The Power of Puppets


There is something utterly ludicrous about a grown adult channeling a puppet. And yet, in the past few years, I have been using three hand puppets in the classroom. One is a light skinned girl with long brown braids. Another is a very dark skinned boy with short dark hair. And the third is a medium skinned boy wearing a baseball cap. Over time, they have taken on a life of their own.

I grabbed these puppets spontaneously one day in a last ditch effort to solve a problem. The conflict at hand involved clean-up time in the classroom. Two boys were trying to carry a heavy box full of blocks over to a corner. Because many kids love challenging, heavy-lifting work, others soon enthusiastically came to join them. The first two boys kept yelling at the others to stay away while they stumbled and careened with the box toward the corner. The others kept trying to “help” and push their way in to grab a corner of this giant box.

I observed this from across the room and saw disaster coming, but I just waited.

“No!” one boy yelled.

“We are doing it ourselves!” He exclaimed heroically. “Let go!”

Before long, the huge, heavy box was being tugged and pulled in a hundred different directions and all the kids were screaming. Seconds later they were all on the ground, impaled by the giant box, and blocks were scattered all around them.

The kids were ok, but indignant.

Once everyone had gathered for morning meeting, I used the three puppets to demonstrate a similar disaster. They were fighting about carrying a small container together, they all fell down, dropped the container and stuff went flying everywhere.

The kids watched intently, gasping and laughing as the puppets performed. Then they offered their impressions of the problem and gave suggestions for ways to avoid this in the future. The original culprits of the box fiasco unselfconsciously gave advice to the puppets as well.

While the class was gleefully but also gravely suggesting a variety of solutions to the puppets, the puppets argued back in the way only a 4 or 5 year old truly can. The kids took on the role of responsible, wise, patient adult as they calmed the puppets down and explained to them kindly that they needed to be safe and fair, and use words instead of bodies to communicate.

I, frankly, was stunned by the mature and clever way the kids were dealing with these difficult puppets. Not to mention the truly sage advice they were giving them.

Over time, these puppets have dealt with all sorts of things. One kept ripping up his drawings because he was frustrated that they didn’t look right. During this show, a little boy shouted: “You’re being way too serious about life!” A little girl who commonly cried when she didn’t like her own drawings matter-of-factly said: “Don’t worry. Just keep trying!”

Another puppet deliberately knocked down a block tower that the other puppets had built because she was pretending to be a tornado. One lost another’s prized button and caused a lot of drama. Several times, two of them excluded the third. One was once afraid to come to school.

We have taken to video taping these puppet shows. They are fascinating to watch. We observe the kids’ responses – their interest in helping these puppets find a solution, while genuinely empathizing with their struggles. Kids who routinely experience their own social challenges confidently rise to the occasion with sage counsel.

Sometimes it is only after the fact, with some distance, that kids can process a difficult conflict. Social stories are useful tools when helping children unpack and reflect on their own experiences, and the use of puppets allows them to disassociate from the issue. It becomes another’s problem, free of shame and emotion, so they can calmly discuss it and advise on it.

There is something about puppets that children are drawn to. They are willing to have suspension of disbelief long enough to become fully engaged in the puppets’ lives. And because the puppets aren’t real kids, it’s possible to have enough distance that things are not personalized. And, there is something inherently silly about puppets that can lighten a heavy situation.

Our puppets have become part of our classroom. On the wall, along with each child’s photo, is a photo of the three puppets. The kids frequently ask for them when sticky situations come up and, I believe they feel empowered by the ability to help them fix things. They like to revisit the puppets’ problems in their own free play and experiment with different outcomes. I have even observed them drawing pictures of them in their free time and making up their own stories about them.

And I, the teacher, have decided to forsake my own dignity for the greater good of the class. The puppets will continue to be an integral part of our group even if it means 3 more kids and a slightly ridiculous-feeling teacher.

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Teaching Mindfulness Part II

meditate child I continued this year to work on teaching mindfulness to my students. This year’s class had different dynamics than the previous year. We had several special needs students and a very inclusive group of children that allowed me to concentrate on our classroom community.

Many of this year’s group seemed to have had some exposure to meditation. When I first mentioned it, they quickly criss-crossed their legs, put their hands palms up on their knees and sat, eyes closed, making little “mmmmm” noises.

“This is meditation,” they told me.

