At all ages we use play to learn about ourselves. I first wrote about this fundamental aspect of my work when I was training to be a teacher, twenty five years ago. I am still passionate about it now and that is why I run The Hands-On Company, where we play through interactive puppetry and drama. Our small team of teachers and puppeteer/actors run workshops for all ages, and between us we focus on social education topics and storytelling.
On the road we work in a wide range of establishments, from nursery schools all the way up to care homes for the elderly and each session is led by the participants within a planned framework. It is an inclusive, exciting and thought-provoking way of working where we are often surprised and deeply moved by the personal stories we encounter.
Part of the reason why I love puppetry, is because of the magical moments I have experienced through its application. I use puppetry as a safe way for others to express and explore feelings, where the puppet becomes a coat hanger for any issues or situations. It is a playful space where we can reflect on the world around us and our place in it.
I remember a session I ran with a group of parents who needed ideas on how to improve their play with their children. We were surrounded by social workers, but even within this slightly uptight structure, we were able to enjoy
light-hearted fun the minute the puppets were unpacked. One boy within this group was labelled a selective mute. Imagine the shock of all gathered when he began to converse through the puppet he had created with his mum. It was a truly touching moment to hear his puppet voice explain exactly what his puppet likes to do. Three years later, a member of another family group got in touch and told me they were still using their family puppet to discuss personal changes and issues.
Another recollection is of a workshop about friendship issues, where each child had a puppet to create different types of friends. A nine-year-old girl called her dog puppet Meatballs. She decided he looked like a meatball and that this was his favourite food. We had great fun building up his character and deciding that he was a true friend as he was caring, but needed lots of meatballs to keep his energy up. Within the evaluation feedback for this session, the leader subsequently told me that this girl's parents had been thrilled that she had asked for meatballs for dinner that evening and excitedly had described the session. Her younger brother was very ill with leukemia and she had not been eating properly because she felt so out of control of the situation. Naming and playing with the puppet seemed to be a turning point for her. I still have that dog puppet and, to this day, his name is Meatballs.
In another session I encountered a thirteen-year-old boy who was brave enough to share a bullying incident through the voice of a large monster puppet. Elsewhere in my work, through dramatic scenarios, numerous teenagers have understood that considering these three statements: where you are, who you are with and how you feel, can make a big difference in making informed choices around sex and drug usage. Moments like these happen whenever we interact with people - from a senior manager becoming overly attached to a hairy puppet, simply because of shared conflict management scenarios, to an elderly gentleman living with dementia suddenly waltzing with a human-sized puppet and a flustered puppeteer trying to keep up!
Something special happens with play. Put a puppet in the mix and watch the sparks fly. There is no pressure to be someone other than the part of yourself that enjoys being expressed in this way. Give puppetry a go for your own magical moments.