Michael Vetere, is an Associate Professor at Illinois State University in the School of Theatre and Dance. His focus area includes creative dramatics, puppetry, and the arts for early childhood and elementary education.
When I was young, I loved playing with my action figures and dinosaurs. To me they were some of my best friends. They were always available and ready to jump in and engage with whatever scenario I would create. I’d set up elaborate scenarios in my bedroom with yarn as zip-lines and pillows. My brain swarmed with ideas! (“Not again!!!….We have to rescue the stolen diamond from the evil Bean Dragon!”) I imagined and enacted incredible conflicts and missions for my characters; great battles ensued and epic journeys took place. (Ok…the journey may have been from my bed to under the dresser….but to me it was from Headquarters to the Cave of Return!) My action figures would engage in dialogue and planning exercises, swing off my bunk bed, and fly through the air. I could spend hours engaging in toy play – I loved every minute!
It wasn’t until much later that I realized I was actually engaging in the precursors for puppet/object theatre and even literature. I gave my objects I was playing with individual characters who often conversed. I created and enacted scenarios with conflict and resolution and most times the characters had to overcome obstacles, establish environments, and even use other objects or props. Who knew!
We recognize that children naturally engage in dramatic play by playing dress-up and enacting scenarios such as playing “house.” Well, children also engage in dramatic puppet play. This consists of a child-centered experience that is improvised and not shared with an audience. Children anthropomorphize objects and engage them in scenarios not directed by a teacher. They create environments or settings (sets) to realize their scenario (plot) and sometimes dress their objects such as dolls in various “costumes.” Children work though conflict by finding various solutions within their stories and are able to work through problems they see in their everyday lives.
To make your classroom rich in dramatic puppet play. Place figures that represent various genders and race roles in select areas of your classroom. Incorporate figures that represent various community roles and family figures such as Police, firefighters, doctors, farmers, moms, dads, children, and grandparents. You may also want to include toy-sized furniture and blocks or even empty cardboard boxes that can be used for building environments or an assortment of items such as caves, trees, houses, or treasure. Include mythical creatures or animals to enhance creativity such as dinosaurs, unicorns, dragons, monsters, pirates, witches, etc.
Once your space is established you can watch the imagination and learning take place. Children will naturally incorporate the building blocks of theatre and literature. They do this by developing interesting characters and relationships with their toy objects by giving the characters names, personalities, feelings, and ambitions. Children place these characters in dramatic situations where they engage in various conflicts with either themselves or outside sources and work through their conflicts. Lastly they dramatize the action in interesting locations or settings to fulfill their goals by manipulating the object and placing the objecting in various positions and localities. As children engage in dramatic puppet play they develop problem solving skills, identify perspective and points-of-view, experience creativity, and begin to appreciate the role of theatre and story.