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Please do run your eye over all the age group sections as I’ve put some activities in the younger ages that would work well with much older children too. For example, in the ‘under-fives’ section you’ll find the ‘three way rule’ which I have used with a bunch of teenagers recently as we are never too old to learn from quite basic models sometimes.
A good way to start is with learning to move the puppet well and getting to know its character. Will yours be silly, happy, sad and curious or a mix of these? What is its name? Where does it come from? What does it like to eat? The children or young people you work with will show much delight in being involved in this creative process. All this information will help to decide on character and a voice for your puppet. The best way to build something fantastical is to first believe your puppet is real. By doing this, it will react to any situation like a real person or animal would.
Feel comfortable with working your puppet. Relax and enjoy!
If the puppet turns its head in towards your body, this can express concern
Bob the puppet up, down and side to side to show excitement and happiness
If it has a mouth, keep it slightly open to show a small smile or keep it tight shut to produce a frown
Drop the head to generate sadness or wiggle it to show joy
Puppet eye contact is important as it makes the puppet seem more alive. Remember this when you are creating your puppet. Make sure the eyes form a triangle of focus to keep the audience engaged
Not using eye contact is also very useful. If you ask the puppet something using its name and it looks at the ceiling, it is obviously trying to ignore you
If you want your puppet to have a voice, open the mouth when you speak. Generally, people do the opposite and it does not look effective.
Puppets do not always require a voice. A puppet whispering in your ear or using mime works just as well
Use a mirror to practise these skills
Try not to let the puppet’s body slump when your arm gets tired. A straight, fixed elbow can help with this
Avoid the top jaw from snapping up and down. All movement should come from the lower jaw just like human mouths!
Keep you puppet moving. Fidgeting and scratching can look very life-like
An important part of puppetry is exaggeration. Making expressions bigger than they would be in real life can give great results. Even a quiet and shy puppet can show feelings through bigger movements by slowing them down.
Action songs - row the boat, head, shoulders, knees and toes
Twinkle twinkle and so on work well with puppets doing the actions with you.
Nursery rhymes - puppet style - choose the voice and style and make the puppet tell the nursery rhyme and act it out.
Musical statues - freeze the puppet in a shape or style when the music stops.
Puppet whispers - whisper a silly sentence to the puppeteer and they repeat it through the puppet in the puppet's voice. You have to try not to laugh. If you laugh, the puppeteer wins.
Start a story and then the puppet tells a bit and then you tell a bit more. Try and have a beginning, middle and end. If you can throw in a problem in the middle, it makes the story more exciting. A good way of starting this is to say; ‘let’s…’ and after you have said your sentence, the next person says, ‘and then…’ and you carry on adding ‘and then…’ until it becomes so ridiculous you naturally stop.
Simon says… - Ask the child to do actions when Simon Says. If you don’t start the sentence with Simon Says, (you just say ‘put your hands on your head’) the child has to ignore the action and stay still. If you say Simon Says put your hands on your head, they then do it. For this version, it is the puppet that listens for when Simon Says and the puppet does the action.
Hide the puppet - hide it in a secret place and as they go near it say - "getting warmer, getting very warm, now you're hot, really hot - or getting colder” if they move away from the puppet's hiding place. Celebrate when they find the puppet.
Put a sheet or towel over a couple of chairs to create a puppet theatre and put on a show. You can recreate a story you know (nursery rhyme, traditional tale such as Little Red Riding Hood) a film or TV show or a story from your life (a Christmas gathering, or how mummy and daddy met). Use anything you have around the house for props. We once put on a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk using a toy snake for the beanstalk, a flamingo puppet for the chicken, a ping pong ball for the golden egg and a large teddy bear for the giant. The other puppets used various borrowed hats and tea towels to look the part!
Catching a ball or beanbag with the puppet's mouth or hand. Throwing it back again. If you try to do this balancing on one leg, it really helps with core muscles and balancing skills.
Peekaboo - hide the puppet's face and then peek it out again saying peekaboo. If your puppet is a certain animal or character, use the noise it may make naturally instead of peekaboo.
Use the puppet for a reward. Keep it away somewhere hidden or where the child knows it will be but can’t get it themselves. When I was teaching, I use to keep my special puppet in its own box where it slept in my book cupboard. Only bring it out for special play. If you set your puppet up in this way, make sure that when you do play, you give the child and puppet all your attention. Keep the play session under 30 minutes so you can really enjoy the special time together without getting bored. Keep it for a special adult child reward time. This works really well for the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren too.
