Puppets on a Pencil

Puppets have a magical power over children. We see it all the time, on television, in movies, and in the walking mascots that are, really, nothing more than life-sized puppets with a puppeteer hidden inside them.

The other day, B and her friend C decided to put on a puppet show. They could have used any one of the many puppets we own – and we own quite a few. We have kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and dragons, farm animals, zoo animals, and more. Some of them are gorgeously detailed marionettes (thanks, Mom!), others are plush and soft like a teddy bear, and some are even just eyeballs on a ring. By far the majority of our are inexpensive fabric and yarn creations from Oriental Trading or SmileMakers, or even the dollar store (they sell great kits to make your own boy and girl puppets out of felt at our dollar store).

But  no, none of the puppets we already owned would do, it seemed, and so they made their own.

Puppet on a pencil

They drew quite a few characters on paper and picked the best ones to cut out. Once prepared, the characters were taped to pencils using blue painter’s tape (B’s idea – she said it wouldn’t ruin the pencils that way). Thus prepared, they hid behind the couch and conferred in hushed tones as to what their puppet show was to be about.

Two puppets having a conversation

Finally it was time for the show, which involved quite a bit of pencil-puppet jumping and pencil-puppet waving and rapid-fire talking that was hard to comprehend, garbled by the couch and the fact that they kept talking over each other, but it also involved a lot of giggling and sparkling eyes, especially during the great battle finale.

The Grande Finale of the puppet show

Or maybe it was a dance. It was rather hard to tell.

Puppets hold a universal appeal for kids of all ages. For some reason, it is miraculously easy for a child to suddenly start believing that the puppet on your hand has a life of its own, independent of the person manipulating it. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some truly stellar puppet performances over the years, and it never fails to amaze me how the young audience so quickly becomes completely immersed in the universe being created by the puppeteer. Where it becomes most striking is with the eyeball puppets.

I’ve used purchased eyeball puppets when I taught Kindermusik classes and I’ve made them with kids out of pipe cleaners and googly eyes, and it honestly doesn’t matter if you buy them or build them, the result is the same: your hand becomes a person all its own, complete with a personality. All you do is slip the eyeball puppet over your middle finger and then form your hand into a flattened “O” shape so that your thumb becomes the lower jaw and the rest of your fingers the upper jaw / nose / muzzle of the creature your are imagining. Turn it to face you, start a conversation, and then have the puppet ask you a question. Turn the puppet to face the kids, ask the kids what they think the answer will be or what their answer would be, and just that fast you’ve got a whole new teacher in the room.

The trick is in your eye contact and intensity. If you look directly into the puppets eyes and focus your whole attention on the puppet while it “speaks”, the kids naturally follow your gaze and look at the puppet, too. They forget that it is really you that is talking for the puppet — all they can see is what you see: the puppet. Talking.

You don’t need to be a great performer, use silly voices, or even say anything terribly fascinating. If you use your body language to show the kids that you are absolutely 100% paying attention to the puppet — turn your body towards the puppet, lean in when the puppet speaks, keep your eyes fixed on the eyes of the puppet, and react emotionally to what the puppet says — they will follow your lead. They can’t help it. They’re just wired that way. Kids learn by example, and act by following examples. When presented with such a firm and convincing example, they follow quite naturally.

K’s first grade teacher used puppetry to great effect while teaching literacy skills. They had a simple wolf puppet named Calou in the classroom who would write a letter to the class each morning before they arrived and then read it to them at circle time. Calou was always terribly proud of himself and his emerging literacy skills, and the teacher would gently teach Calou a new concept based on what he had written that day. Some days she would correct his punctuation, some days she would notice that he used a lot of words that rhymed and challenge him to find some more, some days she would point out he had forgotten to tell them about the weather that day and suggest he should add that to his letter. In all cases, she would then have Calou express his discouragement, his feeling of frustration, his conviction that the task at hand was too hard. He would turn to the children and ask them for help. Which they gave, joyfully, day after day, proud of their own ability to help a puppet in need.

Had she asked the children to write similar daily messages before their peers and correct them in that way, she would have wound up with a class full of children who felt they never could please her, that they could never get it right. It would have been a terribly shaming experience. By using a puppet as a vehicle, she allowed them to learn all sorts of things about writing and spelling and grammar, and even more about learning and growing and failing and succeeding and supporting the efforts of others. She taught them a healthy dose of empathy and compassion, and the value of asking for help and generously giving of your own time and knowledge. Something she would never have been able to do as effectively or as globally without Calou. Puppets have a power over children that extends far beyond the ordinary.

Do you have puppets in your home? Do you use them?


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