Found Object Puppets

As I often tell my students, anything can be a puppet.  I try very hard to get them past their narrow ideas of what constitutes a puppet.  This lesson helps.


You Will Need

A collection of everyday items.

Some traditional puppets for show.



I usually begin the discussion by mentioning some things everyone knows are puppets--the Muppets, "Lamb Chop," etc.  I bring out some of my own puppets and show them in action.  I usually allow the students to handle some of the less fragile puppets themselves.   So far we're all in agreement about what is a puppet.


But then I put the puppets away and bring out a collection of everyday items--for example, a pair of sunglasses, a small square cardboard box, a paper-punch, a shoe, a ruler.  I lay these items in front of the students and say, "Are these puppets?"


Of course at first the children all say, "no," and laugh at the question.  But then I pick up one of the items--say, the sunglasses--and begin to manipulate it so it becomes a character.


Note:  If you have not been a puppeteer it is a good idea to practice this ahead of time, and to deliberately select objects you know you can manipulate successfully.  This is a very individual thing, but I'll give you some hints.  Sunglasses, with their bows spread wide, become a very convincing ant's head, complete with reflective eyes and two antennae.  A shoe has a tongue and can talk, or it can use its laces like tentacles.  The paper-punch can obviously become a barracuda.  If it has a hinged lid, a cardboard box becomes a big-mouthed character with a ferocious appetite.  (Mine is named "Stocky," because he used to contain a stock pot, and his schtick is box-related humor:  "Hey, Stocky--what's your favorite food?"  "Box lunch."  "Who's your favorite actor?"  "Bruce Boxleitner."  "Where did you grow up?"  "Boxborough.")  A ruler behind a notebook becomes a shy character who keeps peeking out and darting back out of sight.


Children are normally delighted with the characters I create, and I often let them suggest other objects and try to "stump" me.  (Don't make this offer unless you feel confident that they won't stump you, though.)  I lead the conversation to the idea that anything can be a puppet if a person manipulates it, and creates a character from it.  With older students I give them--or guide them to discover for themselves--the following definition:  "A puppet is an inanimate object that is manipulated so as to appear animate."  Obviously these big words won't work with younger students.


Making Our Own Puppets

Once the concept of creating puppet characters from everyday objects has been explored, I challenge each student to find an object and create a puppet from it.  I discourage them from altering the objects in any way.  (It is not necessary to paint eyes on a chair to make a character of it.)  Depending on the age of the students and on the timing, I will either have them use objects they can find in my room, or I'll assign the project as "homework."


Manipulating the Puppets

It is important when doing a project like this not to skimp on the actual manipulation of the puppets.  I usually spend a whole class period working with my students on character and story, on manipulating their invented characters and interacting with others.  I suggest that they allow the nature of the chosen object to help them determine the personality of the puppet.  (Which is lazier--an old bedroom slipper or a high-heeled shoe?  How is the attitude of a pair of pliers different from the attitude of an oven mitt?)  Again, the answers to these questions will vary enormously depending on the age and sophistication of the students.  With high school acting students, this exercise can lead to valuable insights into character and characterization.  It's even more effective for playwriting students.  You will want to experiment with this project, to see what works for you.