Volume V- 2000

Can I Love You? A Child's Adventure with Puppets and Play
by George Dempsie

         George Dempsie is a kindergarten teacher at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania, where he has been on the faculty for ten years. He recently completed a master's degree in Children's Literature at Pennsylvania State University.


        It was the first day of school. As my newly formed group of first-graders gathered on the carpet for attendance, one girl lagged behind in the cloak area, her tiny frame half hidden by the bulky backpacks and sweaters. I happened to notice her and tried to coax this reticent child to join us at the carpet. She was very reluctant. When I asked her to tell me her name, she remained utterly silent, yet her huge brown eyes flashed volumes of fear and uncertainty. I wondered if she understood English. I also questioned whether she had wandered into the wrong classroom--her small stature looked more like that of a kindergartner than a first-grader. In the next few minutes, as I took attendance, the girl's identity was revealed through the process of elimination. She was Shazana, a new student of English as a Second Language (ESL) who had just arrived from the Middle East. Shazana continued to be withdrawn and kept to herself throughout the remainder of our first day together. This did not surprise me, as I had worked with many other ESL children over the years who had gone through a similar nonverbal period as they became acclimated to their new environment.

        This predictable "silent" or "mute" period has been identified in literature by ESL researchers (Tabors and Snow, 1994; Itah and Hatch, l978). At lunch time, I decided that a quick review of Shazana's records would be helpful. I discovered that my initial perceptions had been correct--she was almost a full year younger than her new American classmates. This wide gap in age worried me because I was concerned that it might impede Shazana's social integration, an area identified by researchers as very important for young ESL learners who are just entering school (Handscombe, 1994). I questioned my principal about Shazana's placement. He felt it was least disruptive to her if she remained in my class. He also assured me that she would qualify for ESL tutoring from our school's ESL instructor. She could attend a daily half-hour session with him to support her English language acquisition. At the end of our first day of school, I watched as the children marched out the door to go home, with Shazana in tow, struggling to keep up with her taller new peers. I knew I had my work cut out for me.

A Puppet Named "Hilda

        As her new teacher in a regular education classroom, I wondered how I could effectively relate to Shazana as a new ESL student. I wondered how I could best create a classroom environment which would foster a ready acceptance for her within the classroom community. Little did I know that the answer would be at my fingertips, literally. The next day I introduced the class to my "team teacher"--a hand puppet named "Hilda." Shazana's interactions with the puppet are the basis for this article, which relates how my classroom puppet helped her become socially integrated within the classroom community. My observations and dialogue with her were gathered by audio taping daily sessions between the class and my puppet.

        Since my student teaching days, "Hilda" had become an integral part of my classroom program. After reading an article in a teaching magazine about the effectiveness of puppets with young children, I had searched in area toy stores for a hand-held puppet which I would feel comfortable using. I settled upon a small, orange felt puppet that resembled "Brunhilda," the famous comic strip character. I renamed her "Hilda," and in my mind I recreated a new character and personality for her as a little girl who could be perceived by the children as a fellow classmate. My student teaching supervisor and subsequent principals were all very supportive of my puppetry attempts. As I achieved success with my puppetry, I was often surprised that more of my colleagues did not try this effective teaching tool. Over the next few years, I continued to add to my hand-puppet collection. Hilda was soon followed by a larger orange puppet who became her mother and a younger friend named "Packy" which resembled the video game character Pac-man.

        The puppet characters lived in a purple cardboard box house which sat atop my filing cabinet behind my desk in the classroom. I purposely made the puppets inaccessible to the children; I wouldn't allow them to manipulate the puppets because I believed that this would detract from their mystique. They were reserved for teacher manipulation.

