Using Puppets In The Early Years
What Are They Good For?
Absolutely something. Say it again.

Why has using puppets in the early years fallen out of favour at nurseries and preschools?

With the onslaught of technology, and strategies for more child-led learning put in place by many nurseries, using puppetry in the early years isn’t quite as popular as it once was.

But sometimes the simple ideas are the best ones, and there is huge value in puppetry for developing brains. We’re going to explain why you need to rethink puppetry, particularly in how it can affect the key EYFS areas of Communication and Language and PSED.

We’ll talk about teacher-led, child-led and child-controlled play pretty interchangeably, but there are options to involve puppetry in your early years setting no matter what your philosophy.

We’ve also got great insight from the puppetry master, Katie Thompson from Ofsted-rated Outstanding Coconut Day Nursery in Hackney. Katie uses puppetry all the time at her setting and she’ll share her thoughts with us on how puppetry can help at your setting.

1. Building Confidence

This really is one of the special things about puppetry. Giving children a puppet to engage with, act on behalf of, and talk to can do wonders for their confidence.

For many children who aren’t yet fully comfortable opening up with other children or teachers, a puppet can be a great middle-man. They can really explore ideas of role play with them, taking on new personalities, and sharing stories and ideas. For many reasons, a puppet can often feel more trustworthy than one of their peers.

It relates to…

  • EYFS – PSED – Self-confidence and self-awareness
  • EYFS – PSED – Building relationships
  • EYFS – Communication & Language – Speaking
  • CoEL – Playing & Exploring

Any tips?

  • Being partially hidden behind a stage can encourage children who are more unsure.
  • Give children who are finding the adjustment difficult a specific puppet to look after. Taking the responsibility and having some familiarity in their new setting can do wonders for their confidence.

Katie says…

“Drama is brilliant from an early age because it teaches children confidence, essentially, because it lets them reenact their life experiences and discover new ones.”

2. Emotional Development

There is a huge range of effects that puppetry can have on emotional development.

They’re able to use the puppets to rehearse strategies and ideas that they don’t feel ready to try out in the real world. They’ll follow storylines through and try out different endings to see how they work out. It’s a great way of exploring different types of interactions

They’re also brilliant for developing empathy. A puppet can have a wide range of emotions and children can learn how to deal with their own emotions by comforting the puppets. It can also teach them to recognise and support other children who might be having difficulty too.

It relates to…

  • EYFS – PSED – Managing feelings and behaviour
  • EYFS – PSED – Making relationships

Any tips?

  • Be aware of puppets as a non-judgemental figure for children. If a child is still developing how they share their feelings with others, sometimes it might feel easier to share them with a puppet than with a friend or teacher. You can learn a lot from these interactions.
  • Make sure that you go through a range of emotions with your own puppetry. It can help the children to recognise and empathise with those same emotions in other children as well as in themselves.

Katie says…

“If there’s a puppet there that’s sad because it’s their first day at nursery, then that child wants to comfort them and so they learn how to recognise emotions and feelings in others and comfort them in turn.”

3. English as a Foreign Language

English as a second or foreign language can be a massive focus for certain nurseries, and finding a diverse range of activities that work for all children can be tricky

One of the big obstacles for many children with EAL is getting the confidence to try and use their English more often.

That’s why using puppets can be particularly effective – giving the children the ability to hide behind a puppet and express themselves through it can be a great way to get them to talk more regularly

What’s more, listening and engaging with teacher-led puppetry and the role plays put on by other children, can be a great way to develop their understanding and vocabulary.

It relates to…

  • EAL

Any tips?

  • Being behind the stage can be great for projection for those children lacking confidence in their English.
  • Make sure at all times that your EAL cohort is engaged when you’re doing broader group activities. You don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to engage the children if the level of language concentration is a bit too much.
  • Make sure there’s plenty of action in your puppetry, and that the content is relevant from the actions too. This can help the children to get the whole picture even if they don’t always understand the words that you’re using.
4. Imagination and Creativity

With puppetry, children are able to immerse themselves in a completely new world.

They are accessing different characters, different personalities, and challenging themselves to think imaginatively about how other people might react. In essence, puppetry is the perfect blank canvas.

It relates to…

  • EYFS – Expressive Arts & Design – Exploring and using media and materials
  • EYFS – Expressive Arts & Design – Being imaginative
  • CoEL – Creating & Thinking Critically

Any tips?

  • Get the children involved in creating the puppets too. It’s great for their craft and motor skills and they’ll feel more involved with the character that they’ve created.
  • Make sure that you give the children a chance to play with the puppets too as well as engage in teacher-led storytelling. Once you give them the tools to get their creative juices going, their brains can run wild.

Katie says…

“Puppetry triggers a child’s imagination and creativity and when you are under 5 you should have the opportunity to be truly creative and learn entirely through play. That’s really important.”

5. Role play

Everyone who has worked in early years understands the importance of role play in early development. It gives the children a chance to explore new personalities, new ideas, and develop their creative imagination

It’s natural for children to be drawn to this type of play, and that’s why puppets can be so powerful. They’re a great vehicle for role play, and offer children a blank canvas to explore new ideas.

They’re also invaluable for children who lack a little confidence in their role play and can be a great entry-level for children who are keen but perhaps a little shy.

