Why a puppet can change your school for good

By Olivia Karaolis

Celebrating World Autism Day? Bring a puppet to school. World Autism Day is always an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the important issues relating to Autism –  raising awareness, promoting acceptance and celebrating the contribution of autistic individuals to our society. But it’s also a day that offers an opportunity to us as educators. To ask ourselves – how can we be part of ensuring that all schools are positive and rich places of learning for all students? And by that, I mean absolutely every student in an education that is inclusive.

As part of a recent review of the literature, I learned of the work being done at Macquarie Fields High School by professional puppet maker and teacher librarian Katherine Hannaford. It was a wonderful reminder of the many ways that the object of a puppet is more than a toy, and how this artform, too often limited to early childhood and primary settings, can be a valuable tool in a secondary school context as well.  It was a wonderful reminder of how Creative arts and puppetry can be a vital step towards inclusion for all students. Along with other studies of high school aged students, this work is highlighting the possibilities of puppetry for many educational purposes as well as their value as a tool to support the wellbeing of autistic adolescents and young people.

Lecturer in Puppetry and Object Theatre, Cariad Astles, explains how the object of the puppet, frequently used in Theatre for Development and in educational and therapeutic contexts as the puppet can embody the real world and provide a safe distance to discuss difficult subjects or enable difficult conversations.  For this reason, the puppet is an ideal object as it may suit the communicative preferences of autistic individuals and provide a more comfortable and positive social space to engage with others. In my own research with younger children, puppets were found to impact the relationships between children and educators, creating a more positive, playful learning environment and one that elicited conversations for all children, including autistic children, children with disabilities and children speaking English as an additional language. What was so interesting in this study and something that I had noticed in all my previous work in schools was the impact of the puppet in changing perceptions- the teachers saw the children differently, and through the opportunity to see that child interact and engage with a puppet started to presume competence.

Puppets change teacher attitudes as they provide children and young people with a voice and a tool to express their thinking in ways that are uniquely their own. In playing with puppetry, the child or student can participate in a shared encounter with one another or with their educator. It is through these encounters that the educator can ‘see’ this person’s interests, ways of playing, humour, and competence. The puppet contributes to a positive learning environment and takes away the pressure that a question from an adult or another person can place on students, in particular autistic students.

A puppet is an artform and an object that teachers can use to provide opportunities to engage children and young people in their learning and in their classroom community. Teachers can consider the following questions to guide their thinking about ‘how’ to use a puppet in their classroom:

(1) What is the potential barrier that the puppet is going to remove? For example (Communication, Interest). Puppets have been shown to motivate student interest and promote engagement, in younger children, this can be due to the visual appeal of the puppet and the sense that the puppet is magical and appeals to their imagination. For older students, the puppet can be created in class to represent themselves, or a character from literature, film or as a political or historical figure. Difficult topics or issues can be explored from a position of safety as the object of the puppet is ‘speaking’ and expressing the ideas and not the puppeteer. The teacher is also less authoritative and can have the permission to be playful and creative with their students and therefore creating a different dynamic in the classroom.

2) Where do I plan to use the puppet? (History, King Lear, Dance, Music, PDHPE, Drama, Science discussions, Literacy, Morning Circle).The opportunities to utilize puppets is limitless and one than lends itself  to cross curriculum priorities as well as General Capabilities such as encouraging Critical and Creative Thinking and Personal and Social Capability. The puppet is an ideal way for children and young people to express who they are in the creation of the puppet or in the animation of the puppet. Rather than using the puppet to “teach” or “model” social skills, see puppetry as an opportunity to for an individual to discover and share who they are, without an expectation of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and instead an opportunity for us all to learn about ourselves, one another and to make meaning about an issue or concept.

 (3) What do the children like? (favourite animals, creatures, or activities, textures, colours)
preferences? While a beautiful hand puppet can be ideal for early childhood or primary school, move beyond this notion of a puppet for your Secondary school students and think about the materials and objects that you can bring to life as a puppet. I have included a link here to inspire you.

A puppet can celebrate and speak to us all, without relying on a single spoken word. How inclusive is that? Bring a puppet to school and listen to everybody’s voice.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

3 thoughts on “Why a puppet can change your school for good

  1. Leanne Guihot-Balcombe says:

    A wonderful article about a wonderful medium that brings so much inclusion, understanding, empowerment and confidence to young people.

  2. Olivia Karaolis says:

    Thank you! I feel the same way!

  3. John Nicholas Saunders says:

    A great article! Thank you, Olivia. Such impactful and important research you’ve done in this space.

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