Teaching Peace with Elyse: Puppet Power: Compassionate Listening

While on vacation, I received an email with a photo attached that was taken in my absence. It was from a colleague who had gone to elementary and high school with a girl I had taught when she was five years old. Now an adult, the girl had come to visit her alma mater. Viewing the photo, I laughed seeing that In between the two young women was my handmade puppet Turtle.

My colleague’s friend remembered Turtle from her days at preschool. I remembered this lovely young woman as a bright five-year-old, but wondered what it was about the puppet that made him memorable after two decades. 
He is far from being a cute, cuddly little puppet. He’s very large, heavy and awkward to manipulate. It usually takes more than one child, sometimes two or three with one working the head and the other(s) the arms. I’ve witnessed a few discover that they could wear him like a hat by fitting the opening for an adult’s hand on top their own heads. They could then manipulate his arms and make him walk as they lie hidden behind him. I love observing how free the children feel to explore manipulating puppets.
I’ve often had children greet me on the streets of San Francisco and ask about Turtle. Others who return for a school visit turn towards him, enthusiastically saying, “Hi, Turtle,” much like they would towards an old friend or former classmate.
One alum recently told me that she loved Turtle. When asked why that may be she immediately replied, “He always listened to me.” Her answer might be the reason he is so memorable. For isn’t that what most of us desire, no matter our age: to feel heard?
Turtle was one tool I have used to help develop the children’s emotional intelligence. He helps them name and express their feelings appropriately. I bring my own compassion to the children through the voice of a puppet. To them, it was Turtle who patiently listened and responded with kindness and wisdom.
Puppets are a bridge of communication between children and adults. Children seem more willing to speak their hearts and minds to a puppet. Turtle was a key to their inner worlds and I did not take the responsibility lightly. Having a private moment with Turtle might reveal everything from a squabble with a friend to a life event such as the death of a beloved pet. Whatever the circumstance, Turtle was there for them.
While in his current role Turtle is more of a playmate, he also helps them in befriending their fears to face what scares them. Because of his size and, yes, I will admit to his strangeness—or let me say, uniqueness—the youngest children often find him scary. I sit with them and help them voice their fears. Talking about what scares them rather than hiding their feelings, even from themselves, can be of great benefit. 
We look carefully and notice what about him is scary. Sometimes they’d say, “It’s his eyes” or “He’s too big.” At times they have no idea, they just feel frightened. I will put him back in his shell, folding his legs and arms and tucking his head so that only his soft shell made of old shoulder pads are visible.

“I’ll check in with you at another time and see if you are still afraid. Or if you are no longer scared, let me know and we’ll take him out of his shell.
Not one to skip over a teaching moment, when others protest my putting him away I say, “Everyone is afraid of something. It’s all right to feel fear. It helps to talk about it.” Weeks later, some still gently ask their friends if they are still scared or whether Turtle can come out and play.
I keep him close by, inside his shell, and notice children offering him drawings or whispering to him. Many children remember when they felt afraid and on their own tell me that they no longer feel that way. They seem empowered at being able to transform their fears. In time, Turtle becomes a friend to almost all the children.
While being a wonderful tool for dealing with fears, I was no longer using him to deeply listen to the children’s full range of emotions and concerns. Reflecting on the greater role that Turtle played in his earlier career, I felt some sadness thinking he would no longer have a place in the hearts of the new children I would work with. Immediately, I realized I had a choice. I could bring back the old Turtle who listened attentively to all they had to say.
Upon returning to school, I looked anew at this puppet who has become much like the Velveteen Rabbit. He is well worn and much loved. I noticed, fondly, the many holes where some children had removed the gems from his legs. Was it the attractive shiny decorations or did they want to take a piece of him home? 

How endearing the stitches other children made with their plastic needles and yarn to carefully mend their friend.
I am inspired to continue with his makeover. I realize that Turtle, who I often thought of as near retirement, still has more good work to do.

Teacher Suggestions:
Designate one puppet as the compassionate listener. Develop the puppet’s character with qualities of nurturing, kindness, non-judgment, wisdom and empathy. Of course, it is these qualities in you that are projected onto the puppet. 
Your responsiveness and active listening through the puppet let the children know how important and valued they are. 
There are many ways you can accomplish this. Here are a few: 

  • Gather the children in a circle and create an interactive session around a developmental issue happening in the classroom. Have the puppet tell a story of what happened to him in areas of friendship, being teased or being excluded. Having him express a myriad of feelings is a way to open up a discussion with the children. 

“Hey, that happened to me too,” is often heard in our puppet circles. The puppet can then draw the child into the discussion by saying, “Tell me about it. And then what happened? And then what? How did you feel?” 
This works well with shyer or less articulate children. They can be encouraged to enter the conversation by having the puppet articulate similar circumstances or feelings like their own.
Or you can ask: “Did anyone ever feel that way? What happened? What did you do? What helped?”

  • If there is a problem, whether individual or between children, have them tell what happened. If emotions are heated and raw, you might want them to first draw what happened or what they feel before talking about it. For more than one child, you can model through the puppet, taking turns without interrupting each other. As part of the facilitation the puppet can help in creative problem solving.
  •  Let the children know that the puppet is available to listen to any problems they may be having or big feelings that need a kind ear. It’s important to be neutral and accepting when listening to their feelings. As we want to keep the road of communication open, it’s important they don’t feel judged by the puppet’s words or body language. Once trust has been established, offering other choices of action for expressing those same feelings can be added to the communication.

I'm interested in your comments and hearing what you have discovered.