Our Problems Were Hilda's Problems

        The puppets would visit with the class for a few minutes every day. Often Hilda would share a poem or just talk with the children. Research has shown that puppets can be a dynamic learning tool in helping children develop communication skills (Quisenberry, 1972; Ackerman, 1994). I'd also learned through previous experience with Hilda that classroom puppetry provided unusual opportunities for constructive social experiences involving cooperation, peer interaction, and the sharing of ideas, feelings, and fantasies (Leyser, 1984). My puppets lived in a world which I constructed that closely mirrored daily events from within our particular classroom. For example, if a child wasn't getting along with a friend, then Hilda would have a similar problem. I always used Hilda in an impromptu fashion without imposed lines or set scripts. This helped me to better build upon the children's free interactions with her. This sort of "spontaneous improvisation" has been shown to stimulate children's thinking, imagination, creativity, and spontaneity (Leyser, l984). When giving life to the puppets, I was always in full view of the class. Most of the puppet visits occurred as I sat in a chair with the class gathered around me on the carpet. The children could see that I was giving voice to Hilda as my mouth moved, but somehow it never mattered to them with their vivid imaginations.

Shazana Smiles

        Throughout that second day of school, I had built momentum concerning the children's first meeting with Hilda. I mentioned to the class that at the end of the day they would have an opportunity to meet the resident of the purple house which they'd been asking about. There was an air of excitement as the children gathered at the carpet in anticipation of meeting my puppet friend. As I walked over to retrieve Hilda from her house, I was interrupted by a commotion of pushing, shoving, and angry voices behind me. I was very surprised to see who it involved--a well-mannered boy and Shazana, who up to that point had not yet spoken to any of us. As I helped sort out the problem, I learned that Shazana had asserted herself by displacing another child. She had insisted upon sitting up front in order to more closely view the puppet and me. Once the problem was resolved and we made room for both children, I retrieved Hilda and the class met her. The children-- especially Shazana--seemed entranced by the puppet. For the first time, I saw Shazana laugh and smile in the classroom as the puppet spoke to the children in her high-pitched, squeaky voice.

        Over the next few weeks as I observed Shazana's interactions with the puppet, I began to notice a pattern. The majority of her verbal interactions with Hilda appeared in the form of questions. Most of her questions occurred within the first two weeks as she got acquainted with the puppet. For example, within minutes of meeting the puppet, Shazana blurted out the following questions:

Shazana: (without raising her hand) What's your name?
Puppet: My name's Hilda--what's yours?

        Shazana giggled and would not answer the puppet. So I had Hilda respond by restating the question:

Hilda: Can you tell me your name?
(Shazana shakes her head "no.")
Hilda: No? Why not?

        Shazana responded by poking the puppet with her finger. I was surprised at her forwardness. All day leading to the puppet visit, she had remained a silent observer, interacting with no one in the class. She continued to interact freely with Hilda:

Shazana: Do you have a sister?
Hilda: No, I don't. Do you?
(Shazana shakes her head "No.")

Social Interaction: Goal One

        Over the next several days, many of the children asked questions when speaking to the puppets. However, Shazana tended to be the most inquisitive. She asked Hilda questions such as: "Are you a girl? Do you have a mouth?" and "Do you have a brother?" Her interactions with my other puppets were also in the form of questions. She asked Hilda's friend if she could speak English. She asked Hilda's mother if she could bring Hilda outside to visit. Research into the questioning communication of ESL students has shown that a student's questions are important in second language acquisition. Students will ask questions for two reasons--to negotiate meaning or to seek information (Skilton and Meyer, 1993). Clearly, Shazana's questions to my puppets fit into these categories. Research has also shown that students with a lower second-language proficiency make more confirmation checks and clarification requests (Skilton and Meyer, 1993). This finding was consistent with Shazana's status as a child who was new to our country and culture. Through her repeated questioning, she was able to verify her comprehension and begin to make sense of her new environment. As I evaluated Shazana's interactions with Hilda during the first week, I was struck by two things. First, because she hadn't spoken much in class, I had underestimated Shazana's oral language skills. Her comprehension and her English proficiency were much stronger than I had judged, as evidenced by her ability to communicate with the puppet. Thus, social integration would be my main concern for her. The rest of the class had not yet intentionally rejected her, but Shazana was being largely ignored by the group due to her lack of interaction with them. She seemed content to keep to herself.

