puppet theatre with selection of puppets

The Magic of Parenting with Puppets

I love puppets. I love making them, collecting them, and playing with them. I have loved them since I was very little and spent Saturday mornings watching Mr. Dress-up and Sesame Street. And now, as an art therapist, puppets are one of the most valuable tools in my tool box. 

In this post I’m sharing:

  • why puppets are so cool
  • how to choose a puppet (or use what you have!)
  • parenting strategies to try with puppets 

Why puppets are so cool 

Puppets are magical because they exist in this special space between imagination and reality.

When you put on a puppet, it becomes a part of you and you become a part of it. This is a physical process as you place your hand inside, and an imaginative process as you move your hand to bring the character to life. 

finger puppets on a hand

Children don’t have a strong sense of object permanence (the idea that objects continue to exist even when you can’t see them), and they still use lots of magical and anthropomorphic thinking (the lines are blurred between imagination and reality, and objects can have feelings). Their stage of cognitive development means that children are very responsive to puppets. A puppet is alive enough that children respond to it emotionally, but pretend enough that it doesn’t feel scary. It’s just the right balance between real and imaginary for them to suspend any disbelief, and they are willing to accept it as having a unique identity. 

As a therapist, this is a wonderful opportunity. It means that I can interact with a child as a character who isn’t me. Our usual patterns of interacting no longer apply, and that opens up so many new opportunities for experimenting. 

The same is true for parents and caregivers. Once you unlock your puppetry powers, puppets just might be your best friend too. 

owl puppet

In order for this to work, there are a few simple tricks I have learned in the world of puppetry. First of all, you as the animator have to believe. You have to sell it that the puppet has its own identity. So when you make the puppet move, watch what the puppet is doing. If the puppet has a voice, look at the puppet when it’s speaking. You don’t have to be a drama expert, but even just slightly changing your tone or pitch when speaking as the puppet will help breathe life into its identity. I use hand and finger puppets, so that means that I, as Rubi the therapist, am still present in the interaction. So I talk to my puppet. I use my regular voice when talking as myself, and I use a character voice when talking as the puppet. This allows me to make observations about what the puppet is doing. It’s so much fun once you get the hang of it! 

woman holding bear puppet and looking at it

How to choose a puppet (or use what you have!)

If you follow these simple tricks, you can turn almost anything into a puppet. There are some incredible puppets out there, and I have a weak spot for buying them. For example, I have an owl puppet who is great at hiding behind its wings, a bear puppet who can give great big bear hugs, and a knight puppet that brings lots of spunky energy.

knight puppet with sword and shield

But sometimes, the simplest option is the most expressive. A classic sock puppet is one I use all the time in the art room.

fluffy sock with wiggly eyes and pipe cleaner smile

Googley eyes and a mouth are fun to add, but not essential. If you are looking at the sock on your hand and using a puppet voice, you can express happiness, sadness, excitement, tenderness, or frustration using just a plain sock. It’s all in how you move your hand and make noise.  Gesture and sound are very expressive. You don’t even have to use words. 

Each pose of the sock suggests a different energy and expression.

A pro tip I learned from play therapist Donna Starling is to use finger puppets with very small children. Some little ones may feel frightened or overwhelmed by a bigger puppet, because they have even less of an understanding that inanimate objects don’t really come to life. A finger puppet is less intimidating because the child can still see your hand underneath. This helps them to keep a glimpse of reality and remember that we are playing. 

finger puppet

Once you have chosen a puppet and had some practice animating it, you can use your puppet in all kinds of ways to connect with your kid. Here are three of my favourites.

Parenting strategies to try with puppets  

1. Use the puppet to explore difficult emotions.

For example, anger is a difficult emotion to acknowledge for many of the children that I work with. I like to use my fire-breathing dragon puppet as a way to introduce the idea of anger.

The dragon puppet can be aggressive and explosive and can capture all the things that may feel scary about anger, without actually hurting anything or anyone. I usually make the dragon a bit silly, to give permission for anger and take away some of its scariness. When I initiate this kind of expression, kids usually want to try it. They take the dragon puppet in their own hands, and experiment with the idea of an angry character. This can be a safe and playful first step towards eventually giving themselves permission to say “I feel angry.” For kids who often feel angry and may not always express it appropriately, the dragon puppet can also be a way for us to play out or practice safe and unsafe ways of being angry. 

2. Interrupt a negative pattern during a challenging moment.

(I learned this strategy from Barb O’Neill in her training called “Play versus Reasoning: Preventing Challenging Behaviour”.)  If a child is having a tantrum or meltdown and none of my attempts to redirect are working, I use a puppet to “playfully join in the child’s resistance.” So if the child is adamantly saying “No!” to everything I suggest, I will grab a puppet and join in.

monkey puppet with speech bubble that says "No!"

As the therapist I will say again, “It’s time to tidy up the blocks.” And then I will make the monkey puppet very dramatically express his discontent with this statement. Maybe even more intensely and dramatically than the child’s resistance, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m mocking them, but instead I’m playfully joining in. Bringing play into a power struggle immediately shifts the energy. It creates space in the moment. It’s enough of a pause to interrupt the negative interaction. Children are usually so surprised by this unexpected development that they stop and stare at what I’m doing. Depending on the situation they might laugh at the puppet, or jump in to comfort the puppet, or join in the game of making the lament even more dramatic. But once we have shifted the energy and stopped the tantrum, it reduces the frustration. Once the child’s resistance melts, they are open to redirection.

3. Recruit the child to be the helper by placing them in the power position.

(Natasha Daniels suggested this approach in her training called “Parenting an Anxious Toddler”.) This strategy  works best during a calm moment of collaborative play. If I know a child is nervous about taking the bus to school, for example, I will initiate a game where I ask the child to choose a puppet to be the parent, and I choose a puppet to be the kid.

Photo by Christine Kennedy

Then, I act out the anxiety-provoking situation. My puppet has to take the bus to school. I can voice the child’s fears and validate them. And the child can then teach the puppet how to get through the situation, thereby coaching themselves through it. The way that the child handles this play can be very informative. It can give me clues about what the child’s actual fears are, what they think might happen, and what might be helpful for them. If necessary, after the game I can correct any misinformation, or provide the same supports for the child that they offered for my puppet.

woman smiling and holding a bear puppet

Honestly, I’m not sure what I would do without puppets in the art room. I find them to be lovable, non-threatening, whimsical, and such great facilitators for connection. 

I hope that by sharing these ideas, I have sparked your interest in the world of puppets. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to pick up that puppet in your child’s playroom, or make a little sock puppet friend to add to your toy collection! I imagine that the idea of using a puppet can feel intimidating, but I hope you see now that it doesn’t have to be. And if you can find your animating confidence, puppets can be an extremely helpful way to connect with your child emotionally, and to work through challenges together creatively.

Happy playing!

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT

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