Image of teacher reading a harmony and heart book to the students

The Power of Puppet Play in Child Development

For Primrose® parents, it’s not unusual to hear after-school tales of Benjamin, Katie, Molly, Libby or Erwin from their children. These aren’t classmates; they’re five of the 12 Primrose Friends puppets that teachers use every day to enhance learning and build character. 

Puppets are fun for kids, but they’re much more than that. Puppet play is proven early learning  tool that helps children develop their cognitive abilities and social-emotional skills. 

The Primrose Friends help teachers introduce abstract concepts, inspire critical thinking and encourage problem-solving, says Dr. Lauren Starnes, vice president of early childhood education, research and development. They help children develop vocabulary, practice regulating their emotions and gain confidence. 

Perhaps most importantly, the puppets model character traits that provide the foundation for Primrose’s Balanced Learning® curriculum: generosity, cooperation, friendship, respect for others, fairness, keeping promises, caring, honesty, conservation, courage, citizenship and responsibility. 

How Puppets Are Used in the Primrose Classroom 

The Primrose Friends each represent an important character trait and serve as valuable aids for teachers working to instill positive behaviors. For example, Katie® the Cat embodies cooperation and interacting harmoniously with others. So if children are having trouble sharing, the teacher can pick up Katie and talk from her perspective, Starnes says. Katie the puppet might say to children, “It’s important that we care about our friends and that we think of nice ways we can share with one another. I like to share my paints with Erwin.” 

The Friends can provide emotional support for children when they need it. If a shy child is hesitant to talk in front of the class, the teacher might take out Percy® the Rooster, who symbolizes courage, and ask, “Do you want Percy to help you tell your story?” Children often find it easier to share their thoughts or feelings through puppets, Starnes says, and they relish the opportunity to think creatively and express themselves. 

“They use their imagination and adapt what they’re doing socially to fit the character’s personality,” she says. “In doing that, they’re internalizing the character trait. Those elements of being a caring, compassionate citizen of the world are a cornerstone to the Balanced Learning curriculum.”

The Primrose Friends help teach academic lessons, too, through each puppet’s classroom role. For example, Benjamin® the Bear monitors the weather every morning, and the children dress him appropriately for the day. Billy® the Duck loves music and likes to dance during Harmony & Heart™ music lessons. Each character has a book, one version for infants through age 2 and the other for age 3 to kindergarten. 

“These characters reinforce academic content, and they reinforce social and emotional content,” Starnes says. “It’s a lot less intimidating when a puppet reminds us what it is to be a good friend than when a teacher does.” 

The Child Development Science Behind the Puppets 

Research on how children learn has shown that puppets bring a multitude of benefits: Used strategically, puppets increase classroom communication, strengthen teacher-student interaction, establish a positive classroom climate, and help children feel more engaged, motivated and relaxed. All of this helps children to reach important developmental milestones. 

Puppets help children understand and retell stories, both of which are important early literacy skills. They’re accessible to children with different learning styles and needs, including children on the autism spectrum and those learning English, Starnes says. Puppets can even boost attention span. 

“Research shows that children’s attention is heightened by the use of puppetry,” Starnes says. “We see greater recall of new information and skills.” 

Importantly for parents, puppets give children an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings that may be difficult or uncomfortable. As famous puppeteer Fred Rogers once said, “Pretending through puppets is often a safe way for children to talk about things that really concern them.” 

Bringing Puppets to Life at Home 

For that reason, it can be helpful for parents to incorporate puppets at home, Starnes says. They don’t have to be fancy; sock puppets or puppets made from paper sacks work well. “They’re a great way for parents to see and hear what the child is thinking and learning.” 

Children can use puppets in play, acting out scenes and pretending to be different characters. Parents can use puppets to ask their children what they’re feeling that day or what they think about an upcoming event that might be exciting or scary. 

Interestingly, Starnes says, even when young children understand that the adult is the one really speaking, not the puppet, they still watch the puppet and interact with it. 

“When the puppets are reinforcing what the adults are saying, it gives that element of fun and adventure,” she says. “We want children to be curious learners, and we want to maintain that sense of wonder.” 

For more on puppets in the classroom and at home, check out: 

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