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When working with a puppet, we often think of play and the technique of bringing the puppet to life. But is playing technique the most important thing when using a puppet as a tool? When you want to challenge the children in your group (or the children you work with) to speak, make contact, have more engagement or show different behaviors. Does that puppet need mostly play and technique, or is there more to it?

In this blog, I answer that, and you will discover that the puppet you use as a tool has a different purpose and approach, than the puppet that comes to give a performance.

With the puppet as a tool, the main focus is on encouraging interaction and participation. The puppet is used because children respond more readily to it and are more likely to be enticed by it to join an activity. Children see the puppet as a friend, and we adults use that friend to achieve goals with children. Not in the form of a performance or a puppet, but in the form of a (learning) activity. In it, the power of the puppet is used to allow children to be more present, than they are without a puppet.

The purpose of the puppet is different, as is the way the puppet is played. Would the puppet do the same as the puppet in the puppet show, in the theater or at a performance, you would get the same kind of reactions you see when children sit and watch a show.

For a performance, this is great, but do you find this desirable for the puppet you want to use as a tool?

I don’t, frankly. I do want the conviviality and involvement of children, but I also want peace to be preserved and content and responses to be able to “steer” more. The puppet in the group should not be an act and only works when it does not detract from the content you want to offer. When the puppet gets in the way of that content, it often disappears back into the closet within a very short time and only comes out when a moment comes, when it’s okay to be “a little busier,” a moment when it can perform its “act.

The puppet in the group is a substantially different puppet than the puppet in a performance, let go of that idea because I’m going to contrast it with something else.

Use the power, not the act

When you start looking to what children exactly like about a puppet, it turns out that children quickly perceive a puppet as an equal and friend, which is why they respond to it so easily. They want to help him find answers, they want to help him do something he cannot yet do, they want to let him know that the person he is looking for has just come in and keep his secrets if he asks (and he is just a little more sympathetic than his counterpart). The puppet doesn’t even have to be played very well to get this effect. Technique is something most children don’t care about, even puppets where the voice goes in all directions, and where the synchronized movement of the mouth isn’t great, get away with it. That doesn’t really interest children. Whether he wants to be friends with you and do fun things together is much more important.

The same is true for the puppet in the classroom, and so it means that it is smarter to occupy yourself with establishing a recognizable character and working to connect with children. The puppet should match what children expect from the puppet. They see the puppet as a friend, and they expect certain behavior, a certain sociability and a certain support. If it doesn’t, they don’t like him as a friend, they lose interest and the puppet doesn’t become your dream tool. Pretty understandable, right?

Then how does he become a tool? How can you make him work for you?

In my view, the hand puppet as a tool revolves around 4 pillars:

Plan, play, connect & interact

  1. Plan: Without a solid plan, you are nowhere. Knowing why you’re using the puppet, what you can do with it, what you need and when you’re going to put it in is the beginning of success.
  2. Play: Your puppet needs to come to life to get children’s attention, and for that you need some technique: how does your puppet move? How does he make eye contact? How does he talk? How does he hold something?
  3. Connect: A puppet that does not connect with children and does not make real contact with them, is a puppet that will cause disappointments. Without a connection, the most important added value of the puppet is lost.
  4. Interact: Achieving goals and challenging children is your main reason for using a puppet. Children like that too, providing that the puppet does it from the role they expect of him, otherwise it only works for a short time.

If one of these 4 is missing, then something is going wrong. If I can then choose where I would put the least energy, it would be play – technique. I see in practice that those who achieve the best results with a puppet are not those who can play the best, but are those who know what they want to achieve with a child (children). Those who know exactly how to get children where they want them through the puppet, choose inputs that the child is (likely) to respond to, and how to offer what they want to teach a child most persuasively and attractively through their puppet.

What makes working with a puppet, in my view, so interesting is that the puppet offers you a new perspective and a different way of responding, which you can use to complement your own role. You can switch between your role and that of the puppet and get information from the child from two roles. What that looks like in practice is a great topic for another blog.

Plan, play, connect and interact together form a wheel that keeps turning: with each new activity, conversation, topic, theme, situation or child, the process begins from scratch. The good news in this is that once you have mastered the structure and the wheel has started turning, the effort to keep it spinning becomes less and less. Just as children learn to automate, you learn to automate this process, and it becomes part of your new pattern.

What is it like to think about working with a puppet in this way? Does it become more attractive to you or more unattractive?

With love,

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.