No Strings Attached: Supporting Social and Emotional Learning With Puppets
Puppets help early childhood teachers encourage deeper relationships and bolster their learners’ confidence and communication skills.
I firmly believe in the power of the puppet to foster relationships, build connections with all students, and develop a community of learners that’s respectful and views diversity as a resource in the classroom. For those educators hesitant about using puppets, fear not—you don’t need the skills of a professional puppeteer. Puppets can be utilized in early childhood and elementary school settings for social and emotional learning.
Use Puppets as a Tool to Give Voice
The appeal of the puppet can motivate students, including those who are shy or hesitant, to engage in general classroom conversations or subject-specific topics such as science and conservation. The puppet can act as a role model and give children practice speaking in front of a group. It also offers protection, a buffer between children and their classmates.
Children are far more comfortable sharing their ideas with a puppet and may be excited about answering the puppet’s questions—seeing it as a friend or a peer. This relationship contrasts with the dominant position of the teacher, taking away or minimizing possible fears about getting the answer wrong.
The selection of the puppet is therefore very important. Pick a puppet that will be attractive to your students, their interests, and you. Your relationship with and handling of the puppet maintain its magic, so be sure that only you animate the puppet and that it occupies a special place in the classroom (i.e., don’t throw it in a drawer).
Build a Pathway to Relationships
Puppets also enhance the quality of the relationships between teachers and students. I have found that children are more willing to engage with me and to trust me because they associate me with the puppet. The puppet also evokes my sense of playfulness and fun—changing the expected behavior of a teacher and disrupting the power relationships that are inherently part of schooling—intended or otherwise.
The puppet liberates us from our roles and creates an alternative space for connecting with our students—a space that allows for greater freedom in our interactions because the puppet acts as an intermediary. Children can also talk to their teacher through the puppet, which encourages them to participate in class conversations and during play.
For a child with mutism, a puppet may provide them an alternative voice to share their ideas or respond to questions. I have lovely memories of one of my students whispering in the ear of a puppet and nodding and shaking his head to say yes and no.
Speak Children’s Many ‘Languages’
In most classrooms, spoken language is the dominant and preferred method of communication. The dependence on this traditional method of instruction and expression can potentially exclude children who experience disability or are learning English as a second language.
Try using a puppet to support the meaning of words by moving it to create gestures, sounds, and other forms of nonverbal communication. The choice of puppets can aid in the understanding of important concepts, such as emotions. Try using a puppet to explore different feelings; the puppet can “physicalize” the emotion for the children to guess and help the puppet to manage.
Implement Restorative Practices
As relationships are at the heart of restorative practices, a puppet can be a very helpful tool to bring restorative approaches to the classroom. Puppets can be used beyond the identification and naming of emotions to help children understand and resolve conflicts respectfully. A puppet can also play a role in restorative approaches to behavior issues and support young people to respectfully manage differences and disagreements.
Think about having a puppet facilitate discussions that support relationships to heal and to resolve conflicts. Have the puppet invite young learners to share their perspectives about a situation or incident by using the following prompts:
- Tell me about what happened.
- Tell me how you feel.
- How do other people feel about what happened?
- What can we do to make things better?
The presence of a puppet may have a calming influence during conflict resolution, as it’s less threatening than an adult—especially an adult occupying a teacher’s authoritative position. The puppet is therefore of value in helping each child work through the conflict without a sense of shame.
The puppet may also help you, as a teacher, gain deeper insight into the intentions of the children involved, and you can support them in learning from their mistakes.
In my classroom, a horse puppet named Biscuit was my co-teacher. Along with the children, we created the classroom rules. Once the rules were established, the children taught them to the puppet and used him to model the expected classroom behavior. He would frequently forget the rules and needed the children to gently remind him of how to be a friend and care for himself and others.
I will never teach an early childhood class without a puppet again.