We talked about breath and how it was an important part of meditation. Several kids began exaggeratedly hyper-ventilating. After trying that, they all decided that didn’t feel too calming. I had the kids put their hand on their belly and feel the air rise and fall slowly like a big balloon.

Every morning when we did this little ritual, many kids began to yawn. When kids are running around and not taking deep breaths, they often feel the need to yawn when they finally calm down. Yawning helps to get really deep, slow breaths and calm the nervous system.

As anyone who has worked with young children knows, it is difficult to get them to sit still and be present. This class’ meditation was about listening. Every morning, I would ask them to sit in a “super comfy” position. The whole class would shift around until they felt settled. Then I would ask them to get as still as they could and begin to listen to sounds around them.

In the beginning, they would shout out what they heard but as time went on, they learned to resist that urge and hold on until the end of the meditation. This was an important lesson in impulse control. We would sit together, me with my watch in my hand, for two minutes (it’s helpful for kids to know there is an end in sight and that someone is keeping track of it) and just listen in stillness.

We could hear the classroom fish tank gurgling. We could hear the kids in the classroom next door. We could hear the overhead fans. We could hear shuffling around of other teachers. We could hear cars driving by. The kids sat still and breathed and listened.

At the end of this meditation, I silently held up 10 fingers and counted down. For some kids, the end of the meditation was a relief. For others, it was a disappointment. We always whispered when it was time to share what we heard, just as a way of keeping in the mindset of listening.

This two-minute meditation became an important ritual in our classroom that the kids always reminded me of if I forgot. “We can’t forget our meditation!” They genuinely looked forward to it. It was a way for them to start their day being calm and present. Listening to sounds around them was a way to focus on something outside of themselves while still being very grounded in themselves.

In the end, this meditation felt like it reinforced our classroom community. The kids sat side by side in their little private meditation but all listening to the same world around them. Not only was it powerful as a self-regulation tool, but it was bonding in a way.

People who have meditated in a group know that it’s a vastly different experience than doing it alone. There is something about the group energy. In an early childhood classroom, you feel this too.

As our year progressed and the kids became professional little meditators, they would often turn to one another at the end and want to hear each other’s experiences. “What did you hear?” they would ask the person next to them. “Were you breathing?” This sense of belonging and shared experience may be one of the great benefits of mindfulness.

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Teaching Mindfulness Part I

IMG_1852Mindfulness is a hot topic in education these days. There are scores of research that can now unequivocally demonstrate the actual benefit of mindfulness in children’s ability to be present in learning. There are even organizations cropping up that will come to schools and consult on how to integrate mindfulness into the classroom.

As a longtime yogi and fairly consistent practitioner of meditation, I have been interested in the impact of mindfulness in early education and curious about how it is best approached in a classroom of active young children.

Last year, (see previous blog entries!) I had a challenging group of very physical, very competitive, very domineering boys in my class.   I struggled during our meeting times to get these boys to settle down and give others a chance to talk. The group of them seemed so anxious to be heard, to be first, to be right … it was overwhelming for us all.  There was a certain energy to these boys that seemed off; a quality different from the usual on-the-go 4 year old. They were in a frenzy and unfocused and unsettled.

I asked my yoga teacher one night if she had any experience teaching meditation to kids. It was hard to imagine this group being able to embrace a time of quiet introspection. The yoga teacher suggested I try a “bubble meditation” where each child is given a short time – say 2 minutes – of guided meditation where they imagine themselves in a bubble, alone, with all the things that make themselves feel peaceful and safe and happy.   My job was to guide them through this meditation and then we would discuss after.

When I tried this for the first time, the kids took to it quickly. The particular group of boys kept wanting to shout out what was in their bubble but we established rules of silence until the end of the meditation. I let the kids who were most quiet describe what was in their bubble.   As time went on, the class built up more and more endurance for this practice and they looked forward to it every day.

One particular little boy in the class surprised me. He was an aggressive and competitive kid and was exhausting for teachers to manage. And, yes, he loved the bubble meditation. He requested it on days it wasn’t on our schedule. When he was feeling off, he drew pictures of himself in his bubble.

When it was his turn to share, he explained that he was alone in his bubble and all the bad guys were outside the bubble floating around but couldn’t get in. The class laughed when he described his bubble – they thought he was joking. Most of the other kids had described bubbles full of glitter and nice music and soft clouds.

