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I can say with certainty that there is no such thing as a pedagogical hand puppet. Whether you take that from me is up to you, but I consider myself an expert. A connoisseur of the hand puppet with all its wonderful possibilities, and a connoisseur of the fields in which there is a need for a pedagogical hand puppet. I therefore hope that you will read my substantiation because this statement does not come out of the blue.

I have been working with hand puppets for almost 30 years, ran a web shop in hand puppets for 15 years and since 2004 I have been training professionals who want to use a hand puppet in their class, group or practice. The hand puppet appears to be rather stuck on assumptions that are not correct and not helping.

As a webshop owner I noticed that the hand puppet were often described as talking puppet, language puppet, tell puppet or educational puppet. That sounds better, the puppet is given a function and something is suggested that you would like to believe. Namely, that having such a puppet stimulates talking, telling and educating. In practice this often leads to disappointments because a hand puppet is just a thing, nothing more and nothing less. You can use that thing to get children to tell it, talk to it, and they could be influenced by it. But that takes more than just having the puppet.

I would like to throw away the assumptions that you are always right with a hand puppet, that children automatically respond nice and well to a hand puppet, and you don’t have to do anything else but walk in with a hand puppet.

I’ve seen that fail quite often, and during my webinars and courses I still hear stories of hand puppet users who were knocked over by children. Who did not know what to do with the children who keep repeating screaming that the puppet is fake (YOU DO THAT! YOU DO THAT!), or who can just prevent the puppet from being pulled apart by two fighting toddlers who both think they have the most right to the puppet. The arrival of the puppet is not always so pleasant, and not seldom it ends up in a box or cupboard within a month and never get out of it again. Teacher thinks it is her fault because it should be very simple and decides on the spot that it is not for her, she is not made for that. Not my cup of tea. You don’t have to be able to do everything, do you?

I agree with the latter, you don’t have to be able to do everything. But what I regret about never picking up the puppet again, is that it wouldn’t have been necessary. You really saw something in it, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t have taken it with you, right? I’m sorry it didn’t turn out the way you hoped.

The puppet as a tool is different from the puppet as a toy and the puppet that plays a puppet show or a role. If you realize that, can look at what a puppet actually is and start thinking from the child’s perspective, you are on the right track.

A puppet as a pedagogical or educational tool is more than just a puppet. He has a number of characteristics. The first is obvious:

The puppet must come to life.

Coming to life consists in part of the technique of playing with the hand puppet. Another part of coming alive is about the content that comes out through the puppet and the way the hand puppet asks its questions. So it is both-and, not either-or. The technique is less important than the content. It is better to have a puppet that has something to say, makes contact, but technically still rattles a bit, than a puppet that is technically perfectly, but has nothing to say and just stares out a bit.

The puppet has to build a relationship.

The second and perhaps most important condition is the basic attitude from which you operate. When you add a hand puppet, two new relationships are actually added: the relationship between the child and the puppet and the relationship between you and the puppet :

You already had a relationship with the child, and what is added is a relationship between the child and the puppet and between you and the puppet. The latter is often forgotten and is often the cause of undesirable behavior by the child towards the puppet (such as hitting, pulling hair, pinching the nose, sitting in the mouth, punching, etc.). Paying attention to your own relationship with the puppet and giving it visible shape makes the hand puppet a better pedagogical tool. It ensures that the hand puppet can actually teach the children how children can, for example, stand up for themselves, set boundaries, how to ask for something and how to tell an adult that they do or do not want something.

Look at the puppet through the eyes of the child.

The third condition has to do with the way in which the hand puppet will address children. Children have a certain expectation of a puppet, and that expectation makes it easy for them to respond to a puppet. For a child, a puppet is a friend, whereby ‘friend’ must meet a number of requirements. If the puppet does not live up to that image, and he is more of a teacher than a friend, children will lose interest in the puppet, and it will soon be over with all the magical possibilities that the puppet has. Actually, very logical because who wants an unequal friendship, a friendship that is not unconditional? Would you like such friends as an adult?

A hand puppet can be magical, can make contact in a way you as an adult cannot, and can support children in their development in a playful and sparkling way. The hand puppet is the most beautiful and versatile tool I know and has greatly enriched my work and my contact with children. I can’t imagine ever entering a class without a puppet, but I also know that it doesn’t happen by itself. Working with a puppet is a skill and an awareness process. It takes practice, it takes enthusiasm, guts, insight and common sense.

Is it not easy for you, and could you use some help? Feel free to send me an email, I’ll be happy to help you.

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.