Using Puppets and Props to Tell Stories With Children

           A story leads the listener into an imaginary world, peopled by the imagination and the storyteller’s words. So why intrude into this world with puppets and other props? The question is valid and often asked by storytellers.

            To answer it properly, we must first define what a puppet is. Most people immediately see a puppet as something worn on the hand or suspended by strings and sticks and made to move by manipulation. In reality, a puppet is any inanimate object made to move through the efforts of an operator. With this definition, even a pencil or coffee cup is a puppet! Children begin at an early age to give life to inanimate objects when playing. Dolls dance or cry, plastic cars make sounds and race. When I was a child, my brothers and sisters and I would create days of play using stick horses, boxes and stuffed animals to create an “Old West” town in our imaginations.

            Learning occurs in many ways. Some people are auditory learners, some are sensory, some are kinesthetic/tactile, meaning they need to feel, touch and try things out for best learning outcomes. In an audience of three children, a storyteller may face three discrete learning styles. Puppets are visually attractive, they move and they act, thus reaching each child’s individual experiential learning style, and address many of Gardner’s multiple intelligences.[1] Other reasons for using a puppet include:
  • They give color, texture and dimension to story characters and actions.
  • A puppet can make the story come alive for children the same way pictures in books do, and provide visual clues to the story’s meaning while presenting the tale in a new way.
  • Puppets can add dialogue to a story and provide opportunities for audience interaction, creating a multi-dimensional experience.
  • Puppets can be a bridge for a storyteller to connect with hard-to-reach audiences.

            There are several ways to incorporate puppets in storytelling. Storyteller Batsy Bybell of Idaho uses her parrot puppet “Tooter Two” to introduce a storytelling session. The puppet’s outrageous behavior and antics relax an audience and creates community as the group laughs and anticipates the puppet’s next move. Bybell also uses puppets in the more traditional stage setting, moving seamlessly between puppet show and storytelling to provide a variety of activities that keep young audiences involved and actively listening.

            Children are often eager to use the puppets themselves to tell a story. A cast of puppets can be used to tell a traditional story such as The Little Red Hen. Children may choose to be any animal they like or be limited to barnyard animals, if that is the storyteller’s choice. In my version of this tale, children are encouraged to think creatively and to choose their favorite puppet. These animals then become the “barnyard” animals and the story becomes a creation of the teller and the audience as they interact with the selected puppets. This type of telling requires the storyteller to be comfortable with improvisation and to have good techniques for managing the interaction.

            Telling a story with puppets and audience participation provides opportunities for children to become active partners in the telling. A child with a puppet will say things they might not otherwise say. The child becomes a star in the story through the puppet and can experience success that bolsters self-esteem.

Some things to consider when selecting a story to tell with puppets:

o   All stories are not suitable for telling with a puppet. Strong story candidates will have:
1.      Few characters
2.      One main character, or no more than two
3.      Be fairly short
4.      Include repetition. Many Aesop fables are ideal for telling with puppets.

o  All puppets are not suitable for storytelling. Choose puppets:
1.      That have lovable, appealing characters
2.      With whom you can identify
3.      That you can give an appropriate voice
4.      That fit your hand snugly but comfortably enough to manipulate
5.      That do not constrict hand movements
6.      That you can develop a personality for
7.      That have eyes large enough to be seen by your audience (you can make bigger eyes using black and white peel-and-stick felt, if necessary)