It occurred to me that mindfulness is sometimes about shutting yourself away from the bad, scary stuff. For a 4 or 5 year old, where fear tends to be such a big theme, this is the first rule of meditation. This little boy felt a sense of refuge, I imagined, when he was in the bubble and the bad guys were on the outside. And this kind of imagery was important for him to settle himself down.

He drew a picture of himself in his bubble one day when he was upset about something. He added some hearts in his bubble and a fantastic drawing of himself in the lotus position. I kept it and sometimes look at it when I want to be reminded of the power of mindfulness.

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Rotten Eggs

teamworkSomeone asked me recently about which classroom projects both foster and challenge community. Challenging the notion of community is just as important as supporting it for kids to learn why it matters. As I thought about it, I realized that really any activity that requires teamwork among kids will typically test the strength of the community.

Last year we were studying the U.S. postal system and the mail process. The class worked on many independent activities that involved writing postcards and mailing letters to parents or friends, learning how to address envelopes, and understanding the steps a letter goes through to get from point A to point B.

One of our group projects was an effort to learn how fragile items were packaged and safely delivered in the mail. We decided to pack and mail a raw egg to ourselves.

The class talked in a full group about the texture and properties of the raw egg and hypothesized about which materials would protect it as it traveled through the postal system.

The class was then divided into four small groups. Each group was given a raw egg, packing peanuts, bubble wrap, paper, tape, boxes, and various other materials for packaging, and sent on their way to pack their egg.

The group I was supervising spent the majority of their time arguing over who was in charge of packing the egg.   I didn’t intervene but it was painfully obvious that this was not going well.   My group of four kids were fighting over who would hold the egg, over how to place the egg in the box, and over what materials to use and how to arrange them.   They were even pulling things out of one another’s hands – each one wanting to take the lead. Each unable to work together or negotiate or problem solve.

I looked over my shoulder at the other two groups.   They were talking through a plan; coming up with a strategy and taking turns with various materials. When there were differences in opinions, they worked through it and came up with resolutions.

My group ended up lobbing the poor egg into the box and all hands shoving in the extra materials. While fighting over the tape, the kids almost taped their own hands to the outside of the box.   When they were done, they passed over a smooshed box with crumpled tape wrapping all around it. They looked at me defeated, as if they knew exactly the fate of this egg.

We gathered again as a group to discuss and reflect on the project – a very powerful way to complete these small group activities. It helps for kids to hear others’ experiences with the same activity and process what they just learned.

I asked them all how it went.

“Great,” said one kid from the other group. “Our egg is not gonna break!” His fellow team members echoed his satisfaction.

The second group enthusiastically said they were the best packagers. “We figured out how to float the egg inside,” this team said.

My group was quiet. Then one kid from my group said: “We were fighting.   ‘X’ wouldn’t let me have the egg!” He was indignant.

‘X’ argued back. “You wouldn’t let me!”

Another from this group, exasperated, said: “Our egg is not good.”

I took the three boxes to the Post Office and mailed them back to the school.   A few days later, they arrived.   We gathered again to open them. I left my group’s package for last.

The first two, we opened with great fanfare.   We pulled off the tape and unwrapped the brown paper and took out the bubble wrap and packing peanuts and all the rest.   The eggs were both intact! The packing teams cheered.

There was a foul smell coming from the third box.   My team looked apprehensive as I pulled off the packaging. As the wrapping unfolded, I thought I was going to vomit. The child sitting next to me actually gagged.   The egg had broken and smeared all over the box.   The kids recoiled at the smell.

“Well,” I said, “looks like this one did not make it.”

The group that packed this now broken, rotten egg sat silently.   I asked what they thought had happened.

“We did a bad job,” one of them said.

I asked what he meant.

“We didn’t pack it right. We were fighting too much.”

It is difficult for such young children to think in abstract terms (ie: if we worked together, the egg packaging would have been more successful), but the concrete examples of the egg and its demise did make them ponder.

Working together is one important aspect of community; a shared goal and shared experience in working toward it. Creating these opportunities for successful and failed projects can be powerful tools in creating a stronger classroom community.

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Everyone Needs a Little Group Therapy

appreciation group hug

We joke in my classroom that anyone is welcome to come join our group therapy sessions at any time. Feeling sad?   Need to vent? Want some support? Come join our morning meeting!  

Part of our daily routine includes a morning meeting where the class comes together as a group and we check in. While it’s predominately a time for literacy, math and curriculum content, it is also an opportunity for social and emotional skill development. We try to leave time for discussion on anything that is on the kids’ minds, which leads to unpredictable, organic, often pretty funny conversations.

