6 Ways Puppets Teach Children Social Skills


Sometimes a sock is just a sock. However, put that sock on the hand of a child, early childhood educator, or parent and that sock transform into something else. That sock gives voice to a preschooler who feels too shy to speak up in circle time. That sock becomes a teacher’s helper who immediately grabs the attention of every child in the classroom. Or that sock provides entry to an imaginary world where a mom (or dad!) and little one can play together.

Puppets come in all shapes and sizes–from traditional sock puppets to paper bag puppets to finger puppets to puppets that could share the spotlight with Kermit THE Frog. (But, not Miss Piggy. She doesn’t share well.)  Using puppets with young children of all abilities supports whole-child development.

Here are a few practical ways that teachers and parents can use puppets to help children develop social-emotional skills.

6 Ways Puppets Support Social-Emotional Development in Young Children

  1. Puppets Can Help Children Practice Positive Behaviors. There’s a reason why it seems like children need to be reminded over and over again to say “please” or “thank you.” They need consistent practice over time to learn positive behavior. Puppet play can reinforce the behavior you’d like children to repeat. A puppet can model for children expected classroom or at-home behavior, such as saying “please” and “thank you” or how to share and wait patiently for a turn.

Tip: Use a puppet to introduce the classroom rules to preschoolers. Then at consistent times during the week, the puppet can recognize children who exhibit positive social behavior. Another idea that works well is for a puppet to “forget” a rule or respectful response, such as not speaking when someone else is speaking. Inviting children to teach or remind the puppet how to act strengthens the learning process and builds confidence in children’s own social abilities.

2. Role Playing with Puppets Helps Children Identify and Express Emotions. Learning how to identify, label, and express an emotion in a culturally-appropriate way is a key component of social-emotional development. Puppets give children a safe way to process and express big emotions. For example, children can “try on” anger or fear by acting out that emotion through the puppet. Puppets also offer a non-threatening way to practice identifying non-verbal social cues that offer clues to an underlying emotion, such as a head hanging down could mean the puppet feels sad. Asking the puppet how she feels gives children a positive example for talking about emotions.

Tip: Use puppets to role-play common situations young children encounter that could involve big emotions, such as disagreeing with a sibling or leaving the playground before they want to go. Children can use the puppets to practice different responses or express a big emotion without being in the heat of the moment. Ask questions such as: What is the puppet feeling? Why do you think the puppet feels that way? How would you feel? Have you ever felt that way when…? Is it okay to express that emotion the way the puppet did?

3. Puppets Offer a Way to Try Out New Social Situations. Interacting with puppets can help a child know what to expect when going somewhere or doing something unfamiliar, such as riding on an airplane for the first time, going to a new school, or even becoming a big brother or big sister. This practice reduces stress and helps children gain confidence in what to anticipate. After the experience, puppet play can also provide young children an outlet to process what happened.

Tip: Think about a new situation or environment coming up in the life of a child. Invite children to engage in puppet play and act out the experience. You could also use the puppet in storytime as you read about riding a school bus, getting a family pet, or even dealing with the loss of a loved one. Use new social situations and experiences that children in your care will soon face.

4. Puppets increase engagement and perk up listening. Add a puppet to the conversation and watch child after child become intently focused and truly listen to what the puppet says and does. Learning how to actively listen develops vocabulary, comprehension, and is an essential social-emotional skill. After all, being a good listener makes for a good friend.

Tip: Using a puppet who only speaks in whispers really encourages active listening and also brings a sense of calm to the room. Children need to be really still and focus on the puppet in order to hear her whispers. You could even ask the puppet why she whispers. Does your puppet feel shy speaking in front of groups? Does she dislike loud noises? Ask the children if they feel that way, too, sometimes.

5. Puppets Bring a Healthy Dose of Silly.

Young children laugh about 200 times every day and bringing out a puppet who acts silly can foster children’s humor development. Children develop a sense of humor over time as they learn what is and isn’t funny—and when it is appropriate (or not) to laugh. Plus, it’s a lot of fun and can be a developmentally appropriate way to motivate, engage, and even redirect children during their early years.

Tip: Have a puppet on hand who exhibits a playful personality. Maybe that puppet calls everyone a breakfast food, like Pancake or Waffle, or maybe your puppet responds to situations in an over-the-top way. Bringing that puppet out occasionally can immediately capture the attention of children. Plus, laughter is good for adults, too!

What’s your favorite way to use puppets with learners?

Do you use a puppet during circle time so a child knows when it’s her turn to speak? Or maybe your favorite way to use puppets is during storytime or to help children transition into the classroom. Do you offer a specific soft puppet as a tool to help a child self-regulate? Share your favorite way with us!

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