With the return of Turtle, a child-sized puppet, to Expressive Arts, I am observing how this listening puppet I wrote of recently was being utilized. All children need someone to listen to them. While this is the task of parents, relatives, teachers and other care-givers, having a puppet that is also their "friend" can be of comfort particularly during stressful times.
While the older children were happy to incorporate Turtle into their dramatic play, some of the young three year olds were apprehensive, even a bit fearful. To alleviate their concerns, I sat alongside the puppet and manipulated him from a seated position. (If extended to his full height, Turtle is almost as tall as I am at five foot two.)
I explained in my own voice that Turtle was feeling excluded. Children were afraid to play with him because he looked so different from other Turtles. “He has people hands,” a 3 year old noted. “And strawberries for nose holes,” said another pointing to his own nostrils. “He’s too big,” declared a third child.
We discussed that while he may look different, we can learn to be his friend. A few came up and touched him. Others kept their distance. One child backed away.
“Are you afraid, “I inquired? When she nodded yes, I told her I’d tuck him inside his shell until everyone wanted him to come out and play.
I turned him upside down with the back of his shell showing. Some children helped me fold his head and long legs underneath. He looked like a huge rock. Although a couple of children were still wary, most children returned to their art-making unfazed.
I was surprised to learn that one child, who had been afraid, made a drawing for Turtle. Another made him a spider out of a straw container and colorful pipe cleaners. Still another brought a box over for his mail. The gifts were put inside.
The children requested that I sit and “make Turtle talk” while they showed him what they had made for him. I had the puppet appear to listen with interest and ask questions. They talked directly to him and seemed at ease. By the end of class, one child, initially apprehensive, had cuddled up to Turtle.
In their own time and own way, the children were making friends with what scared them. Now when they enter the room, their voices ring out, “Hi Turtle, we’re back. Do you want to play with us?”
Turtle, the puppet, who was excluded because he looked different is now welcomed and included in their play.
I wrote of creating a listening puppet for the classroom in my last blog: Heartful Puppets, Creating Safety. These suggestions were included:
- Designate a beloved classroom puppet or create/ bring in a new one for the sole task of listening to the children. Children can say things to puppets they might not say to an adult.
- 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.
- Introduce into your daily program the idea that a puppet can be a good friend that listens. Then, when special circumstances arise, using the puppet is a natural extension of your ongoing work.
- 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 with another puppet.
Here are specific suggestions for working with children’s fears.
- Name the feeling. Young children may not be able to recognize the emotion which is felt as a sensation or body impulse
- It is our job to help them acquire emotional literacy. Question where they feel it in their body. Offer them a choice of feelings and see if that helps. You can also take your best guess and inquire if this is correct.
- Acknowledge the feeling without expressing judgment. Many children are taught not to show fear. They may worry that they are not strong and brave. How often do we hear them say, I’m not afraid of anything! Let them know it’s OK to feel scared.
I often tell the children that trying to make friends with what scares them can change how they feel. I remind them that once they were afraid of Turtle or didn’t know if they wanted to be his friend. Now they happily include him in their play.
Giving children tools to manage their fears and other emotions is the gift that keeps on giving throughout their lives.