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Puppet Play: Dramatic Benefits for Young Performers
By Rebecca McMahon Giles and Karyn Wellhousen Tunks

Helen, an experienced early childhood educator, is now teaching the children of the students from early in her career. She has seen many trends come and ago and has enthusiastically adapted her teaching philosophy to embrace activities that best meet her students’ needs. Through the years, her classroom has evolved as new technologies and advancements were introduced. One of the changes made however, is being strongly reconsidered. As Helen made space for new computers in her classroom, she eliminated the puppet theatre and related materials. Now, with many English Language Learners in her class, Helen wants to rearrange the space and resurrect the puppet center as a valuable means to building oral language skills.

Children naturally invent stories, create settings, develop characters, and utilize expressive dialogue as they play. An observant bystander can easily see the similarities between children “playing” and performing “a play.” The parallels that exist between children’s pretend play and drama provide the basis for extensive language learning in the early childhood classroom. Reenacting familiar stories or situations promotes early literacy skills as children recreate stories and provide a context for interacting with adults and peers (Soundy, 1993). 

Puppets add a new and exciting element to children’s impromptu or planned performances. Through puppets, children feel empowered to speak and behave on behalf of the character they are portraying. Children can pick up a puppet, begin speaking in a different voice, and quickly adopt the personality of the character they are portraying. (Often this personality is very different from his or her own). Children can also take part in performances in which the teacher acts as narrator, telling the story while pausing for actions and dialogue to be performed by the child’s puppet. The opportunities for fun and learning through puppets are unlimited.

Collecting Puppets
The first step in implementing this activity is to collect a variety of objects that can be used as puppets. Commercial puppets in human and animal forms can be purchased from stores and/or catalogs featuring early childhood materials. Make a point to include people puppets that represent diverse groups, with special attention to the ethnicity of children in the class. People puppets can also be purchased to reflect special needs, such as puppets in wheel chairs or using adaptive equipment. Animal puppets should represent species that are familiar to children in some way such as common pets, animals indigenous to a geographical area, or familiar characters in a favorite book.

Puppet collections can also be supplied inexpensively. Generic hand puppets that can be used to represent characters in familiar stories can be found at discount stores. Minimal accessories, such as a hat or shirt, can increase their versatility and temporarily individualize puppets to suit a specific script. Bath mitts, usually found with the baby items, and character oven mitts, found in the kitchen section, provide economical options for hand puppets.

Finger puppets, which require less storage space and allow children to manipulate multiple characters at one time, are another viable option. Figures for preschoolers are often hollow and can be used as finger puppets. Patterns for paper finger puppets can be attached to empty film canisters with wide, transparent tape (open end at the bottom) for durable finger puppets that also serve as play figures.

Puppets can also be made by parent volunteers, the teacher, or the children. For example, “jiggle eyes” can be glued to the toe of a clean sock to create the most basic sock puppet. A simple puppet such as this can be used to represent Georgie (Double day, 1959) the friendly ghost in Robert Bright’s classic books. Later, colorful spots can be added with permanent markers to create the main character from Trinka Hakes’ Jimmy’s Boa series. Adding accessories is another option for personalizing basic sock puppets.

Attaching a wooden paint stirrer, available free of charge at any hardware or home improvement store, to sturdy paper or felt figures makes a quick and inexpensive stick puppet large enough for small hands to easily hold and move. Children will thoroughly enjoy making their own puppets using a variety of materials. Instructions for many different puppets such as glove, bag, stick, paper plate, cup, or hand puppets can be found on a number of websites. (See Box 1).

Puppet Theaters
Like the teacher in the opening vignette, it is often incorrectly assumed that a puppet theater is necessary for puppet-related activities. Just as the options for puppets are plentiful, so are the alternatives to a purchasing a commercially manufactured puppet theater. Some ideas that require nominal expense, preparation, and clean-up include:
• Turn a table with sturdy legs on one side. Children can sit behind the table top and perform by holding puppets over the edge of the table.
• Hang a blanket between two chairs for children to sit behind.
• Use a suspension curtain rod and curtain across the bottom half of an open doorway.
• Position a tri-fold display board on top of a small table.
• Cut a window into one side of a cardboard appliance box.
• When children become comfortable, eliminate the barrier and have children perform in the open.

Being partially hidden behind a puppet stage helps children overcome the inhibitions of speaking in public and forces performers to enhance their voice projection. Although using puppets benefits all children, it serves two obvious advantages for working with English Language Learners. The first is that the group effort involved in even a simple, impromptu production offers the additional support second language users often need to be successful. Secondly, being concealed (at least partially) minimizes the self-consciousness associated with communicating in a non-native language (Sierra, 1991).

Puppets are a valuable means for promoting oral language skills and confidence in public speaking. Once considered to be a luxury item in early childhood classrooms, affordable puppets in a variety of forms are now available. Basic household objects and commonly found materials can be easily adapted for use as both puppets and puppet theaters. The variety and affordability will result in limitless possibilities when children bring puppets to life.

Sierra, J. (1991). Whole Language and Oral Traditional Literature, or, Pigs, Puppets and Improv. Emergency Librarian, 19(2), 14-15, 17-18.
Soundy, C. S., and Gallagher, P. W. 1993.The Effects of Props on Young Children’s Language Output during Story Retelling. Ohio Reading Teacher, 27 (2), 12-16.

Additional Resources
Although Aunt Annie’s Crafts is a commercial sight selling puppet patterns, the ideas on this sight provides wonderful inspiration for would-be puppet makers. See pictures of Simple stick puppets, animated stick puppets, 2- and 3-finger puppets, cone finger puppets, toilet tube puppets, basic hand puppets, mitt puppets, paper bag puppets, foam head hand puppets, and more!

This site provides instructions for making a moving mouth puppet (complete with pattern) along with a list of puppet building books.

This site provides simple directions for making a scarecrow marionette and inchworm rod/hand puppet.

Print a copy of this pattern for a super simple people puppet courtesy of puppetpatterns.com.