Shazana Hides Her Name

        Secondly, I was intrigued by her continued reluctance in revealing her name, which she refused to tell Hilda, the class community, or me. Handscombe (1994) maintains that a child's name is an important symbol and that one of the important subtasks of becoming socially integrated involves the building of an identity. I felt that Shazana's refusal to reveal her name had some sort of symbolic significance. I suspected that as a new student, Shazana was too intimidated by her new environment and that this refusal to name herself was because it felt too risky for her. As I continued audio taping and transcribing Shazana's interactions with the puppets over the next month, other patterns began to emerge. I could see that she was beginning to bond with them:

Hilda: It's getting late; I have to go inside now.
Shazana: Can I kiss you? (She does so.)
Hilda: Have a nice evening.
Shazana: Can I love you?
Hilda: Sure! (The puppet returns to her house.)

        Shazana's request for permission to love the puppets, verified by her physically demonstrative behavior, was a sure sign to me that she was beginning to let down her guard in class. Many of Shazana's other interactions seemed to be concerned with the puppets' physical appearance:

Shazana: (to Hilda's mother) Do you have a mouth?
Mrs. Hilda: Yes, and I'm talking with it now. (Shazana reaches up to touch one of the puppet's curlers.)
Mrs. Hilda: That's one of my curlers. They make my hair look nice.
Shazana: Your nose is bigger.
Mrs. Hilda: Yes, my nose is bigger than my daughter's. Now I have to go in and get ready for work.

        I wondered if Shazana's focus on the visible, concrete, physical appearances of the puppets was due, in part, to her young age. She was almost a full year younger than my other students and clearly, using a Piagetian term, in the "preoperational" stage of her intellectual development. Children in this stage of thought connect to their world best through mental images: they lock into the perceptual world (Hendrick, 1980). I also thought that perhaps Shazana's emphasis on the physical aspect of the puppets might be related to her ESL status. I knew from experience that often such children--new to an educational system--rely heavily upon visual reinforcement in order to build background schema for understanding something.

First Conversations

        By mid-September, Shazana began having her first impromptu conversations with me while away from the puppets. These discussions centered around the physical appearances of the puppets. She commented upon the similarities between Hilda and a scarecrow doll. She explained to me that they both had a hat and mittens. On another occasion, one afternoon in mid-September when Hilda came out for her daily visit, the children were surprised to see a tiny Band-Aid on the puppet's cheek. Shazana was the first to notice this. She jumped from her seat, pointing to the puppet's face:

Shazana: What is this? What is there?
Hilda: (to the class) Does anyone know what I'm wearing?
Class: (in unison) A Band-Aid.
Hilda: I ran into the classroom and fell.
Shazana: Why it small? Hilda: Because it was a small cut.

        There were also a number of occasions when Shazana shared comparative observations about herself and the puppet. For instance, a few days after the puppet appeared with her Band-Aid, Shazana revealed her bandaged finger to Hilda. On another occasion she showed the puppet how strong she was becoming:

Shazana: (to Hilda) I have a little bit of muscles. (Shazana holds her arm up for Hilda to examine.) And you have, too!
Hilda: (gleefully) And I do, too!
Shazana: Let's see.

        On another occasion, Shazana got the puppet's attention in order to show off her newly braided hair. She insisted that Hilda should touch it. Shazana continued to make self-comparisons with the puppets:

Shazana: You have a, a eye bigger.
Hilda: I have bigger eyes?
Shazana: I have bigger you.
Hilda: Yes, yours are bigger than mine and you're taller than I am.

        I began to wonder if these self-comparisons with the puppet were Shazana's way of attempting to develop a connection with it. It seemed reasonable to me that as a young child, Shazana's age- appropriate egocentrism would factor into her initial attempts at reaching out to others (namely the puppets) in beginning socialization.

Do You Have Teeth?

        Throughout September I continued to see very little interaction between Shazana and the rest of the class although she would occasionally talk to me. She continued to keep to herself both in class and on the playground. However, her fascination with the puppets continued to grow. As I closely observed her interactions with Hilda, another interesting pattern emerged concerning Shazana's imagination and a physical attribute of the puppet:

Shazana: (to Hilda) Do you have a teeth?
Hilda: Well, what does it look like? Do I? (The puppet opens her toothless mouth and reveals an empty cavern for Shazana to examine.)
Shazana: YES.

        Several classmates began bantering back and forth with Shazana about the absence of teeth in the puppet's mouth. Still, she insisted that the puppet did have "a teeth." The next day, a similar experience occurred when Shazana insisted upon examining another puppet's mouth:

Shazana: Do you have a teeth? Let me open your mouth.