Use the puppet for special times such as bedtime story, peeking over the bath at bath time and giving instructions for getting dressed, eating and putting toys away. Make sure the puppet is fun and not telling the child off. It can be a friendly encourager who is on the child's side and wants him/her to do well. If the puppet is a friend, you can encourage the behaviour you want through play and a positive feeling. It also keeps you light-hearted and focused on what you want.
The puppet can be helpful for the bigger life lessons you want your child to learn such as, potty training and preparing for preschool, or school. A great way to do this is the three way rule where:
You make the puppet demonstrate first
Then the child does the action with your and the puppet’s help
Finally the child does the action with the puppet being a cheer leader (a positive way of saying well done and you can do it).
The three way rule works for nearly everything. Sometimes you have to be prepared to run the first two a few times before you move on to letting the child do it themselves, but as your child grows, you’ll find this way of learning gives him or her a sense of security and confidence in gaining new skills. For things such as potty training, emotions can run high and so sometimes let your puppet get it wrong to lighten the mood a little. Pretend to smell your puppet’s bottom and say ‘oh no, that’s not a good smell, have you done a poo?!’ Make the puppet nod and then ask questions such as, ‘oh dear does it feel uncomfortable? Do we need to get fresh pants?’ Ask your child to tell the puppet what to do in future, ‘tell puppet where the poo goes and remind him to tell me when he needs to go.’ It takes the pressure off the child but still gets the message across on how to potty train successfully. You can also act out the puppet getting it right and you being really pleased, to demonstrate how lovely it is when it goes well.
Act out and play games about everyday life with the puppet - play at making dinner, tidying the house, looking after the children, grown-up jobs, doing the garden, going to school, going to the dentist - everyday things that help the younger child reflect on what happens in life. Their input will help you check that they are okay and happy in their day to day life. Let them take the lead and tell you what to do in the play. (I can add in the story telling notes about letting the children lead).
Five to ten years
(although these activities can be adapted for older and younger children)
Who Am I? Ask the puppet questions and all they can do is nod yes or shake their head no. Find out who they are pretending to be (a pop star, type of animal, famous person, family member) Restrict the number of questions if it is going on too long.
Make the other person laugh with the puppet. Try not to laugh as the puppet acts in a silly way or makes silly noises. Be kind to your child though and be open-hearted to laugh if it’s a bit silly, even if it’s not making you truly burst with laughter. The last thing you want to do is make your child lose confidence by not finding them at all funny!
Get the puppet to answer questions about what they do and do not like – ‘Do you like sausages? What's your favourite colour? What do you like doing at home? Have you been to the cinema before?’ It's a good way to build up puppet character and make your child think about what other people have in their heads and hearts.
Play fortunately/unfortunately. You say a sentence beginning with fortunately and then the puppet carries on the story beginning unfortunately. You then make the next sentence start with fortunately and so on.
Mine - without talking, make the puppet move in ways that show an activity. For example, mime brushing hair, eating a banana, playing the piano, doing a job.
Mirror work - play with the puppet in front of a mirror. It helps the child see how their puppet skills are coming along and can be fun. Let the puppet see itself for the first time and look astonished, or confused (looking behind the mirror like a puppy or kitten would) Help your child make up actions that suggest the puppet is looking at itself. It can be really funny!
The telephone - get the puppet to pretend to answer the phone and you have to guess who she/he is talking to.
Have a bag full of different objects the puppet can use. The puppeteer takes out an object and uses it to play act with the puppet - eg - a ball, a phone, other toys, Lego, plastic bowls, a book and so on.
Make costumes and accessories for your puppet - scarf, bag, shoes, hair accessories, and hats.
Perform favourite songs, films and plays with your puppets and then show them to your friends and family. Filming them can be fun too.
If you are using puppets with a group of children, you can encourage them to create a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ style show. Ask them to create a performance to be judged by other puppeteers (the judges also have to plan their part including jokes, tantrums and so on). You could offer a small prize for the winner group and of course those that took part.
If you are waiting for something, such as an appointment, or you have some spare time to fill, bring your puppet along for some entertainment. Tell your child/children that you have some challenges for them to try. Most children really enjoy this. You can make up your own or use some of the ones I suggest below:
Pick up the puppet as if it is really heavy and move it around
Make your puppet dance while the puppeteer sings a favourite song (quietly if you are in public!)
