One of TV’s longest running children’s show is teeming with puppets. “Sesame Street” is an award-winning educational program and puppets are a key factor in its success. Children connect with and feel comfortable engaging with puppets and when a puppet talks children pay attention.
Puppets open a gateway to a child’s imagination allowing them to create, explore and flourish. Breathing life and fun into classroom learning, puppet play is a powerful teaching tool in early education settings.
Just like music, puppetry is a universal language. It is an ancient visual art with a history extending back 3,000 years. The appeal of puppets extends to all ages and cultures including people who are not literate or who do not understand spoken language. Puppets are entertainers, storytellers, and sharers of knowledge.
The simplicity and versatility of puppets is what makes them an ideal educator’s assistant. With some simple tips on puppetry basics, educators can use puppet play to hold the attention of children, teaching and encouraging them to participate in learning experiences.
Children are more open to learning when they are having fun, and a puppet show offers an entertaining approach to introducing new concepts to children. Puppets can act as role models for behaviour and emotional regulation, and they can boost communication skills through structured and playful teacher-led opportunities.
In child-led puppet play, barriers of shyness can be broken down. Children will often communicate more and with added confidence when talking to a puppet and imaginations run free as characters and stories unfold through dramatic play with a puppet.
Puppets offer children an opportunity for role-playing that allows them to explore new personalities, and ideas and develop their imagination.
The benefits of using puppets in early education include:
Puppets can increase children’s communication and social skills by providing structured opportunities to interact. Children can also practice these skills by using puppets to interact with other children.
Puppets can support children emotionally by giving them a “friend” to talk to, or a way to talk to other children without having to speak directly.
Confidence in reading and speaking
Children who are reluctant to speak or read out loud may be more willing to talk or read to a puppet.
Puppets can make music and creative movement more interesting and can teach children the words and movements to new songs.
Manipulating puppets can be a positive way to encourage movement and to practice gross and fine motor control.
Children can learn appropriate behaviours by watching the puppet’s example, or the puppet can introduce and explain class rules.
Children can use puppets to come up with stories, scenarios, and creative ways to solve problems.
A puppet can be a good tool to capture the attention of young children in large-group and small-group settings, especially if the adult gives the puppet an engaging “personality.”
Promoting dramatic play
Puppets can be easy-to-manipulate characters in a variety of dramatic play themes and stories.
How to use puppets in the classroom
Puppet play can be teacher-led or child-led. The teacher can introduce a special hand puppet to the classroom to assist with lessons; this could be by modelling behaviour or for transitions such as a friendly puppet called Cleaning Koala or for language lessons using a teacher’s assistant puppet called Lady Letterbug.
When using a puppet be sure to consider and establish its character – for example, is it shy, loud or cheeky and remember to maintain its voice or accent. You don’t have to be a ventriloquist but if your puppet has a mouth, it’s important to mimic the correct action of a puppet talking. Watch “Bringing you puppet to life” for some basic techniques.
As well as preparing yourself, prepare the children:
- Give the children time to enter the realm of make-believe. Ask, “Do you want to meet a new friend?”
- Ensure the children are looking at you and the puppet. Control this through your tone of voice and actions. The puppet should maintain eye contact with the children.
- Address the puppet and make sure it responds to you. It does not have to speak, but it understands everything that is said in the classroom. The puppet can whisper in your ear and you can mediate the interaction. Children accept this quite naturally and are willing to speak to the puppet.
Children of all ages can enjoy using or engaging with puppets in early education settings. Professor Jill Stamm, author of the book, Boosting Brain Power, writes that, "Puppets have enduring appeal. While infants are developing their visual systems, older babies and toddlers are developing their language centres, and toddlers and preschoolers are developing emotional regulation, their brains are tuned to learn important skills from a caregiver's knowledgeable use of puppets.”
Here are Professor Stamm’s tips on using puppets with young children:
Choose brightly coloured puppets that have a distinct and visible mouth area. Talk using slow, high-pitched, and clearly enunciated words to help keep children's attention. You can reengage infants by moving the puppet as he or she tries to track it.
Colourful puppets are excellent language starters for young children. Try to engage children in conversations with the puppets. Silly, fun physical contact from the puppets (touches, gentle tickles, and kisses) tends to delight young toddlers. As they begin to show more interest, encourage young toddlers to touch and hold the puppets for themselves.
Older toddlers and preschoolers
An older toddler or preschooler will often feel emotional connectedness with a puppets and may confide in them, they can also use puppets to help act out new ideas, tasks they're learning, or emotions they want to express. Giving children the opportunity to use the puppets themselves helps them feel in control.
Creating puppet magic
Puppet making is a fun activity for early learners and the wonderful thing is they don’t have to be store-bought. A sock with button eyes, a brown paper bag or a stick creation can make a fun and simple puppet with the potential to promote a myriad of developmental benefits.
Finger puppets can be created from old rubber gloves, using markers or recycled bits to create features and character. You can also pick up inexpensive baby bath mitts featuring a range of friendly animal faces.
A puppet theatre can be constructed using a box, a splash of paint, glue and creative flourishes. Or simply use a curtain rod and a hanging curtain secured safely between two chairs, allowing children to sit behind and perform by holding puppets above the curtain rod.
Learning through play is fundamental to a young child's education, helping them develop the necessary skills in life. Puppets can stimulate children's imagination, encourage creative play and discovery and are a wonderful interactive way to encourage language and development.
References and further reading:
Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group: Using puppets with early years and primary children
Early Childhood News: Puppet Play: Dramatic Benefits for Young Performers
The Conversation: Talking through play: 3 ways puppets can help your child open up