New to Storytime: Using Puppets

Welcome back to my New to Storytime series where I cover the basics of starting out as a storytime leader. Don’t miss the other posts!

Today we’re talking puppets. Feared by many new storytime leaders, puppets are actually an easy way to connect with kids and provide a visually stimulating storytime. This post will cover how to use puppets in different ways without having to become a voice actor. If you’re looking for ideas on how to make puppets, please read Miss Mary Liberry’s post which has fantastic suggestions for how to make a variety of cheap puppets. Seriously. Read her post, folks. She’s amazing.

Benefits of Using Puppets

Using puppets with children has myriad benefits. I’ve found during a rowdy storytime bringing out a puppet is the only way to recenter the group and regain their attention. Most kids have stuffed animals at home and have positive feelings about said stuffies, so breaking out a puppet is a familiar yet exciting thing for them to experience. Kids who are hesitant to talk to you as the adult sometimes come out of their shell when they see a puppet as it appears more friendly and less intimidating. Puppets also encourage kids to use their imagination and infuse a sense of play into storytime. If you’re using puppets to tell stories they can act as a wonderful way to build language skills too. This short video from the New Hanover County Public Library does a great job of summarizing the benefits.

Tips and Tricks

Practice Beforehand

Just like practicing reading aloud your storytime books, you also want to practice with your puppets. Here are some questions to consider once you decide to use a puppet:

  • Does it fit your hand comfortably? A too big or too small puppet may not work.
  • Do you have to put fingers in certain places for it to fit (I have an octopus puppet that can be a bit tricky!)?
  • Can you move the mouth open and shut allowing you to make the puppet speak? Or will this puppet mostly move around?
  • Will the puppet have a particular voice and if so what will it sound like? Is it comfortable pitch for you to sustain?
  • Where will you store the puppet during storytime when it’s not in use? Does it have a special home like a basket or box? Will the kids be able to reach it?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but the answers will influence how you use the puppet and how well you are prepared.

Sometimes you will end up dressed exactly like your puppet and that’s okay.

Introducing the Puppet

Think about how you want to introduce the puppet to the group. This will largely depend on how you plan to use the puppet. If the puppet is a mascot who comes out every week and has a name and personality, then you can make their appearance a special moment. Sometimes I’ll pretend that I hear something and it ends up being whatever the mascot was doing before I brought it out such as baking a pizza, playing basketball, etc. It’s really fun for the kids to get to say a special hello.

Most of the time, and especially when I was just starting though, I used puppets in a less formal way during songs and rhymes. For this purpose the puppets didn’t talk; they acted as a visual cue for kids to help them understand what we were singing about. I fill a large bag with puppets and then dramatically pull them out one by one as we sing each verse. Sometimes I’ll pause and we’ll talk about the colour, texture, and shape of the puppet to model the early literacy practice of talking.

Manipulating the Puppet

Even if you don’t have the puppet speak, the eyes and mouth are important features. Slightly bend the puppet downward so that kids can see the puppet’s eyes. If you do have a puppet speak, even just to sing a song, open its mouth on the accented syllable. If it’s talking, look at the puppet as if it were alive. Kids will follow your gaze and watch the puppet too. Similarly, when you speak have the puppet face you. Even if I’m using puppets in an informal way during songs and rhymes I still try to treat it tenderly so that kids know they are special. This also preserves the illusionary aspect of a puppet if you use it as a character.

I love grabbing a bunch of farm animals and then throwing in a random dragon, octopus, or other unusual creature to sing classics like Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Storytime Examples

Here’s some examples of how to use puppets in storytime in a simple way.

Songs and Rhymes

My Toddler Storytime: Using Puppets blog post is chock full of easy examples of using puppets in a non-intimidating way. Have a favourite storytime song that includes animals? Try adding a puppet to help you sing a verse. I created a Puppet Songs and Rhymes playlist on YouTube as well with tons of ideas. If you’ve got a random assortment of puppets, try something like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “When Cows Get Up in the Morning” as you can customize the verses based on what you have available. And trust me, the weirder the animals the better! If you have a small storytime group you could pass out a puppet to each child and have them “lead” the verse by coming up to the front.

