Your first lesson teaching children English using Theatre is an important one because it’s where you present yourself for the first time and depending on that first impression will determine if students decide to enrol in your courses or not. It’s really a make or break situation.
So how do you initially break the ice with young children and prepare them for a fun filled lesson of language learning?
An adapted version of “10 Green Bottles sitting on the Wall” for ESL pre-schoolers. This is a fun and simple song to introduce numbers 1-5 and provides lots of vocabulary practice (frog, green, log, jump, splash).
I bring along to class some frog masks for the children to wear and act out the song themselves. They have great fun jumping and splashing in a pretend pond.
Puppetry is an ancient form of theatre originating back thousands of years. It is as popular with children today as it was in the past. Look at the Muppets, for example. Who doesn’t adore Kermit the frog or Miss Piggy?
Puppets are magical and entertaining characters and bring about positive responses from both young and and this makes them invaluable language resources for teachers.
Young children are naturally intrigued by puppets as their eyes immediately light up when they meet one. They believe they are real and connect with them in a unique way that they do not with adults. They also encourage even the shyest of children to participate in playing games or correcting the funny mistakes the puppet makes.
To use puppets to teach English, you do not need to be a ventriloquist or expert in puppetry, I am definitely not! You may even feel silly imitating voices but by following a few simple tips and a little practice in front of a mirror you will discover how to find your “own voice” to help your puppets and stories come to life and interact with children successfully.
Choosing a puppet
I often use a variety of puppets and masks in class to compliment and bring to life stories, songs and games and finger or sock puppets are ideal for tiny hands to play “let’s pretend” or sing with.
But for more specific, guided activities I recommend choosing a special teacher’s puppet that can visit the class on a regular basis and assist in teaching the children. I keep my teacher’s puppet separately in a cupboard and only I have access to it so the children only see the puppet “alive” and identify it as my English teaching assistant/friend and not simply a toy.
Large character/signing puppets make ideal teacher’s puppets. They have a full working mouth and glove hand which is useful to wave, shake hands, point and pick up objects or flashcards. Character puppets are very expressive and naturally energetic puppets and ideal for older children, but be aware that young children often believe they really are alive and can sometimes be little intimidated by them or get upset. In these cases I have an English friend in the form of a puppet who makes regular visits to my classroom. His name is Toby, he is a shy furry turtle who doesn’t speak the children’s native language, only English. The class welcome Toby with hugs and kisses and encourage him to appear from the safety of his shell by communicating with him in English with a simple “Hello Toby”, “Good morning Toby” or, “Wake up Toby!”.
8 Tips on using a “Character Puppet”
Puppet Identity – Give the puppet a name and some personal information that could interest the children and encourage them to get to know the puppet by asking it some simple questions.
What’s your name?
Where are you from?
How old are you?
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
What’s your favourite colour/food/music?
Puppet Photo Album –
Take photos or videos of the puppet to show the children or send them a postcard if the puppet goes on holiday. Examples can be: around town, in the bathroom, in the garden, making dinner. Use the photo album as a lead in exercise to finding out more information about the puppet and it’s environment. For example what the puppet likes to eat. Encourage the children to ask it questions.
Do you like carrots?
Do you like ice-cream?
Do you like tomatoes?
What’s your favourite dessert?
The puppet doesn’t necessarily have to answer by speaking if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable giving it a voice. It can communicate by whispering in the teacher’s ear and the teacher then communicates to the class what the puppet has said.
Often actions and sounds can speak louder than words so, as an alternative, let the puppet answer positively by jumping up and down excitedly and making funny appreciative noises or negatively by shaking it’s head or pretending to be sick. This makes the children laugh.
Fruit Basket – Children are often very inquisitive about puppets and they especially like opening and putting their fingers in puppet’s mouths or feeding them objects. A good idea is to bring to class some “food props” (either real or plastic) for the children to identify and feed the puppet. Sometimes the puppet could get carried away and pretend to eat a child’s hand or nibble their nose which children love.
A sensitive puppet – Remember to approach young children gently with character puppets as some children can become scared especially if the puppet reacts abruptly or is over excited. In these cases try withdrawing the puppet, make it reflect the child’s shyness or simply take the focus away from the child and onto something or someone else. Don’t ever force the child to interact with the puppet if you see they are unwilling.
Storytelling puppet – Let the puppet assist the teacher in reading a story in class. The puppet can simply turn the pages of the book or help give out props or masks to the children to aid their understanding of the story. For the more adventurous teachers, the puppet can be dressed in a costume and interpret the main character of the story. Eric Carle’s book Brown Bear for example, lends itself very well to using a brown bear glove puppet. I usually give the puppet a gruff voice and a pair of toy binoculars as a prop and my class helps by interpreting the animal characters in the story by wearing paper masks.
An Active Puppet – It is very important that the children always see the puppet animated from start to end. I usually set up my character puppet outside the classroom before the beginning of the lesson so the children don’t see the puppet being taken out of an old box or cupboard. I announce that a very special English guest is coming to class, this secures the children’s’ attention and creates some buzz and curiosity. The puppet can then make a theatrical entrance wearing a costume or carrying a suitcase full of props or photos to show and engage the children. At the end of each activity don’t just discard the puppet without care but let it either say goodbye and leave the room or go back into his house still alive. An alternative is to make a little bed or suitcase for him where he can sleep and the children can tuck him in and say “goodnight”.
Over use – Try not to drag out activities too long or over use the puppet as it can lose it’s novelty and magic. Try and alternate finger puppets, glove puppets and character puppets each week and keep each activity to maximum 10 minutes.
Operating the puppet
Most children are happy to suspend their disbelief and won’t mention the fact that the teacher is operating the puppet but some children do so be prepared for the some children to mention very loudly “It’s not real, I can see your arm moving the puppet!”. I personally don’t try and cover this obvious fact up but rather prefer to simply say: “Yes I am helping Toby to move and speak”. Children are usually satisfied with that answer and happy to carry on interacting with the puppet regardless.
Choose the puppet you feel most comfortable with, play and enjoy!
To introduce this popular song to my class of 5-6 year olds I made a simple felt board out of an old cardboard box, covered and taped it with a black flannel blanket.
To make the monkeys, mummy and doctor I downloaded some materials and laminated them. It is a good idea to laminate and protect the characters and stick double sided tape to the back so they can be attached and removed easily from the felt board.
At the end of the lesson I distribute some paper monkey finger puppets or masks which the children colour, cut out and use to sing the song again during the next lesson.
Children enjoy making their own finger puppets and it is a great way to involve and engage them in reviewing numbers and new vocabulary.
As an alternative – encourage children to interpret and re-enact the song using monkey masks and simple costumes for the Mummy and Doctor characters. Bring to class some props for example toy telephones for the children to use.
*Five little monkeys jumping on the bed (hold up 5 finger puppets)
One fell off and bumped his head (make one finger puppet roll down to the floor and tap your head with your fist)
Mummy called the doctor, (hold up finger and thumb to your mouth and ear miming a telephone)
And the doctor said
No more monkeys jumping on the bed (wag your index finger from left to write to indicate no)
Puppets are positive creatures that bring about positive responses. They fascinate and engage both children and adults in a special way. Children are willing to suspend belief, and react to a puppet as if it were real. They find it motivating using puppets in “pretend play” as they stimulate creativity and help develop imagination and vocabulary, preparing them for the real-life situations they will meet later on.Today many parents and teachers also find use for puppets for educational activities to teach children about letters, numbers, people, problem solving and safety issues. As an ESL teacher I use them to enrich storytelling, elicit new vocabulary, sing songs and even introduce classroom rules!