The Secret (and Very Creative) Life of Puppets

How to use puppets to stir imagination, nurture creativity, and promote creative thinking in children.

By Abby Connors | Posted 8/25/10 | Updated 5/10/24

Nurturing young children's creativity is a big job, and we can't do it alone. Fortunately, we have cleverly written stories with gorgeous illustrations, recordings of beautiful and exciting music, and all kinds of props and costumes to help us stir children's imaginations. And for me, the most powerful partners in promoting creative thinking are my fabulous, tireless puppet friends.

I say "tireless" because they can portray hundreds, even thousands of characters every year, each with different voices, movements, and personalities. A puppet turns a hand into an animal or a character with a life of his own.

So often in preschool classrooms, I see puppets languishing in toy boxes or on shelves. Too many teachers are unaware of puppets' amazing creative potential!

When I first started teaching young children, I would bring out a puppet, either store-bought or handmade, who represented a character in a story we had just read together. For instance, after reading "The Little Red Hen," I'd bring out a hen puppet. I'd have the hen talk a bit to the children, and then she'd get hungry. (I read this tip in a book or article somewhere long ago — I can't take the credit for it.) I'd ask if anyone had bread to feed her, (since she made — and ate — bread in the story), and one by one, the children would feed her pretend "bread" from their hands. So now I always ask my puppet what it would like to eat. It might be something realistic, like flies for a frog puppet, or it might be something silly, like pancakes. I'll pretend to feed it and then take it around the circle for the children to feed. At first I did this just to have more one-on-one time with each child, but it's turned out to be a very creative activity. Most children want to give the puppet something special. For example, with the frog — they give him fly juice, fly cake, all the flies in the world, and so on. It's charming and very enlightening. Given half a chance, young children make any activity their own through creative improvisation.

Since then, I've found many more ways puppets can help to develop children's creative thinking skills. Here are some you may want to try:

Interviewing puppets

Sometimes, if the puppet represents a character from a book, I'll ask the children if they have any questions they'd like to ask the puppet. This activity helps students to explore the characters and plots of read-aloud stories in imaginative ways. It also helps you to know what's really going on in those little minds. They may be very interested in certain kinds of animals, or foods — or they may have fears, or family or social issues, that you'd never know about otherwise. Puppets can bring out a lot of strong feelings.

Naming puppets

In one group I had last year, a couple of girls would always ask what the puppet's name was. At first I just made up a name, but then I started asking them what they thought would be a good name for the puppet. Now it's a regular routine in that class — everybody wants to think of a name for the puppet. A few weeks ago I had a porcupine puppet, and among the names they gave it were Porky, Princess Isabella, and Shark!

Singing with puppets

Again, I got these ideas from my very creative students. One kindergarten class started the tradition of each music session ending in one child taking the puppet and singing a song. Of course, the child got to choose which song they wanted to sing. Sometimes weeks would go by where everyone sang the ABC song, but sometimes they sang all kinds of songs, from TV shows, or pop music, or even made-up songs. My favorite was a little boy who was very shy, and the week that it was his turn, the puppet was the butterfly. He sang in the sweetest whisper, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

And some kids like to sing songs to the puppet. This started with a girl who said, "Ooh, ooh, can I sing a song to the cat?" and she sang to the cat puppet, something like "Oh, you're so pretty and soft. And I love you. And you are very nice. And you're my favorite!"

Free! Printable 'Running Legs' Gingerbread Man Finger PuppetFun with puppets doesn't have to be limited to verbal activities, either! A child with a monkey puppet can have the monkey jump along with "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed." A paper Gingerbread Boy puppet, with holes cut out for fingers to be the "legs," can "run and run as fast as he can" as you read the story (free Gingerbread Man puppets here). And for years I've dressed my pig puppet in a lace-trim "tutu" to dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy at holiday time — it's always a hit!

I've learned much about the technical and artistic aspects of using puppets in early childhood education from the amazing nationally-known puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau, who performs and gives teacher-training workshops. I highly recommend her book "A Show of Hands: Using Puppets With Young Children."

The possibilities are endless. Take the puppets off the shelves and invite them to join in every day's activities — they're truly a magical gateway to creativity.

Next: Never Say 'No' to Creativity

©2010 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.