Make the puppet say ‘hello’ in a silly voice and then do a silly dance
Make the puppet pull a silly face by moving your fingers around. Try to copy it on your face
Make the puppet act out a story by playing all the characters
Pretend the puppet is bring naughty by trying to nibble on your fingers or ears
Make the puppet rub your tummy as you pat your head with your other hand
Make the puppet draw an imaginary number 9 in the air as you draw an imaginary number 6 with your foot
Ask the puppet maths sums and see if he or she can get the answers right
Ask the puppet to say a sentence linked to where you are while the puppeteer tries to keep his or her mouth closed (smiling helps)
Use your puppet to ask the questions below, or ask your child’s puppet to answer them. It can be helpful to discuss their answers:
1) If your friend is sitting alone in the playground at break and looking sad, what can you do?
2) Name three things that are healthy to eat.
3) Why do we have rules?
4) What is a word that means working together?
5) How do you feel when you try something new?
5) If you are worried about something, who can you talk to?
6) Say something you like about your teacher.
7) Choose a friend to think about and tell us something they do well.
8) What could you do to show your family that you love them?
9) Why is it important to look at someone when we say sorry?
10) What is your favourite thing to do that cheers you up?
Involve your puppet with reading practice. Say how the puppet loves to listen to a good story and encourage the child to read to the puppet. Alternatively, ask your child to read through the puppet, using his or her voice. When the puppet doesn’t know a word or makes a mistake, address the puppet with the correction not your child. It takes the pressure off when some children don’t like getting it wrong. Ask the puppet to follow the words as the child reads with his or her finger or hand, or when you are reading to the child. Ask the puppet to jump in every time they see a certain word, or book character appear. It really helps with the child’s understanding of how the words work together. Any other suggestions your child’s teacher has to make reading fun can usually be helped by a puppet.
Use your puppet to encourage physical activities. Our children are not developing strong core muscles in some cases and so stretching, balancing and zooming around really helps with this. Use the puppet to set challenges by timing activities, using the puppet to make it a game. Tell the child that the puppet can’t run fast, or stretch up to reach something, or balance on a log, or dance without help. As a friend, please can the child do the activity with the puppet to help them? Make sure the child is safe first. For example, a running child with a puppet on his or her hand may not be able to put the hand down if they fall. Strap the puppet to their back, or just hold the puppet in this case. Try and be like the puppet, if the puppet is an animal. There are plenty of typical animal poses and actions to try. Even yoga has a down dog and an up dog for that matter.
Eleven and Up
Create a scene of two old people puppets talking about their lives on a park bench.
Three photographs - tell a story by showing three frozen pictures as if a photograph has been taken. For example - sunbathing in the garden, friend creeps up with bucket of cold water - throws water over puppet. Puppet sitting on a chair, friend makes them jump, puppet falls off chair.
Act out your favourite TV programme using your puppet(s). Try and copy the style of the show and make your puppet act and talk just like the characters. If you can, film it.
Create short films or memes of your puppet doing everyday day tasks but in a funny way. Make them short and if you can, put them on social media.
Tell the puppeteer and puppet three sentences. One is a lie and two are true. They have to guess which the lie is. Swap and let the puppet tell you their sentences.
Puppet talk – have a conversation about sensitive things through your puppet. Listen to the puppet’s opinion on a given theme such as those included in the acceptable or unacceptable quiz for teenagers I’ve included here:
Read the following statements, is it acceptable or unacceptable? Give the statement a score from 0-10, 0 is unacceptable and 10 is acceptable. Discuss why.
A CLASS OF YEAR 8 STUDENTS LAUGH AND MAKES NOISES WHEN A STUDENT IS SICK IN CLASS
A GIRL SENDS A PICTURE OF HERSELF TO HER BOYFRIEND
A STUDENT POSTS OFFENSIVE MESSAGES ABOUT A TEACHER ONLINE
A 15 YEAR OLD BOY GOES TO THE LIBRARY EVERY LUNCHTIME
A 14 YEAR OLD GIRL SEES AN OLDER STUDENT BEING BULLIED AT LUNCH TIME. SHE WALKS AWAY WITHOUT DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT
A 16 YEAR OLD CHEATS ON THEIR GCSE MATHS EXAM
A YEAR 10 STUDENT SHOUTS BACK AT A TEACHER
A TEENAGER TAKES A MASSIVE RISK KNOWING THAT THEY ARE DOING SO
A BOY GOES OUT WITH A GIRL HE KNOWS HIS BEST FRIEND REALLY LIKES
A GIRL LIES REGULARLY TO HER PARENTS
A BOY LIES REGULARLY TO HIS FRIENDS
A YOUNG PERSON BLAMES EVERYONE AROUND THEM FOR THINGS GOING WRONG IN THEIR LIFE
In a lot of my work with teenagers, we give them scenarios to think about and then try to encourage them to make informed choices. This is especially true for those times when adults may not be available to give advice. I encourage young people to research drug and sex education facts, to understand why people may bully, or be unkind. To understand why we may decide to take risks or make decisions that don’t always have our own well being at heart. Something that seems to help young people is to consider these three sentences when they come to a fork in the road of decision making. They are:
How do I feel?