It relates to…

  • CoEL – Playing & Exploring
  • EYFS – Expressive Arts & Design – Being imaginative
  • EYFS – Communication & Language – Speaking
  • EYFS – PSED – Self-confidence and self-awareness

Any tips?

  • Make sure that you are encouraging the children to tell their own stories with the puppets, and make sure you don’t hold them back from fully exploring their ideas.
  • Using non-human puppets is a great option because it ensures that you’re not excluding children who don’t feel like they are represented by the puppet.
6. Modelling behaviour

When you’re putting on puppet shows for the children yourself, it’s a great opportunity to model behaviour. This might be about how to play with others fairly, how to work together, or how to help out other children who are struggling.

Teaching them behaviour by modelling it on something they’re more familiar and closely connected to, like a puppet, is bound to be more effective than trying to dictate behaviour or even modelling it yourself as a teacher.

It relates to…

  • EYFS – Communication & Language – Listening and attention
  • EYFS – Communication & Language – Understanding

Any tips?

  • Given that many children are so highly engaged by the puppets, they can also be very useful for transitions and certain changes. Bring out Croc the Cook before lunch or The Big Grizzly Cleaning Bear when it’s time to tidy up and you’ll get the children’s attention much more easily.
  • The puppets can be comforting to children who are struggling too. Be aware of what puppets certain children really associate with and bring them out when a child needs to talk or needs some cheering up.

Katie says…

“Through puppetry and storytelling you can get in touch with children’s emotions because they relate to a puppet more than they can relate to you as a grown up. If there’s a puppet that’s an animal, for instance, it’s anthropomorphic. It’s not a girl. It’s not a boy. It’s not from a socio-economic background. In fact, it’s not from anywhere, and so they can all relate to it.”

7. Better motor skills

When the children are playing with the puppets themselves, they’re also developing some key motor skills. Working out how to move their hands to get the puppets to move the way they want to is teaching them crucial fine motor control, and they can watch the teachers show them how to do it.

It relates to…

  • EYFS – Physical Development – Moving and handling

Any tips?

  • Finger puppets are particularly good for getting littles ones to learn how to move those digits in the right way.
  • Getting children to think about how the puppets are making certain noises with their mouths is also a great way for them to learn phonics in a passive way, as they move the mouths of their puppets to make certain sounds.
8. Conflict Resolution

Developing ideas around how to deal with conflict is another skill we can learn from the puppets. Children who might not yet be adept at dealing with difficult situations can learn a lot from trying their ideas out on puppets first.

For one, you can model great conflict resolution ideas through your own puppetry. Once you’ve done that, the children may find that they’re exploring the same themes of conflict resolution in their own role-playing with the puppets, and exploring ideas on how to deal with difficult situations as they go.

It relates to…

  • EYFS – PSED – Making relationships
  • EYFS – PSED – Managing feelings and behaviour

Any tips?

  • Try out a diverse area of disagreements in your own puppetry, through problems with sharing, and arguments about who gets to play what role, up to what to do when the other children don’t want to play your game.
  • This will also naturally come round to some of the ideas we talked about with emotional development, helping the children to recognise their own feelings and sympathise with others more easily.
9. They love it!

This is the real clincher. Children just naturally love puppets. It’s something they find engaging, and the role-playing aspect of what’s going on is naturally attractive to them as well.

This is obviously important because you want the children to be having a good time in the setting, but it’s also how children learn the best. When they’re having fun, they’re going to be paying attention and learning all the great lessons that they can learn from the puppets.

It relates to…

  • CoEL – Active Learning
  • Just about everything!

Any tips?

  • Be aware that the concept of what’s going on may be lost on some younger children or children with SEN. It also may not be for everyone. Make sure that you’re taking each child into account and not creating an activity that some children are unable to fully take part in.
  • When you’re doing the puppetry, let the children lead the way and build on their feedback during the performance. Sticking to a tight script or storyline is unlikely to really resonate with them.

Katie says…

“We learn through what we love, and children learn through what they’re interested in. They are really instantly drawn and engaged with puppets and live performance, music, dance, drama – it really engages them and captures their imagination.”

Getting started

Convinced but don’t know where to start? We’ve got a few nice lists to get you ready for your own puppeteering masterclass.

Ideas for puppets:

  • Commercially sold puppets. Make sure you have a diverse range or go for familiar animals instead.
  • Baby bath mitts often come with friendly animal faces on.
  • Novelty oven gloves come in plenty of interesting shapes and sizes.
  • Old film canisters with material over the top can make great finger puppets.
  • Play figures with holed out bottoms also work well.
  • Basic sock puppets are an easy thing to start with, and the children can help make them.
  • Want some inspiration to make your own puppets? This site has plenty of ideas.

Ideas for the theatre:

  • Commercially sold puppet theatres. Make sure there’s space for children and adults to hide under the stage and still reach up high enough for the puppets to show!
  • Use an overturned table with some material to dress the sides.
  • Hang a curtain or piece of material between two chairs.
  • Use a curtain with a curtain rail across the bottom half of an open doorway.
  • Make a window into a cardboard box.

How to perform

Really, we couldn’t come up with a better list than this one from Drama Start Books. Some great ideas to make your characters convincing and effective for the children!

The Coconut Day Nursery Story

Interested in more? Read how this ‘Oustanding’ nursery puts play first in everything they do.