Teaching Peace with Elyse: Calming Quick Reactions & Big Emotions With Puppets

 “That’s mine!”

“No, it’s mine.”

“You took it.”

“No I didn’t.”

“I left it right here when I got up. You did take it.”

“I didn’t.”

“You did.”

“I didn’t.”

The four-year-olds were quick to react. The argument grew louder, with emotions becoming more intense and no resolution in sight. This happened frequently in several classrooms. It was time to call in the puppets to assist in calming quick reactions and upset feelings.

Connie, the expressive artist at our other school, and I put our heads together with the teachers. We came up with a structure for our improvisation based on actual classroom scenarios. Having the children be able to observe the puppets mirroring them from the emotional safety of the audience seat is a gentle way to provide awareness and new understanding for young children. 

 The Expressive Arts Program began 28 years ago when I entered a San Francisco preschool hand in hand with my 2 1/2 year old daughter. She quickly raced ahead of me, metaphorically speaking, and I stayed on with a small band of puppets and the idea of helping children resolve conflict through puppetry.

 This idea from then director Charlotte Burchard has grown and spread successfully over the years. Using scenarios from the day-to-day lives of the children, interactive puppet plays are created. I’ve provided an example of the one we recently developed about quick reactions:


 We used Octo the Octopus, a favorite of one school, and Tiny Turtle, the other school’s puppet of choice. (See last blog: Fair/No Fair, part II for puppetry tips.)

Octo and Turtle are drawing, each with identical markers.
Octo gets up from the table and her marker unknowingly rolls to the floor.

Octo returns and looks for her marker. She notices Turtle using the same color and type of marker.
Octo gets really upset very quickly. She screams in an angry and accusatory tone, "Hey! You took my marker! That was mine!'

Turtle, gently at first, tells Octo that he's been using that one and does not know what happened to hers. Octo doesn't believe him and gets even madder that Turtle won't give back her marker.

Turtle now gets upset too. He’s angry and sad because Octo keeps saying something about him that is not true.

The argument gets louder and louder.

PAUSE/AUDIENCE INTERACTION  (As suggested in last blog, simply freeze the puppets and talk directly to the children.)

·         Ask the children how the puppets are feeling and what the problem is.

·         Has this or similar personal experiences happened to them?

·         What solutions did they find successful? The children often have many tools to calm their body that they can share with each other.

·         Choose one tool. Act it out with the puppets.

·         Introduce a new one: FLIP YOUR LID*

 Describe how our brain "flips its lid" when our emotions build quickly. The thinking part of our brain needs to catch up to calm the emotional part.

 FLIP YOUR LID with breath tools:

 1.     Start with tucking your thumb (portraying the primitive/lizard/emotional part of brain) underneath your four fingers (portraying the cognitive/thinking part of brain.)

 2.     Have your hand shake, getting excited, and pop your four fingers up (you can surprise the children with sticky eyes on your thumb.) You’ve just "flipped your lid."

3.     Inhaling Deeply: When you’ve “flipped your lid,” breathing deeply helps. Close your fingers over your thumb again, turning fist into a flower/rose, bring rose to your nose and take a deep breath. (The children usually begin imitating you without prompting at this point.)

4.     Exhaling: To encourage a long out-breath, pop your fingers up again. Tell the children they are either candles to blow out (mixing metaphors won’t likely bother most, but you can also turn them into petals, blowing them softly away.)**

5.     Deep Breathing continues: You can blow out your four fingers, or use one finger over and over again. Inhale the rose and exhale the candles/petals for as long as it takes to calm down. Wagging your thumb to show a few more breaths are needed.

6.     Calm: When calm again, your hand will be in starting position with fingers over your tucked thumb.Just for fun, add sticky eyes to your fingers.

PRACTICE with the children

This hands-on approach will become a tool long remembered and has the potential to calm those quick emotions.

 RESUME SHOW with both Turtle and Octo trying it out.

They both calm down and discover the marker on the floor and go back to drawing peacefully.

MORAL TO THE STORY: It’s difficult to solve a problem if we let our emotions take over. We are more able to find a peaceful solution by first calming our bodies and letting our thinking brain work for us.

 FOLLOW UP: Ask the children to notice times when they grow quickly upset during the week.

“See if you can notice when you 'flip your lid'. Breath in the rose and blow out the candles to help calm your body.”

 TEACHERS and PARENTS: The next time children quickly react, you can remind them of how the puppets calmed down. At times you only have to hold up your own hand with the wagging thumb or help them breathe into the "rose" of a closed hand.

OPTION: Just for fun we added sticky eyes to the thumb (the emotional part of the brain) and the fingers (the thinking part of the brain). When the thinking brain catches up to the emotions, it brings inner peace.

 *FLIP YOUR LID is a tool learned at a presentation for staff development day by ECE consultant and author Linda Brault.  Presentation was based on her book Children with Challenging Behavior: Strategies for Reflective Thinking

 **Thank you to teachers Saeda and Rebecca for inspiration on using a flower and candle for calming emotions. Combining flip your lid with breath images morphed a new tool. Thank you to the Rainbow Dolphins for encouraging our spontaneous expansion of this idea.