Sometimes after we go through attendance, the calendar, the daily schedule, weather, and other news, I just say: “Is anyone having any problems today?” My class this year was particularly expressive and comfortable with such discussions, so this question would incite all hands to go up. The topics would range from everything from being angry at their parents for not letting them bring candy to school to having nightmares to the difficulties of having a younger sibling, to the fact that they were sick and tired of the rain.

One day, a little boy raised his hand during morning meeting:

“I am so tired of having a baby,” he said (referring to his one year old brother). “He hits me and bites me and I can’t do anything about it.”

The other kids in the class comforted him. Some shared their own tragic situations about their own younger siblings.  

He continued: “Last night, I was just sitting in my rocking chair and my baby came over and bit me on the hand for no reason!”

The rest of the class was indignant. They gasped.

“And I got so mad … I didn’t know what to do,” he paused. “I wanted to kill him.”

The class looked at me. I waited for this little boy to continue.

“But I couldn’t because the Elf on the Shelf was there in the room.”

I burst out laughing. – the image of him like a little old man sitting in a rocking chair, and the tiny baby terrorizing him and his helplessness as the Elf on the Shelf looked on while he considered killing his baby brother, was too funny.

The other kids did not think this was funny at all. They continued to express empathy for their friend with the baby brother.

One of them said, “He sounds like a monster baby.”  

We all laughed. The little boy smiled too. His body relaxed a little. The class suggested ways to help; some ludicrous (shoot him like a slingshot across the room) and some more pacifist (go tell your mom), but overall I was struck by the camaraderie and total support of the group.

“Group therapy” is good for everyone. It fosters connections between children as they identify with what another is struggling with. It helps bring perspective to problems that seem overwhelming and isolating to one child. And it ultimately solidifies the bonds of the community; creating trust and intimacy among the group.

The Monster Baby became a legend in our classroom. Every time he came with his mother to pick up his brother from school, it was like Elvis was in the house. Someone would shout that he had arrived and the class would surround him and stare at him while he babbled and smiled sweetly.

“He doesn’t really seem like a monster,” some kid eventually remarked.

 And even his brother had to agree.


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leavesThis past spring when we finally escaped the deep freeze of our long winter, my class had much welcome time exploring outside. This unstructured time was such a welcome and refreshing change from the cramped, stale classroom.

A particularly resourceful, and extremely cute little boy in my class discovered some rocks, sticks, leaves, and other natural materials and he got down to work creating a campfire.

He carefully put each of the rocks around in a symmetrical pattern and added little twigs and grass in the middle and even pretended to roast marshmallows with otherl materials. A child who could easily be described as hyper-active and excessively energetic inside the classroom, he was focused and calm as he worked diligently and deliberately on this project.

After watching him for a while and admiring his hard work, I mentioned to him that the school garden was starting to produce some amazing fruits and vegetables. Knowing how excited he had been to plant the seeds, I asked him if he wanted to check it out with me. He enthusiastically joined me, leaving his campfire behind. We spent a little time picking and eating strawberries and examining the lettuce, and then he went back to his campfire.

Unfortunately, when he returned, someone else had come along and taken all of the campfire materials to make a bug playground – and a pretty amazing one at that. The leaves and twigs of the campfire had been transformed into swings and slides for bugs. The rocks had once methodically encircled the campfire in a careful pattern were being used for a bug climbing structure.

I took a moment to appreciate just how cool this new creation was and marveled at the ingenuity behind it. Then I saw my campfire friend starting to come, full-on with arms swinging to attack the bug playground kid.

I physically put my body in between the kids while the first one protested that the rocks and sticks and leaves were HIS. Then he looked at me, infuriated, pointed his finger and said: “It’s YOUR fault! You made me go look at the garden!”

This was, in fact, true and I felt a horrible pang of guilt. By this time, the bug playground creator was standing in front of his project with his legs spread and his arms out wide.

“I didn’t know if was yours. Don’t’ wreck my bug playground!” he said in a panic.

Boy number one was on the verge of a full-out attack and I had to physically remove him, kicking and screaming, from the playground for fear he would hurt the other kid. He cried and he yelled at me and he protested how unfair this was. And he wept about his campfire. I did not let him go back to it. I let the bug playground continue.

