Puppet play: setting the stage for social skills

Beth Onufrak, PhD, uses puppets to interact with Owen Donsker (4) of Phoenix.

The crowd cheers. The actors take a bow. The curtain closes with a dramatic swish. But this isn’t the latest production at ASU Gammage—it’s just a few preschoolers at the end of a classroom puppet show.

Puppet play offers preschoolers endless learning opportunities. They’ll sharpen many skills as they negotiate plot development, build vocabulary as they speak lines, tap creative energy as they design sets and gain confidence as they entertain others. No wonder those well-worn little puppet stages remain staples in libraries and classrooms.

An experiment conducted at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale revealed that encouraging puppet play in tandem with reading stories was particularly effective in reinforcing sharing skills. During the study, teachers read books to preschoolers with themes involving sharing. Afterward, teachers offered puppets to the preschoolers and invited them to act out what they had heard. Researchers found the group modeled more sharing behavior in their real-world interactions with one another following the study.

Many childrens’ therapists have embraced puppet play to help kids identify and manage emotions. Deborah Pettitt, LPC, director of family attachment at Christian Family Care in Phoenix, is a registered play therapist.  She uses puppet play to teach children “feelings vocabulary.” With puppets, she says, “we can help children use phrases such as ‘I need…’ or ‘I feel…’ so they learn to name their feelings instead of engaging in tantrums when they’re frustrated or overwhelmed.”

“Parents can learn a lot about their children by watching them play with puppets,” says Pettitt. “For children, their reality is expressed in play. When they play out a social interaction with puppets, they’ve truly experienced those scenarios. And in our role-play, we can guarantee a positive outcome as they practice new words and skills. With preschoolers, remember: if they play it, they’ve done it.”

Phoenix child psychologist Beth Onufrak, PhD, jokes that the puppets she uses in her practice serve as her “co-therapists.” Parents bring their preschoolers to her when they have concerns about chronic aggressive behavior, such as biting, or to help their children cope with life changes, such as divorce.

“Dr. Beth”—as she’s known to her clients—believes that one of the most important things puppets do is “draw a child out, while giving them some distance from the problem.” Adults reason with words, she says. “For very young children, those words are invisible. Puppets make problems and solutions vividly come to life.”

Aside from their value helping teachers, therapists and parents promote positive social interaction, puppets have enduring appeal just for fun. Puppet play sparks one of childhood’s most precious resources: the imagination.

Puppets are a low-cost alternative to noisy, glitzy toys. If you don’t have any puppets around the house, they’re easy to make. Find some old socks or brown paper bags and markers, and you’re set. Your post-dinner entertainment is just minutes away—and just think what you might learn about your preschooler!