        The puppet complied and as Shazana examined the puppet's mouth, she giggled. The earlier interaction intrigued me because of Shazana's determined insistence that the toothless puppet did have teeth. I wondered if perhaps this insistence could be interpreted as an exertion of Shazana's imagination. From my other experiences using puppets with younger children, I often found that the imagination of the spectators (in this case, Shazana) often played a far greater part than the exertions of the actors (in this case, the toothless puppet). Other puppet research verifies this (Burn, 1977). In the article "Puppets: The Master Motivators," Montgomery (1982) asserted that children often attribute human qualities to puppets (p. 18). If one defines the imagination as "the power of the mind to form mental images or concepts of something that is not real or present" (Ackerman, 1994, p. 62), it can clearly be seen that Shazana "invoked" teeth into the puppet's mouth via her creative young imagination.

Strong Wish To Be Included

        By now it was early October and we'd been in school for a month. I was pleased as Shazana began showing an interest in the other children. I'd observe her on the outskirts of their play, quietly observing but not yet participating. She began imitating other children's behaviors during the puppet visits. Several children made pictures for the puppet and placed them in her mailbox. When Hilda would visit, she would "share" her mail with the class and offer a kind word about the pictures. The children enjoyed the attention that their mail received. On several occasions when Hilda asked the artist to identify himself/herself, Shazana proudly raised her hand. In both instances, it soon surfaced that the real artists were other children who were a bit unhappy that Shazana took credit for their work. I sensed that these attempts by Shazana were actually positive beginning signs of her longing to be included in the classroom community.

A Fuzzy Brown Bat

        Shazana also more positively imitated other classmates' behavior when several children started creating impromptu puppet friends for Hilda to meet. The children, including Shazana, created "instant" hand puppets by pulling their shirt sleeves over their hands and conversing with Hilda using disguised voices. Several days later, Shazana appeared with a store-bought hand puppet from home. It was a fuzzy brown bat. She was anxious to introduce it to Hilda, who was visiting with her new pet elephant:

Shazana: I have a new friend, but he won't scare you--he scare the elephant!

        Shazana held up her bat puppet and I made the elephant stampede away, amid shrieks of laughter from the class. The children also feigned fear of the bat, who with Shazana's help swooped through the crowd of children.

Hilda: You better put your friend away--it's hard to hold a ten-ton elephant! (Hilda then looks upset that her pet has run away.)
Shazana: No--he won't scare you.... He LOVE you! Don't be sad.

        I found it most interesting that Shazana chose to bring a bat puppet into class. Research suggests that the character which is created for a puppet "actually comes from some aspect of its creator that may not even be consciously exposed in everyday life... Its inner 'anima' is a gift of its builder" (Ackerman, 1994, pp. 62-63). Additional research concurs that the characters which a child chooses to represent through puppetry are often a revelation to both a therapist and a child (Currant, 1985). I thought that Shazana's choice of a bat was a very revealing one. Bats are small and possess a tiny voice (both of which I would use to characterize Shazana). But these tiny creatures also possess the incredible power to clear an entire room of people within seconds of their appearance. Perhaps Shazana, in her helplessness as an ESL student in a strange environment, longed for some power over her new situation. In short, she was able to use her bat as "a communication channel to allow a variety of feelings to flow in an acceptable way" (Burn, 1977, p. 4). She also reaffirmed her feelings of attachment toward my puppet by her declaration of love and concern.

A Symbolic Breakthrough

        Perhaps Shazana's increased self-confidence from using puppets led to the next event in amid-October which I felt was a symbolic breakthrough for her. It happened as the other children (were introducing their puppets to Hilda:

Beth: Hilda, my puppet is a little shy.
Hilda: (to Beth's puppet) Who are you? What's your name?
Beth: (speaking for the puppet) I don't really have one....
Hilda: I thought everyone had one... (Hilda turns to Shazana.) What's your name?
Shazana: SHAZANA!
Hilda: Now you can tell me! You wouldn't on the first day of school!