Reciting Poems or Jokes

I love bringing out a puppet to share a poem or a joke. That way I don’t have to memorize anything because the puppet reads it for me! If it’s a big poetry book I will prop it up on my easel and then have the puppet read it aloud. This is a great way to introduce a concept or theme of the day. If you’ve given your puppet a personality then having them tell a joke at the beginning or end of a storytime is fun. It doesn’t have to last long – they make an appearance, read the poem or joke, we thank them, and then they go away. This can be a great way to interact with families as they are gathering or leaving too. I’ve had many kids offer their own jokes to the puppet (but not to me!).

Mascot or Host Puppet

I don’t do this one myself, but I know many storytimes that use a puppet as their host or mascot. Usually they come out at the beginning of storytime to say hello, introduce a concept or theme, or lead a song. If you are really creative you can make clothes for the puppet that change with the seasons. You could also come up with a catchphrase or song the puppet always says. These things anthropomorphize the puppet and contribute to kids making a bond with the puppet. I’ve also heard caregivers talk about how kids will go home and use their stuffed animals in a similar way, showing how they mimic and learn from our storytime activities. The following video gives a great example of a host puppet including an early literacy tip for caregivers.

Further Learning

If you are ready to go above and beyond the basics of puppetry, you can learn how to tell puppet stories and put on puppet shows. The ALSC Blog has a great post on Puppet Shows at Storytime which gives an example of how a library used a series of puppet shows to address common childhood concerns.

There is also a 5-week online course offered through ALSC called Storytelling With Puppets that dives deeper. This course is taught by the same person who does the Storytelling with Puppets YouTube channel which is full of videos demonstrating how to tell picture book stories with puppets.

Lastly, if you are able I highly recommend shadowing someone else’s storytime who uses puppets or sharing ideas at a staff meeting. I’ve gotten so many ideas from seeing others in action!

What are your tips and tricks for new storytime leaders when it comes to using puppets? Or if you’re new, what questions do you have? I’d love to hear in the comments!

3 thoughts on “New to Storytime: Using Puppets

  1. Thank you for this! What a great starting place. I’m excited to dive in more deeply to these resources later – I’ve always wanted to use my puppets more skillfully!

    Right now I primarily use puppets during flannels (especially puppets eating flannel pieces, like Shape Monster) and songs and rhymes. I also like to sneak a puppet or two in my storytime bag and use it more like a prop. The kids always get a kick when I pull out a puppet instead of a book! I especially like to do this with preschoolers to set the stage before our first book. For example, I’ll pull out a bee and a parrot from my storytime bag, and we’ll talk about how the two are the same/different before launching into a Things that Fly storytime.

    I went to a great presentation at CLEL a few years ago with Kathleen DiLeo called “Fun With Puppets in Storytime.” The conference materials are available here: https://www.clel.org/2016-conference-materials. The puppet manipulation prompts were SUPER valuable to practice with! Even if you don’t ever use a puppet in a windstorm in storytime, just practicing with the puppet in different ways helps build your creativity and confidence.

    Thank you again for this series! So much good stuff to explore and think about even when you’re not new to storytimes. 🙂

    1. OMG Jessica, what a goldmine! I had no idea the CLEL presentations were available online. I am going to go read all of the resources people shared and add them back here. I love the idea of just having a conversation with a puppet to introduce a book or theme – totally low-keep and easy to try out for beginners. Thank you again!

      1. I am so glad CLEL makes all the session materials available afterwards! Nothing beats going in person, but there’s always too many good sessions going on at the same time to see them all. I’m especially thankful this year as our Staff Day got scheduled for the same day as CLEL. 🙁

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