I look back on this now and I am conflicted, as I often am as these problems unexpectedly come up throughout the year. I want to be fair. That is really important to me in the way I teach. And I want to teach fairness –to model it for the kids and let them practice it on their own. But often in the classroom, as in life, it’s just not all that clear. And you’ve got to make an instant decision.

Sometimes when I think back on certain situations, I wish I could either apologize or do it all over. This was one of those times. It’s not that I regret taking this boy to see the garden – he was fascinated by our harvest and I knew it would be enriching for him. I regret that I somehow lost his trust and betrayed him when I handed over his creation to another child.

There is, of course, no easy solution to this kind of thing. You can’t own rocks and sticks from the playground; and when you walk away, someone’s bound to pick them up. And when tempers are escalating too quickly to have a productive discussion, you have to react.

The frustration my first little friend must have felt is still palpable to me. It’s one of the hard things about teaching young children, and one of the ways teachers must keep learning all the time. Sometimes the solutions are not all that clear but experiences like this one help inform the next time it happens.

Maybe next time, the bugs could go camping after they play on the playground?

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Dead Dogs, Goldfish, and Bob Marley

This year in my class, we had a lot of death going on. More than one grandparent passed away, a beloved family dog died, several of our own classroom fish perished, and while studying Jamaica and reggae music, the subject of what happened to Bob Marley came up more than once.

On an annual basis, parents come to me and ask how to handle the issue of death with their children. Many of them are in the midst of grief themselves if a relative has died, and others are baffled by their child’s newfound interest in death. Sometimes it seems out the blue, but it is very common for kids at 4 or 5 years old to become almost obsessively curious about death.

This year, a mom called me in the middle of the day to tell me that the family dog was dying unexpectedly and when her child came home from school, it would be dead. What should she do? she asked me. What should she tell him? Should she let him see the pet to say goodbye? How could she explain this to him?

There are no easy answers when explaining death to kids and it is a personal decision depending on religious beliefs, family dynamics, and the child’s own temperament. It’s helpful to take the child’s lead by seeing what kinds of questions they have before doling out too much information. But it’s complicated regardless.

We often talk about the life cycle in the classroom in the simple context of a seed turning into a flower and then dying. Unfortunately the real world is often more complicated and sometimes kids have to face tragedy and loss in unexpected circumstances. Dogs can get sick and medicine doesn’t help. Accidents can occur. Bob Marley decided not to have treatment for cancer in his toe.

In the classroom this year, one little boy talked frequently about the recent death of his grandfather. The little boy did not seem disturbed when he talked about him but was rather enthralled by the whole experience; almost as if it was something so unbelievable that it was like reading a fairy tale.

“He died and then we buried him in the ground,” he said, wide-eyed. The other kids in the class listened attentively.

“Why?” One asked, looking a little horrified. “Why did they bury him in the ground?”

“It’s a cemetery,” another chimed in. “With big rocks around with names on them. Dead people’s names.”

Looking around the room, it occurred to me that about half the kids had never even heard the word cemetery, never mind contemplated the morbidity of the bodies under those rocks; while the other half had some understanding of the rituals around death.

“My dog died,” the little boy who lost his pet said. “And he looked like this.” The little boy closed his eyes, stuck his tongue out, and hung his head to one side. The class roared with laughter.

When he composed himself from his own laughter, he protested: “It’s not funny! It’s sad. My mom cried.”

A little boy who had been listening said: “My mom’s mom died when she was little. Her name was Mary Anne.” I felt a pang.

Several other kids added their own list of long lost relatives to the list of the dead.

“Is your mom still alive?” (a question I get asked frequently by my class) a little girl asked me. The class waited intently for my answer.

“She is not anymore,” I responded. “But she was really great and we had a lot of fun together.”

“Why did she die?” a little boy asked.

“She had a bad sickness that medicine couldn’t help,” I said.

“But why?” a couple of kids said in unison?

They appeared worried for me. But more importantly, they appeared worried for themselves.

It occurred to me that what kids need most around this whole death issue is reassurance that they are not going to be abandoned. That the primary people in their lives (usually the parents), aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Processing death is complicated at any age and the grief of losing a loved one (pet or person) is one of life’s greatest trials. We just can’t answer the question “why?” But it is important nonetheless for kids to understand that life does not go on forever. It inevitably occurs in their own world.

Developmentally kids see death in an egocentric way (maybe we all do to some degree). They fundamentally want to make sure they are going to be okay. The rest of it is just a mystery.

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