Use Puppets to Encourage Children's Literacy
by Susan Stephenson, www.thebookchook.com
Probably my favourite creative toy of all is the puppet. My puppet collection ranges from big muppets to tiny finger puppets. I believe they are incredibly powerful because they often allow kids to articulate thoughts and feelings otherwise suppressed. They're also wonderful for linking literature with storytelling.
Kids don't need to use puppets formally by putting on a little play with a puppet theatre and audience, though that can be an exciting project for a rainy weekend. Puppets can be used just like dolls or action figures in children's imaginative play. I like to use them myself sometimes in a storytelling or read aloud session, because they're a great way to get kids to respond or join in. Sometimes, a puppet can lead children into a book and that is truly a wonderful thing.
Some of the best puppets are handmade. Sock puppets or paper puppets are good if you have limited time, or you and your children might like to take on bigger projects. Most local toy stores will have some offerings, but remember to get your child to try the puppet on their hand and use it a little. Not all puppets are designed the same, and kids tend to shy away from those that are awkward or downright uncomfortable.
When I searched online for puppet stores, I found some that look great. Melissa and Doug have muppet-type puppets with lots of character, Folkmanis have a huge range that includes stage puppets like this ostrich I fell for, and The Puppet Company has some gorgeous finger puppets in their catalogue for trade customers, or you can buy their products through sites like Puppets by Post. If you're in Australia, Educational Experience has a huge range of puppets. Even if you don't buy puppets online, sites like these can give you inspiration for your own puppet creation efforts.
Puppets by Post, a UK site, has puppets to go with specific books eg a ladybird puppet to go with Eric Carle's The Bad Tempered Ladybird and a zoo full of finger puppets to go with Rod Campbell's Dear Zoo. I don't know how common ladybird puppets are, but it might be easy to find or make a bear puppet yourself and couple it with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Janeen Brian's Too Tight, Benito! or We're Going on a Bear Hunt. What a lovely gift for a baby shower!
If you've been reading aloud with your kids since they were tiny, if you've been telling stories to each other and listening to rhymes and tales, the chances are your kids will have a wealth of wonderful knowledge and language to enrich their puppet experiences. If not, it's never too late to start. Read the story of (say) Red Riding Hood to your kids. Then find some puppets and encourage your kids to use them with you to re-tell the story. There is no right or wrong way to do this. The main aim is to enjoy yourselves, and make connections to the story.
You don't need an individual puppet to represent each character in stories either. If you want to start a collection, my suggestion would be to aim for a generic male puppet, generic female puppet, a dog/wolf and some other animals, a generic boy and girl puppet. Right there you can tell the Red Riding Hood story. If you have time, cut a square of red material for Red and throw a hankie around the female puppet's head to change Mum into Grandma. For The Three Little Pigs, your kids could make small pig masks if they want to disguise a frog puppet say, but mostly, kids realise it's about imagination anyway.
There are other toys that are directly linked to specific children's literature like these Weebles and a gorgeous green sheep that accompanies Mem Fox's Where is the Green Sheep. But somehow, it's puppets that seem the most versatile and creative toy you can couple with a children's book to make a great gift combo. Puppets really enrich children's literature experiences. Sometimes, one small puppet might be just the focus a child needs to get "into" a book, and perhaps start that love affair with reading we hope will last a lifetime.
If children's literacy is important to you as a teacher, parent or librarian, you might also like to read Fun Early Literacy Activities, or Literacy-Based and Other Guessing Games.