Who am I with?
Where am I?
If a person thinks of these three questions, they are more likely to make a decision that suits their personality, knowledge of the facts and the situation they are in. Regrets often come from making decisions when we are out of sorts or feel pressured into an uncomfortable situation. A moment to stop and think can help with this. You can encourage this way of thinking through your puppet. Using humour by creating scenarios for your puppet and asking the young person to highlight consequences and ways to overcome them, can be a light hearted way to discuss these issues. The puppet steps into someone else’s shoes to highlight an issue so that when the young person is in a similar situation in real life, they can remember the puppet talk and then have insight into the solution for them. If someone feels they can cope with what happens in life and they feel worthwhile on the whole, they are more likely to make good decisions.
Ask a group of young people to put on a puppet play for younger children (even if it’s just in the family) give them a play title, or use the time of year for the theme ( a festival or cultural reference). Some examples of titles could be: The Secret, The Lost Forest, He never said sorry, Why Me? The girl with no name. In the dead of night. Sometimes having a problem to solve can result in a great play. For example - how to help someone who is being bullied, or what do to with friendship problems, or how to deal with stress. Sometimes the play can work with other family members such as grandparents and cousins.
Monologues. Encourage your young person to step into the shoes of someone else (great to express empathy) and create a monologue for the puppet - a story of its life, or something it dreams of doing, or a scenario it found itself in and how it overcame it. If they don't want to act it out with the puppet, they could write it down or record it.
Ask the puppet three lovely things about the puppeteer and three things they would like to change. Ask the puppet how they can change these things and when. If they can’t be changed, ask the puppet how the puppeteer can live with it in a positive way. Sometimes talking about these things through a third party makes it easier to do as the focus is on the puppet not the person. You can ask the puppet how the same questions about you - what does the puppeteer like about you and what would he/she like to change. If it can’t be changed, how can the puppeteer accept it? You could try this for friendship issues, school work plans and so on. Be kind and gentle and allow the young person time to come up with their own ideas. If it doesn't sound like it could work, ask more questions to help the young person see that. If they want to try something new, try and be supportive and positive.
Use two puppets to mediate a problem. I often use my monster puppets for this activity as they bring humour to the situation by pulling interesting facial expressions and bobbing around when they speak. Focus on the two puppets and not the puppeteers. Use the puppets to take it in turns to discuss the problem. The aim is to listen carefully to what the puppet says and to reply calmly with respect. This format works well:
Toss a coin to decide who goes first and then take it in turns to say what the problem is from their perspective. Try not to use blaming language such as, ‘You never listen to me!’ Instead you could say, ‘I feel as if you are not listening to me when we discuss plans.’
Come up with suggestions to solve the problem and discuss the feelings behind these suggestions.
Agree on an action plan to move things forward. You may also want to plan another puppet session into the action plan.
If there is a stalemate at any time, asking the puppet how they feel can move things along. Also a third person listening in can be helpful as long as they stay neutral to the situation being discussed. The third person’s job is to repeat what each puppet says to make sure the understanding is clear. They can also remind the puppets to keep calm and respectful.
One thing to add is that the act of making puppets can give you space to discuss all sorts of relevant subjects with your child or young person. When they are being creative, talk about friendship, issues in the world, their thoughts and opinions on subjects that interest them. I was puppet making with a group of trainee teachers recently and the discussion concerning world events was fascinating and heart-warming. Being creative can give you space to talk.
Finally, this short activity is for all ages of puppeteers and puppets - have a treat such as a chunk of chocolate or a sweet or something healthier! Ask the puppet to tell you why the puppeteer should have the treat. Then ask the puppet why you should also get a treat. Enjoy the treat!