My blog post focuses on using puppets with early years and primary children to foster more magical English language learning. I will also provide some practical ideas for ways to do this in your own classroom.
How do puppets relate to YL ELT?
A puppet is an inanimate object which when brought to life enables new worlds and narratives to be created. As McDermott and Crouch (2012) maintain, ‘A puppet looks like a figure, a piece of wood or some other material that may move and behave onstage as if it were a living thing with thoughts, emotions and intentions. It is only through conspiracy of the players and the audience to play together that it becomes possible. Only if the audience willingly dream and agree to put part of themselves into the puppet can magic happen.’
This ‘conspiracy’ is, in my view, very much the same sort of ‘magic’ teachers need in the early years and primary classroom for learning to take place. There has to be a willingness to suspend belief and bridge gaps between the real and make-believe, the known and unknown and between the children’s L1 and English.
As the puppeteer Rene Baker (2013) notes, ‘The puppet is empty until filled with the puppeteer’s expression. Positioned between the player and the audience, the puppet is a go between, translating the human’s thoughts and feelings into movement, image and text; in essence, the puppet is a medium and mediator.’ In early years and primary ELT, a teacher is also essentially a mediator, a go between, bringing together two different worlds: the world of children’s first languages and the world of the English language. So it makes good sense for teachers to use support in the classroom for this mediation process. Puppets are perfect vehicles for this.
How do puppets support children’s cognitive and affective development?
Piaget’s stages, despite significant criticism, remain important for educators if we see them as a flexible framework for children’s cognitive development. In Piaget’s preoperational stage (children aged between 2 to 6), a child is still very self-centred, fantasy plays an important part in their lives, they find it difficult to classify objects or talk about abstract or formal properties, such as colour, shape etc. Language learning at this age relies on repetition, physical response, movement and song. The use of a puppet in the early years classroom enables children to swiftly change from the real world to the fantasy world using alternative types of learning exchanges.
Primary children also benefit greatly from using puppets in the English classroom. It is a misconception that children who have clearly entered a concrete operational stage (aged 6 to 12) as described by Piaget, are no longer positively affected by puppets. Children at this stage are still making a transition into more abstract reasoning and logical thought. Although they are less dependent on the manipulation of objects and the physical experience to hypothesise, each child experiences this transition at their own pace. The same applies to language learning and the formalisation of language symbols, both in their first languages and in English. A puppet used during this phase can be a very useful learning mediator.
A puppet can take on the role of a ‘novice’, who the children can talk and explain things to or it can assume the role of an ‘expert’ who teaches the children things. The puppet can help bridge gaps in much the same way as a teacher scaffolds learning opportunities to enable learners to work within their Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD), as conceived by Vygotsky.
I believe that puppets have additional advantages for teachers because they reduce the level of anxiety and stress which a child can experience when learning an additional language such as English. This is fundamental for children’s psychological and emotional growth. They can engage in the world of creativity, fantasy and imagination and puppets therefore enable interaction with the English language world.
What types of puppets can we use?
We can bring many types of puppets into the early years and primary English classroom:
- Hand or glove puppets: these can be made of paper bags, socks, felt or even a more sophisticated furry puppet. They may move their mouths and sometimes hands, so you can make gestures as well.
- Finger puppets: these are quite small and are ideal for pair work and mini group work where children use puppets to tell stories and act things out.
- A cuddly toy: these have arms and legs and so bring an extra dimension. You need to manipulate the toy’s head and their arms and hands, but this also means that any toy could become the class puppet or mascot.
How can we breathe life into a classroom puppet?
Puppeteers often talk about breathing life into a puppet so that the audience believes in it. Here are some suggestions to achieve this:
- Whatever puppet you use (a glove puppet, finger puppet, cuddly toy, sock puppet, paper-bag puppet), get to know your puppet. Look at it, feel how it moves, understand its personality, look at how it looks at you.
- Practise holding your puppet. Ask yourself: how does it walk, talk and listen to you? How does it move its head? (Try to use a surface to manipulate your puppet which can be a table top or even your own arm),
- Think how you are going to introduce the puppet to the learners. Think how it is going to enter and leave activities such as circle time. Remember, it has to leave a dignified manner, don’t just stuff it into a drawer! It’s a living object now, so make sure it “lives”. Think how and why it will re-appear in subsequent lessons.
How can we prepare children for a puppet in lessons?
Just as teachers need to prepare themselves for using the puppet, we need to prepare the children too!
- Give the children time to enter the realm of make-believe. Ask, “Do you want to meet a new friend?”
- Ensure the learners are looking at you and the puppet. Control this through your tone of voice and actions.
- Establish from the start that the puppet doesn’t speak the learners’ languages and only speaks English.
- Address the puppet and make sure it responds to you. It does not have to speak, but it understands everything that is said in English in the classroom. The puppet can whisper in your ear and you can mediate the interaction. Children accept this quite naturally and are willing to speak to the puppet.
- Make sure the puppet has a history and context. The puppet might show the children photos of trips and home life.
- Here is an example of when I introduced a puppet into a class:
Using puppets in early years and primary ELT can bring new challenges for teachers. We need to prepare for an extra ‘colleague’ in the classroom. We need to be less self-conscious when using a puppet and more flexible and ready for whatever learning opportunities may arise. However, using puppets helps make the learning experience far more memorable and meaningful for children and this in itself is a powerful reason for bringing them into the English language classroom. I would love to hear all about ways you have used puppets in your early years and primary English lessons in the comments box below.
Baker, R., 2013, Puppets and Objects – Medium and Mediator, Last accessed: August, 2018. http://julkaisut.turkuamk.fi/isbn9789522162267.pdf
McDermott, P. & Crouch, J., Puppetry – A user’s guide. Last accessed: May 2012. http://www.improbable.co.uk/article.asp?article_id=3
Vygotsky, L., 1978, Mind in Society. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press
Valéria França has been in ELT for over 25 years. She is Head of Teacher Development for Cultura Inglesa, Brazil. She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics, is a Cambridge Delta tutor and is deeply interested in the wider field of education, childhood education and the arts. She is a Past President of BRAZ-TESOL and a current member of the Visual Arts Circle.