Deidre Moore | August 2014

Teaching with Shadow Puppets

I have never been much of a puppet fan.

It’s not that I have anything against them I just never really got into them.  I have heard from other educators how useful puppets can be. Especially for those with students who have trouble expressing language.  After three days with Judith O’Hare, master educator and puppeteer, I am a believer.  She told so many stories of children who surprised everyone around them by what they could do with a puppet in their hands.  As one child said to Judith, “Puppets can say things I can’t.”

Teaching with Shadow Puppets

Last week I spent three days making and playing with shadow puppets.  I am so excited about the possibilities that I am trying to integrate them with the work I will be doing with my fourth and fifth graders this year.  Here are some takeaways from my Shadow Puppet experience:

  • Design Challenges

    – There is so much design problem solving involved in creating shadow puppets.  Shadow puppets are more interesting to watch when their body parts move: head, wing, legs, etc.  Figuring out how to make that part move (with a stick, with a string, etc.) and doing it without showing your hand can be a serious challenge.  Puppets need to be designed so that the body is shaped in a way that the character is clear to the audience (like in retelling the story of the 3 little pigs how to easily differentiate each pig from the other).  Each person involved in creating puppets for any one show needs to make sure that the puppets are accurate in their relative sizes, which brings me to my next point….

  • Proportions

    – Not only do you have to be sure that the puppets are all in correct proportion to one another but you need to be sure that anything you use for background is also proportionate to the puppets.  Using an overhead projector (don’t throw out that overhead just yet!) students can play with distance to create the correct proportions between setting and characters.  Placing some objects directly on the overhead (like a small cut-out of a tree) creates a much larger, lighter and less sharp image on the screen than a puppet held up directly to the screen which can be a nice way to focus audience attention on the character while still revealing setting.

  • Focus

    – Not only is the process of creating the puppets and the puppets shows a wonderfully engaging activity that requires focus but the puppet shows are great means of focusing audience attention because the room is dark save the light projected on the screen.

  • Color

    – I thought all shadow puppets were black.  I couldn’t have been more wrong!  A puppet created on oaktag will appear yellow on screen whereas a puppet created on black poster board will appear black on screen.  I made a puppet of a peacock and attached different colored feathers to the oaktag; I was shocked that when held up to the screen, the color of the feathers came through!  It is such a great lesson in light, translucence and opacity.  I also learned that plastic report covers of different colors as well as stage lighting gel sheets can be used to create lovely splashes of color to cut-out areas of a puppet.

  • Dialogue

    – Having students take a story they have read and adapt it into a play told completely (or nearly all) through dialogue is a wonderful exercise in writing dialogue, in sequencing a story, and in improvisation.

  • Reading with expression

    – We are always encouraging our students to use their voices expressively when reading.  How you use your voice in a puppet show is extremely important in conveying character.  If one student portrays more than one character, it is important to have a different voice for that character so the audience can differentiate between characters.

  • Seeing is understanding

    – We all know that much can be learned from watching ourselves perform.  This is especially important in shadow puppets. Because, when you manipulate a puppet behind the screen, you have no idea how it is perceived by the audience. That is, unless you see it.  Filming the students and letting them watch themselves is vital in helping them to create their puppets and settings.

If you have never seen shadow puppets I urge you to do a web search and check out some videos.  The shows can be inspiring and the integration possibilities are endless!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.