Puppets and Problem Solving

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

It was great to see the latest Education issue of The Washington Post Magazine devoted to arts education, with a lead article by Anne Midgette. I found it encouraging to read about the many efforts by various arts organizations to bring their work to students, either during the regular school day or through after-school programs, especially because education is such a big part of what I am trying to do with this company. Midgette brings up some great points in the article and a later addendum, among them the value of arts as a motivator for students who struggle academically, as a means of teaching focus and the struggle for some organizations to balance creating art with teaching. I had some further thoughts on the value of puppetry in arts education, and specifically the challenge of teaching problem solving.

Problem solving is a huge part of learning and it can be an incredibly frustrating skill to learn, especially for younger students. Authentic problem solving is the sort of skill that easily gets pushed to the side in favor of memorization and rote drill when the classroom culture is based around standardized tests, as I know from personal experience. However, this only makes things harder for kids when they are asked to make decisions on their own. When you are used to every task having a specific answer and every assignment needing to be done ‘right,’ facing an activity without a certain set of steps and no guarantees can be intimidating.  Students are used to the answer being in the back of the book or in their teacher’s head. But what if your teacher doesn’t know the answer? What if no one does?

Puppets require lots of problem solving and there is no ‘right’ answer to be found–only what works for you and what looks right to your eyes as the artist. How can you make your puppet walk? Which yarn is the best hair? Does your puppet have arms or legs? Puppetry is an ideal low-cost way to introduce students to the concept of making decisions and solving problems. After all, even if math problems and grammar rules have set answers, not everything in life is laid out in perfect patterns and students need to learn to make decisions that are best for them. Why not give them the opportunity to problem solve with a puppet, rather than waiting until they are so set on getting everything perfect that one challenging task reduces them to tears? Flexibility and creativity are skills that are important and I hope that as Wit’s End Puppets continues to grow as a company, we will have the opportunity to encourage them in many more students.

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Kindergarten Puppeteers

I was delighted to spend February working with the kindergarten after-care group at School within School at Logan Annex, a Reggio Emilia inspired center of learning. We spent four sessions learning about different kinds of puppets, building our own puppets from recycled materials and inventing scenes and stories to perform in small groups. Here are some photos of their marvelous, creative work!

The student who made this was very clear that it was a duck, with gold wings.

The student who made this was very clear that it was a duck, with gold wings.

This puppet is named Elizabeth.

This puppet is named Elizabeth. Her hair is scrap fabric and her body is a toilet paper tube.

Students performing a scene using chairs as a stage.

Students performing a scene using chairs as a stage.

The chairs allowed students to play puppets both above and below the seats.

The chairs allowed students to play puppets both above and below the seats.

Three student made puppets hitch a ride on a chipmunk puppet that a teacher brought.

Three student made puppets hitch a ride on a chipmunk puppet that a teacher brought.

Unicorns & Rainbows

While the performance part of the Smithsonian Shadow Family Night was fun and successful, we had just as much fun working with the many children and their families who came to our table to make shadow puppets and try them out on a simple screen. Shadow puppets are one of the simplest kinds of puppets to make–all you need is some thick paper, scissors, tape and something to be a control rod. We had very small children whose parents cut out their fish or bear puppet and older kids who insisted on doing everything themselves. The screen and lights were enough to keep some participants busy the entire time, as the picture below shows, you really only need your hands and a light to have a good time with a shadow screen!

playingwithscreen

Most kids stuck with the stencils that we provided, and made their own adjustments using scissors to make (among other creatures) a fish with circular scales, a bear with jagged hair or a ‘dolphin-butterfly.’ However, we had two older girls who decided to leap past all of those and instead create unicorns, grass, a huge butterfly and a rainbow, to tell their own stories. We were blown away by their creativity and meticulous attention to detail and remembered once again how perfect puppetry is for letting people accomplish as much as they like through imagination.

The lovely unicorns and green fields designed by workshop participants.

The lovely unicorns and green fields designed by workshop participants.

What DOES a shadow of a rainbow look like?

What DOES a shadow of a rainbow look like?

The girls who designed the puppets above, with a young admirer.

The girls who designed the puppets above, with a young admirer.