One of my ‘secret sauce’ ingredients in being an engaged and effective early childhood educator is puppetry. Puppetry allows me to talk through tough topics with the my students, gives me the opportunity to demonstrate how different characters express emotions, offers me the chance to model how two characters can handle a dispute, allows me to ‘think out loud’ which shows children why someone might think differently then themselves, explicitly teach kindness & empathy, gives me the chance to perfect accents, safe space to act silly, and ultimately create a community of learners that honors inclusion and celebrates diversity. That’s a whole lot of reasons to bring puppets into an early childhood setting!
Now I am no performer. I routinely sing off key and certainly would clam up if ever put onto an “America’s Got Talent’ stage. But in front of my little crew at circle time, I take on the role of performer and take it quite seriously. I read books with prosody, sing songs with enthusiasm, groove and dance with delight, and put on some simple yet powerful puppet shows. My captive audience enjoys the show, and they learn that they too can and should let their creative side out to play. Creating a learning environment that honors children and gives them avenues to express themselves in a wide variety of ways gives all children the opportunity to learn and grow.
Children love to imitate the adults in their lives, so as soon as circle time is done, a few children often gravitate to the classroom puppets and put on their own shows. I love to have a puppet stand so children feel invited to put on a show. Children learn how to negotiate with peers so a couple of children are the performers as the other are the audience, and with some support, they learn how to take turns in these roles.
Observing their puppetry play allows me to take notes on their use of language to express their thoughts and their conversational skills with peers. For children who come into my classroom with limited language skills, creating opportunities for parallel play with peers or adults with puppets is a great way to nurture their language skills. Other children who are going through some tough issues or ‘big feelings’ can benefit from puppetry play as well and can give the child a chance to connect with an adult in safe and non-intimidating way.
Because I am a nature-loving teacher I tend to purchase woodland animal puppets for my classroom, but really any kind of puppets will work. I have been surprised to see that sometimes the most popular puppet becomes almost a mascot for the class! Giving children the chance to make their own puppet to take home would also be a great idea (and topic for a future blog post).
Introducing a new puppet that goes along with a beloved book also encourages story retelling and improves comprehension. Offering a few props that go along with a story such as three pig puppets and some of the materials they used to build their homes begins to add layers to the puppetry play and expands the children’s performances.
So if the puppets are collecting dust in your program, pull them out and give them center stage at circle time. Breathe life into the puppets and build both verbal skills and opportunities for social & emotional learning!