Teaching Peace with Elyse: Heartful Puppets - Creating Safety

We may have disagreed on who should lead this country but, as teachers and parents, we can agree that all children have the right to be and feel safe.

Many of us across this great nation are now seeing heightened and often mercurial emotions as well as behavioral changes leading up to and after the election. Whether affected directly by aggressive behavior or indirectly through observing, hearing about it from friends, media or overheard adult conversations, children can be very aware despite our best attempts to keep them sheltered. There are those who are still deeply affected and believe either they or their friends and family are unsafe.

 An essential task as teachers of young children is to protect our students physically and emotionally. Fear, increased impulsivity, aggression, withdrawal and exclusion can be observed in or between some our students. Many teachers are wondering what to say and do to help comfort and reassure our most vulnerable children and create compassion and unity between us all. Toward this end, I have brought a longtime beloved puppet, out of ‘retirement.’


At a staff meeting recently, we discussed the importance of listening deeply to the children during this time of change. Teachers who remembered Turtle asked about the puppet I used to help children manage their emotions and better understand confusing circumstances such as death of pets, illness in their families and other life events. We shared stories with newer staff members of how the children believed he was real.

Last summer, a graduate, now a young woman, returned for a visit. Walking into my room, she saw her ‘old friend’ and shouted, “Turtle,” addressing him directly as she did when a child.

Turtle is a larger-than-child-sized puppet. His body is stuffed and soft. When not in use to model problem solving, he was often used to cuddle up to or in the children’s dramatic play. At times, the children helped me manipulate him, working his limbs or holding up his heavy head. He was loved for many decades and like the Velveteen Rabbit he became quite worn and was quietly retired to a place of honor in my home.

Turtle is back at school. He is now wearing a big red felt heart that is broken in half. It is held together with several safety pins. When asked “why he has that on his shell,” I say he’s feeling sad. He wants to play with the children but, because he doesn’t look like other turtles he is excluded. Usually, several voices ring out with, “I’ll play with you. I’ll be your friend.” Discussions on friendship and inclusion often follow.

I also let the children know that it's safe to talk about how they are feeling or what they are thinking, I tell them that Turtle listens to everyone, understands and helps them understand themselves and others.

When asked “what are those silver things on the heart,” I say they are called safety pins. It’s a prompt that opens a discussion on how can we help Turtle feel safe. I’m thinking of closing the crack between the two halves of the heart as the children come up with ideas about what we can do to help him feel safe and included. 


You can create a special time when you bring out a puppet for the purpose of simply listening to how the children are feeling. One to one or in small groups will be best to create an emotionally safe space. You may need to use a list of feelings for those who are not as emotionally literate.

You can designate a beloved classroom puppet or create/ bring in a new one for the task of listening to the children. A puppet is easier to talk to than adults. Children can say things to puppets they might not say to an adult.

If you introduce into your daily program the idea that a puppet can be a good friend that listens, when special circumstances arise, using the puppet is a natural extension of your ongoing work.

You might create a listening puppet with extraordinarily long arms. After the children speak, you might ask if they’d like a hug from the puppet. You can say that when you are really listened to, and feel heard, it's like receiving a giant hug.

Keep the puppet accessible. You can suggest that they bring the puppet to you if they’d like or can play with it on their own or with others.

Observe the children to see how else they use the puppet and whether you need to join in as yourself or help facilitate.

My wish for the holiday season and New Year:

Puppets such as Turtle are peace-makers. They can be used to teach listening skills, empathy and compassion.

May there be peace in our classrooms, our homes, schools and communities. May there be peace in our hearts.