What Puppets Can Mean to Children, Part 2

October’s blog looked at some of the roles puppets can have in classrooms. This time, I’ll go into a little more depth about what some people call “the child’s psychological uses” of puppets.

Child therapy specialists tell us that puppets – particularly various animal puppets– can symbolize particular feelings or relationships, making them key equipment in a therapeutic playroom. While I don’t advocate that teachers act as play therapists (unless properly credentialed), some of my classroom experiences suggest that the ways children use puppets can occasionally provide a teacher with insights into what they are feeling.

For example, in a classroom of energetic, friendly 4 year olds, Nicky stood out because he often hit classmates for no apparent reason. Nicky’s language development was within the norm, and we weren’t aware of any out-of-school situation that might lead him see hitting as a way to get attention or solve a problem.

One day at cleanup time, as I picked up remnants of an art activity, Nicky stood nearby, holding a plush kangaroo puppet. He got my attention and quietly showed me that a small plastic “guy” was hiding in the kangaroo’s pouch — because he was “scared of the giants.” I asked, “What do the giants do?” “They make noise,” he said, looking toward a large group of children who were boisterously shelving the blocks. “They stomp their feet.”

I told my co-teacher. We speculated: “Maybe Nicky’s describing what it’s like to be him, in our classroom.” Maybe, in a big room full of sound and movement, the other children weren’t peers but a bunch of loud creatures.  Maybe he felt overwhelmed. Like the little plastic figure he put in the kangaroo’s pocket, he wished for a quiet, safe spot. Maybe hitting was his way to keep “giants” away.

We decided that one of us would stay close to Nicky when the class was especially active, talking with him calmly.  We also realized that we had taken for granted that the children would know each other pretty well. But Nicky, for one, didn’t seem to know his classmates, so we made a point of teaching group games that involved using individual’s names. By winter break, Nicky was no longer hitting classmates. We can’t say for sure that our tactics were helpful – perhaps he realized on his own that his peers weren’t a threat — but I know the puppet enabled Nicky to tell me something important. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the potential psychological meanings of puppets, but I resolved to always have the Mama Kangaroo puppet available to children during choice time.

After some professional preparation for play therapy, when I knew more about puppets as metaphors for feelings, I made a point of including more hand puppets in the classroom. I intentionally shared puppets our instructors had said would be relevant to social-emotional concerns common to preschoolers: attachment and independence, fear and aggression, and social anxiety.  It seemed likely to me that, even if a child doesn’t show the teacher what stories he’s telling with the puppets, he will benefit from being able to “play about” whatever the subject is.

Attachment and independence:  Originally, the kangaroo came with a joey – a tiny plush finger puppet attached to her pouch with a 10-inch elastic string. Little Joey could nestle in, or venture out into the world – but not too far. From a play therapy perspective, these two puppets invite children to play about attachment to and independence from loved ones.  Not too surprisingly, the elastic string would sometimes be snapped by a 4-year-old who needed for Joey to hide from his mom; my repairs never lasted very long.

Fear/aggression: One popular puppet was an alligator with teeth that were actually a heavy-duty zipper that could be closed – either to render it harmless, or to make it swallow a small toy. For preschoolers still learning to self-regulate when frightened or angry, that alligator could symbolize a powerful emotion or experience that threatened to overwhelm them.  But that zipper allowed them some control: they could rescue whatever the gator ate, or they could keep that dangerous mouth closed tight. Alligators (along with snakes and sharks) are known for sneaking up on victims. Some children showed more interest in puppets that can represent a more openly angry kind of aggression, such as a dragon or Tyrannosaurus rex.

Social anxiety: A real hedgehog is not very sociable and may curl into a tight ball when anxious. I sometimes used a brown plush hedgehog puppet called Rugby to engage children in a read-aloud, much as my aunt used her “very shy” rabbit puppet Wiggin (described in last quarter’s blog). When Rugby was worried, a Velcro fastener helped keep her curled up.  Children sometimes wanted a turn to reassure the hedgehog when she felt shy or anxious. Once in a while, a child in distress might ask to hold Rugby for a while, which seemed to help get them over the rough patch.

It’s impossible to predict how individual children will respond to particular puppets. Some may completely ignore them. Others will be drawn in and will create stories involving a puppet, whether privately, with friends, or with an adult. Having puppets available in classrooms presents opportunities for children to play about important social and emotional issues in their lives. We teachers should keep in mind that we don’t necessarily need to know what stories a child is telling with puppets—although by being available and mindful when they want to tell us about their puppet play, we may be able to gain some insight into how they experience the world.

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza is a content specialist for the Illinois Early Learning Project. She has worked and played in a variety of settings, including home child care, preschool programs, a K–1 classroom, and early childhood teacher education. Her professional interests include outdoor play, play therapy, and the role of play in children’s inquiry.