets can help break down barriers and encourage students to discuss very difficult issues such as bullying, abuse, drugs, and cultural and physical differences, to name a few. Many students are very uncomfortable with deeply personal topics and puppets can be used to lighten the mood. Cancelli says puppets “allow kids to express issues or concerns with a ‘mask’ on,” hiding behind the puppets, but still talking about the issues on hand—literally and figuratively. Puppets can empower students and assure them that they can discuss difficult issues without being centred out or put on the spot. Cancelli adds, “Puppets also act as an outlet because students can use them to express things that may pain them, or share things without feeling vulnerable.”
Over the centuries, puppets have remained a powerful form of communication between people. From Asia to Europe, Africa to the Americas, puppetry is a familiar art form that has been predominantly used for telling stories, preaching religious beliefs, and discussing cultural practices, but mainly, sharing knowledge. Puppetry in the classroom can be used in the same way. Beginning as a progression from child-friendly cartoons, such as the Muppets, to an educational tool for sounding out and pronouncing words, their multi-purpose functionality allows children’s minds to create, explore, and flourish. Puppets aid students to speak aloud in a group setting, allowing them to talk about serious and uncomfortable issues. Not only that, puppets are also a wonderful visual aid for children, retaining their attention and encouraging them to participate in class. Children are more willing to learn when they are having fun, and puppets are a gateway to opening up the mind and inviting knowledge in. Kids’ imaginations can run wild, and without knowing it, they are developing essential skills needed for everyday life, just as they did thousands of years ago.