In every group, you encounter children who stand out due to their behavior, their language, or because they are quiet and barely make contact. What’s going on in their little minds? Why do they act as they do, and what exactly do they need from us? To pinpoint these questions, a puppet serves as an excellent pedagogical tool, though it also comes with pitfalls.

The Power of a Puppet: Breaking Through to Children

When I was a preschool teacher, I wanted to penetrate the children’s world using a puppet. It soon became clear that this approach was effective. The puppet provided me with deeper insights not just into what occupied the children, but also how they perceived their world, what happened during conflicts, and their needs. This led to a win-win situation. The children enjoyed all the interactions with my puppet, the ideas it brought each time, and the joy it added to our environment.

For me, the puppet was a source of information. It enabled me to better align my actions with the children’s needs and work with them more effectively.

Credibility

However, success with the puppet didn’t come automatically. I wasn’t a natural talent or a great puppeteer initially, but I became fascinated by how children responded to the puppet. I was determined to understand what the puppet had that I lacked and how I could harness this. After years of experimenting, I realized that it wasn’t about puppetry skills, the puppet’s appearance, or its charm, but rather its credibility as a friend. A puppet can truly work for you, provided you don’t employ it strictly as an educator.

World of Experience

Children easily connect with a puppet because it fits into their world of experience. They see a friend in the puppet, which instantly earns it credibility. This credibility is maintained if you can genuinely make the puppet a friend to the children but lost if it becomes a second version of you, a secondary educator. Once the credibility is gone, the puppet’s role is diminished. Children need friends who understand them, who are there for them, who can make mistakes, and with whom they can have fun.

A puppet, therefore, must be there unconditionally for the child, not criticizing but rather curious about the reasons behind behaviors. Sometimes, your instincts as an educator might differ from those of the puppet. For example, if a child won’t stop yelling, doesn’t want to tidy up, hits another child, or starts throwing sand, you might feel the urge to intervene, whereas the puppet remains curious about the reasons behind these actions.

Pedagogical Tool

Using a puppet means thinking from two roles: that of the puppet and your own. Your actions and those of the puppet are separate. You are not the puppet, and it is not you. The puppet has more freedoms, can make statements you wouldn’t, can choose different approaches, and can play uninhibitedly. This offers additional space and fun, not only for the children but also for you as an educator. The secret lies in the fact that the puppet itself is not pedagogical but forms a different kind of relationship with the children than you do. The puppet gathers information you might not receive, which you can then use to further assist the child’s development.

Children pay more attention to the puppet than to you, so why not leverage this? Have the puppet bring a book or engage in a game. Let it practice letters, colors, sounds, and concepts with the children. They love this. They feel freer around the puppet, participate more actively, share more, are less afraid to make mistakes, and reveal more of themselves.

Enhanced Support

Learning, laughing, playing, experimenting, practicing new skills, and pushing boundaries occur together. This wasn’t only true in my case but also for the teachers, childcare workers, and counselors I’ve trained over the past 15 years. A well-thought-out and developed puppet can positively alter the pedagogical climate without detracting from the content.

The puppet needs to be brought to life and doesn’t require much in terms of puppetry skills. What it does need is the ability to engage—notice if children have visited the barber, wear a new sweater, or look tired and ask if they slept well. Keep responses as simple as possible, alternating between open and closed questions and being content with mere nods.

Brief Encounters

Starting with a puppet need not be difficult. It’s especially important that you practice with the puppet before introducing it to the group. Do this to get a sense of the movements it can make, preferably in front of a mirror. Pay attention to how the puppet appears and try to keep its movements as calm and minimal as possible. Think about its character. Knowing who the puppet is helps when children ask it questions. Also, think of a reason why the puppet is joining the class and keep it in a cabinet, chest, or suitcase until all the children are seated quietly in the circle. Tell the children that you have a new friend who would like to meet them. Then bring out the puppet. The initial introduction should mainly involve simply saying ‘hello’ to each other. After that, the puppet can disappear, only to return for another brief interaction in the circle the next day. These moments with the puppet should last 5-10 minutes and initially focus on exploring and getting to know each other.

Introduction Phase

One of the biggest pitfalls for a novice puppet user is skipping the introduction phase. The puppet appears, announces its name, and almost immediately starts a story or activity. This often does not yield the desired results because children react primarily to the puppet and do not pay attention to the story or activity. In every group where I introduced a puppet for the first time, unrest occurred; children began to fidget, stood up, or even started crying. Did they see that right, is it a puppet? Wow! Is that what the teacher is doing? It’s not real, right? This unrest does not disappear by itself and can grow into an unmanageable situation.

Building in an introduction phase of a few weeks is a good way to address this. When the puppet first comes in, the children do not yet know it, and it does not yet know the children. Start with questions like ‘What’s your name?’, ‘Where do you live?’, ‘Do you have any siblings or a pet?’, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ This is a logical beginning and has the advantage of allowing you to practice operating the puppet.

Look through the eyes of a child, think from its role as a friend, make the puppet credible and recognizable. Don’t let a puppet sit idle on the shelf or in the cabinet, but pick it up and let it do what it’s made for: making contact with children and encouraging them to participate.

Thank you for reading and till the next blog!

Author

Helen Meurs (helenmeurs.com) is a pioneer in the field of Puppet Power, an independent trainer and developer. She offers online courses, is the lead instructor at the vocational training for puppet coaches, and authored the book ‘The Hand Puppet as a Educational Tool’. Subscribe to her newsletter if you want to know more.

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