Connections between children and puppets can be extremely powerful, says Simon Hart, Artistic Director of Puppet Animation Scotland. They provide a supportive context within which a child can safely explore their own agency and self-awareness.
“Things have a life of their own, it’s simply a matter of waking their souls”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Puppetry is a subversive art form. Its essence is the animation of inert objects with life, intention and emotion. As children we have all adeptly created such narratives with the most unprepossessing of means – we played. As sophisticated cultures throughout the world over the past millennia have showed us, puppetry has liberated adults to do the same – to create alternative, fantastic worlds of the imagination, to articulate sense and meaning of our experience safely, to allow the anarchic free rein.
Puppets have no agenda. Although all but the youngest children understand intellectually that in order to come to life successfully, puppets need to be physically controlled and manipulated by either themselves or another person’s actions, their imaginations – steeped in worlds of play and make-believe – enable them to suspend disbelief effortlessly and engage meaningfully with the puppet as an equal, as friend, a character in a story, or as confidante. So often, such connections between children and puppets are extremely powerful and potent. They provide a supportive context within which a child can safely explore their own agency and self-awareness.
One of the projects we are most passionate about is our puppetry and emotional resilience project. In this programme, experienced professional puppeteers instruct nursery and primary 1 class-teachers how to bring to life and manipulate bespoke mouse hand-puppets made specifically for each participant. When a teacher feels confident and ready, their mouse joins their class and is utilised as a powerful catalyst to stimulate discussion, interaction and problem-solving – either with all the children, in small groups or individual settings – whatever is most appropriate for the educational needs and objectives of the pupils.
The mice puppets tend to find school life a bit of a challenge. As a result, they consistently ask the children around them for assistance and advice, for example, with the correct writing of capital letters. Pupils are all too happy to help!
Through this interactive process the children continue to practice their own abilities and, by becoming the mouse’s teacher, implicitly reinforce a self-belief that they have confidently and successfully mastered new skills, educational information and concepts. The puppets also provide a dynamic stimulus for more general class discussions about personal attitudes and behaviour when, for example, a mouse comes to school with a bandage on his tail after fighting with a friend over a scooter.
Nursery school staff find that children are significantly more enthusiastic to talk to and interact with the mice than with adults. As a result, they are used effectively in larger groups to encourage children to speak more confidently in front of their peers, as well as in small, focused groups where children have more rudimentary spoken-language skills and as a result usually lack self-confidence.
The mice are also a powerful tool of engagement with pupils in one-to-one settings. Their immediacy and lack of agenda often inspire children to share profound and hitherto hidden thoughts and feelings about challenging domestic situations. The mouse listens and, with the teacher channelling support and advice through it, children begin to develop better understanding of their circumstances and, in time, greater emotional resilience.
Teachers comment that such interactions provide them much greater insights about a pupil’s emotional and mental state than a more “normal” conversation. As a result, they can then promptly instigate effective interventions if required, helping the child to develop useful coping strategies with issues before negative, destructive patterns of behaviour, so often the expression of long-term disengagement and damage, are embedded.
Puppets have great catalytic power, as the following example vividly shows. The year before we started our initial pilot, two new boys attended a nursery, joining separate classes. Both came from particularly chaotic and challenging family backgrounds. Throughout this first period of their school careers neither boy was seen or heard to speak to anyone else in school, either child or adult. Both boys were assessed by behavioural psychologists. Relevant social workers were contacted. Staff had significant concerns that neither boy would be able even to begin to negotiate the demands of their upcoming primary 1 year with any success.
Once the teachers completed their puppetry training through the first weeks of the new school year, their mice joined the two primary one classes. In the children’s general excitement and hubbub at the appearance of these charming and loveable puppets it took each teacher some time to realise that along with the rest of the class, each boy was talking freely and animatedly to the mouse in front of them.
In both teachers’ opinions – as a direct result of this interaction with the puppets – each boy started slowly and regularly to talk with his peers. In time they also began to engage usefully with the adults around them in school. Previously withdrawn and occasionally aggressive and without restraint, the behaviour of both boys improved significantly, and their educational attainment showed steady, consistent progress.
This blog was written as part of Starcatchers’ campaign Making My Mark, a celebration of the role that arts and creative experiences can play in helping our youngest citizens learn about their rights.