        It seemed like a major milestone to me that Shazana would finally reveal her name to Hilda and the rest of the classroom community. This was clearly a sign that she was finally feeling a connection to the group. Her further statements seemed to reiterate that she was seeing herself as part of the group:

Hilda: I have an idea.... I know how I can meet all of your puppet friends!
Shazana: AND ME, TOO!
Hilda: I want to have a party for all my puppet friends. Bring them to the party!

        At the puppets' party a few days later, Shazana continued to freely interact with my puppets. Each of the children brought their own puppet from home to attend Hilda's party. Many of the puppets wore costumes because it was the week of Halloween. This time, Shazana's puppet was a bear. Initially shy, it was soon coaxed into conversation by Hilda who was trying to determine what sort of bear it was. Shazana again demonstrated her affection for Hilda by making her bear hug and kiss Hilda following their talk. Around this time, I began to notice a change in Shazana's behavior. She began to participate with other children in games on the playground. She also began sharing positive things with the puppets about her accomplishments at home and at school, such as "I can read" and "I can swim."

        In early November she evidenced self-confidence by volunteering to stand in front of the class and recite a poem of Hilda's which she had tried to memorize. The puppet had given children copies of a simple poem to take home and practice reading. They were encouraged to join the puppet's poetry club by attempting to read or recite the poem from memory. Shazana enthusiastically raised her hand and bounced up front to attempt a recitation like her peers. When she reached the front of the class, however, she just giggled and looked around awkwardly.

Shazana Recites Hilda's Poem

        Being so much younger than her peers, it was obvious that she might not be successful at reciting the poem. I was thrilled that she even felt comfortable enough in the group to attempt it. I had my puppet intervene by offering to help her. Hilda broke the poem apart, line by line. Shazana repeated after the puppet. At the poem's conclusion, several children supported Shazana's attempts with words of encouragement and inclusion:

Bill: (to Shazana) You got into the poetry club!
Jim: Shazana--YOU did a poem!

        I was proud of the encouragement that these boys freely gave to Shazana, making her feel successful and included within our community of learners. It was just such an environment that Handscombe (1994) described in her article "Putting It All Together." She stated that "in effective mainstream classrooms, all students are socialized to accept responsibility for their own and each other's learning... and their feeling of belonging to the class group" (p. 350). By this time, although we had never openly discussed it, the class seemed well aware that Shazana was much younger than they were. This realization seemed to result in their treating her like a beloved little sister. At times, they were quite protective of her, and I observed them making a real effort to include her in their activities in class and on the playground. Shazana seemed happy in this role of "little sister," and she continued to relate well with the other children.

Self-Confidence Blossoms

        Her self-confidence continued to blossom, and the very next week she volunteered to stand in front of the group again and sing a song to Hilda and the class. She also evidenced her newly found self-confidence by volunteering to be Hilda's teacher. She instructed the puppet on how to play a computer game:

Shazana: Ah, Hilda... You want to play that game?
Hilda: You have a game? A computer game?
Shazana: You must play that.
Hilda: Turn it on and let me take a look. Why is it making all those bleeping noises? Shazana, what's happening?
Shazana: See?
Hilda: Oh, I see... you're pushing the orange buttons.
Shazana: Yes, do that.
Hilda: Will you help me? (Shazana complies by pushing the game's buttons. The computer bleeps and Shazana laughs.)
Hilda: There! That's fun!

Retrospect and Nostalgia

Retrospect and Nostalgia Shazana went on to have a very successful school year, integrating herself fully within our classroom community before returning to her country the following year. In retrospect, I am convinced that her successful social integration was greatly enhanced by her improvisational play experiences with my puppets. As an ESL student, her "first language" was really "play" which Lewis (1994) describes as "the basic language throughout which children anywhere in the world begin to make contact with each other and the things of their world" (p. 21). Hilda and her puppet friends provided a bridge between Shazana and my other students. Had it not been for the puppets, this social integration might not have occurred at all. The last day of school on the playground, I was filled with nostalgia as I watched the tiny girl who refused to tell us her name in September. Now totally absorbed in a game of tag, she was laughing and running with a group of friends who were vying for her attention. "Over here!" they yelled as they called her name in unison, "Shazana!" It was a name that none of us would soon forget.


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