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.