Teach boldly with puppets

Use them as icebreakers and to release imagination

Kerri Carr

Puppets are a great way to engage students, says teacher-librarian and professional puppet-maker Katherine Hannaford.

Her puppets, from around the world or made by her own hands, get a lot of attention from year 7 students in their first few weeks at Macquarie Fields High School.

“The children discover some puppets have mechanisms to make the eyes blink and they ask ‘what’s this thing inside the head?’. I encourage them to push it and see: they’ll push it and another year 7 child will go, ‘How did you do that?’ and then all of a sudden the children start talking to each other, so it’s icebreaking without an icebreaker activity — they are engaging with me and they are engaging with each other,” Katherine says.

Puppets can also break the ice inside the classroom. Katherine says puppets can help with awkward, difficult and controversial topics such as sexual health. “It’s not an adult lecturing them; they are talking to a character. That’s why you’ve got Healthy Harold [Life Education’s giraffe puppet, which empowers children to make safe and healthy life choices].

PDHPE students at Macquarie Fields High School make glove puppets and present a small puppet show to explain a difficult concept such as drug education or an aspect of sexual health, making it less awkward for students to have to say embarrassing words that are part of the required PDHPE syllabus terms.

Puppets can be used to teach topics in many other key learning areas. Textile technology students make finger puppets to tell a story about being aware of the environment. “They have to make the puppets and develop a story that hits all the key outcomes they’ve been taught in the unit,” Katherine says.

“Another place you can use puppets, of course, is English, as part of storytelling. You could tell the hero’s story without writing the story or you could write the story up as a script and then perform it. You can research an aspect of history and then retell it using puppets.”

Katherine knows school counsellors who use puppets to help young people talk about issues that trouble them. Some students can find a puppet more relatable and less of an authority figure than a teacher.

Katherine uses puppets when working with students with autism. “Two years ago,” she says, “I did a big trip around the world following my puppet dreams but because I was going to be missing for three months from school and I’m a regular part of our autism students’ schedule and day we built a custom puppet for the class.” The puppet, Lucy, went on the trip with Katherine, blogged back to the students and the students followed Lucy around the world.

“It was geography, social skills, social science and history lessons all built into one [experience],” Katherine explained.

“Lucy went to the top of the Empire State Building, Lucy went to the Colosseum in Rome, Lucy has been all around the world and has been picked up by Muppet performer [and Katherine’s puppetry teacher Peter Linz]; she has got Muppet DNA in her now!”

It’s easy to introduce a puppet into your classroom, Katherine says. “Anything can be a puppet. Everyone has a puppet — it’s called their hand. Just add a tongue and some eyes and bingo, you have a character. You can add a fin down the back if you want to make a dragon and put some fire on your thumb if you want to be a fire-breathing dragon.

“You can use a sock or even an egg carton. Egg cartons are hinged along the back. You just need to put some loops of tape, top and bottom that you can put your fingers in, and all of a sudden you have a crocodile that has all those points inside that’s good for teeth or add some cardboard.”

Katherine suggests looking in school library books about puppet-making. 10 Minute Puppets, by one of her teachers, Noel MacNeal, includes a lesson on how to use pipe cleaners and cardboard eyes to turn your hand into a puppet. An internet search will reveal patterns for shadow puppets and instructions for making sock puppets. Katherine recommends the online resources of the Centre for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States. “If you want to start puppets in your school, then get in contact with them and they can help you,” she advised.

After teaching puppet-making for almost 15 years, this year for the first time Katherine is teaching a timetabled puppet-making class. With an annual budget of $60 she teaches a small year 8 class how to make, perform and research puppets. The tight budget requires her to use free, recycled materials as much as possible.

“The first two terms I taught them how to make a Muppet-style puppet. This term, I’ve been teaching them how to make a rod puppet and hopefully next term we’ll do shadow puppets or plastic bag monsters.”

Katherine says in high school there are not many opportunities for students to exercise their imagination. “A kindergarten child will come and tell you the most incredible story with characters and action and drama but over time that imagination fades. What children need most to be successful in life is imagination and creativity. If you have those, along with initiative, you can be successful at any job. Employers are looking for imagination and creativity and initiative. We can teach initiative; imagination and creativity is innate but it’s lost, so puppets help reawaken imagination.”

The class covers four key learning areas: mandatory technology, history, textiles and drama outcomes. The students have visited the Giggle and Hoot set, where the puppeteer showed students the inner workings of the puppet, Hoot. A professional puppeteer is booked to perform at the school in coming weeks. Katherine’s mentors from the Beyond the Sock puppetry workshop in the US have taken video questions from her students and responded on video. “It has given the students an opportunity to interact with professional puppeteers and learn about careers in puppetry,” Katherine says.