Puppets in the Drama Classroom
I use puppets a great deal in my drama classes. Puppetry is a great way to bring more reticent or shy children out of their shells, and to help everyone become more expressive. Children who are afraid to speak or act in front of the class will often enthusiastically emote in the character of a puppet. When a child operates a puppet, the focus is on the puppet, rather than on the puppeteer, and the child forgets to be self conscious. If you watch a child operating a puppet, you see that every emotion and every movement of the puppet is mirrored in the puppeteer. The child really is "acting." The puppet simply provides a safety net--an extra level of reality between the performer and her audience. Even my shyest students will perform loudly and boldly when using puppets. You can get puppets from a variety of sources, of course. Most toy stores have fairly inexpensive "stuffed animal" type puppets, and the more educationally oriented ones usually also carry puppet kits, stages, etc. However, often the best puppet experiences come when children make their own puppets. That way the puppet characters are personal to their operators, and the sense of ownership that comes from making the puppets invests their manipulation with added importance. Plus, by introducing "arts and crafts" into the drama classroom you begin to explore the connected nature of all the arts, and you give your students another way to excel. Sometimes the most creative puppet comes from a surprising source--that child you've been worried about all semester, who seems so unsure. My students are very open and honest with each other, and can appreciate the creativity of one another's work. Puppets in the classroom are a great way to boost self esteem and to bring the class to a better sense of unity and cooperation.
It is not necessary to have any kind of "puppet theatre" to use puppets in the classroom. Of course such theatres can be a lot of fun, and if you have the space and the resources, by all means get one. You can build it yourself or you can buy one ready made. But I have been using puppets with my classes for years without any stage at all, and in fact even when I have a stage available I don't use it all the time. Having the puppet and puppeteer out in the open allows the teacher to watch the child, rather than only the puppet, and see the way he is expressing the puppet's emotions in his own face. It allows the puppet to interact directly with the puppeteer. Plus, working without a stage means the whole class can work at once, which is often desirable. Many puppet traditions, such as the Bunraku in Japan, never use "puppet theatres" in the sense we think of in the west. The puppeteer is always visible along with the puppet. Interestingly, it is not necessary for the shy child to "hide" behind a puppet stage in order to lose his shyness--just the fact of the puppet's presence as central focus usually does the trick.
I define a puppet as "Any inanimate object that is manipulated so as to appear animate." I make and use puppets of one kind or another with nearly every grade level I teach. My very youngest students make "puppets" out of their hands. Some students make lunchbag puppets. Older students make newspaper puppets in teams. We make paper analogs of Japanese doll theatre puppets when my students are studying Japan. When I have the resources available, I make shadow puppets with older students. Nearly every grade makes found object puppets at some point. Most of these projects are pretty easy to do.