Puppet shows have entertained children for centuries. One particular set of characters was extremely popular and survives today, known in English as Punch and Judy. Punch is derived from a character in the Italian theater. Pulcinella was a fool who carried a club and was always getting into trouble. Although he was a bit of a buffoon, he also said things that ordinary folks did not dare to say, making him a beloved character.
Pulcinella became the model for Punch, who, with his wife Judy, entertained old and young alike. Early Punch and Judy shows often had a moral lesson, but today they may seem violent since they portray many fights, including between husband and wife. However, their misbehavior was part of what made them funny. Threats of execution were also a feature of many scripts, with Punch sometimes barely escaping. Such shows might not seem appropriate for children today, but the traveling puppet theaters of Europe gave rise to many of today’s educational and entertaining uses of puppets.
In Asia, shadow theater was originally a form of imaginative entertainment, the gods communicating with humans, and in turn human puppeteers communicating with the heavens, performing for the gods from whom they had been given the gift of their art. The interplay of light and shadow created by the movements of the sun and the moon, the planets, and the stars inspired early Chinese shadow theater. The concept that one could tell stories by manipulating light and shadow empowered the medium with deep meaning. Both consecrated and animated the characters with power and influence larger than the performance. This understanding of shadow theater spread throughout Asia.
This art form became more and more specialized as it spread between provincial regions. Certain areas became famous for mastery of particular genre of stories such as ghost stories, love stories, or the stories of heroes and villains. Shadow theater performances were held publicly at all holidays and enjoyed by the old and young.
Why use puppets to tell stories?
Puppets can be used to bring stories to life. Using puppets in storytelling has its benefits:
- It can help children of many ages and abilities to develop literacy skills, such as building vocabulary, decoding, conversation, grammar, and general knowledge.
- Puppet shows can also help children develop their listening and participation skills.
- When creating puppets and puppet plays, children can foster skills in reading comprehension, adaptation of material into a different format, and collaboration.
- Shadow theater can be an opportunity to explore storytelling through light and shadow and to discuss this unique cultural tradition with children.
Planning for a puppet show with kids
Costumes and set pieces can be hand-made, adapted, or upcycled.
To begin your puppet show planning:
1. Choose a story
Here are examples of stories we have presented in past years, but you can pick any story you love or, of course, make up your own.
- Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.
- Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
- Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in honor of the 150 year anniversary of the book’s publication.
- Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and The Tailor of Gloucester, in honor of the 150 anniversary of Potter’s birth.
- Ashley Bryan’s African and Caribbean folktale: Beautiful Black Bird, The Dancing Granny, and The Story of Lightning and Thunder.
- Kenneth Grahame’s story The Reluctant Dragon along with our own adaptation of a traditional mummer’s play, St. George and the Dragon, and a sword dance performed by the puppeteers.
- Joseph and James Bruchac’s book The Girl Who Helped Thunder and Other Native American Folktales: How Stories Came to Be (Seneca), The Ball Game Between the Birds and the Animals (Cherokee), The Coming of Corn (Choctaw), The Story of Tu-tok-a-nu-la, (Miwok), and Moon and Frog Old Woman (Maidu). Our finale was the picture book Turtle’s Race with Beaver (Seneca) by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Ariane Dewey.
For story ideas, you can retell your favorite folktale, fable, or picture book, or create your own.
Once you decide on the story and characters, it’s time to create your puppets. Stick puppets are easy to make.
2. Make a stick puppet
- Using cardstock, draw your own puppet. Alternatively, you can print out figures from: coloring pages (for example, this dog owl, fox, hare), one of these poster collections (check out this hippo or panda).
- Color your puppet (if necessary) and cut it out. Add any extra decorations you would like, such as googly eyes or yarn hair.
- Glue the back of your puppet to a long, smooth stick. A paint stirring stick is perfect.
Next, it’s time to make your puppet theater!
3. Make a puppet theater
- Open the ends of a cardboard box for the puppet stage. Glue or tape one of the flaps closed so that you don’t reveal the hands of the puppeteer.
- Paint and decorate the outside of your puppet theater anyway you want.
- You can even attach a curtain with double-sided tape.
- Cut slim holes in the side to slide your puppets through.
- Place your puppet theater on a table and start the show.
Afterward, you and your family can look together for stories that extend the theme of your puppet show.
How to make a shadow puppet
- Draw or print your puppet characters on cardstock. There is an example of a traditional Balinese puppet character here. The rare book collections include this set of Chinese paper dolls from the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
- Cut them out and paint them black.
- Attach a stick to the back of each of your shadow puppets with tape. A paint stirring stick is perfect.
How to make a shadow theater
- Open the ends of a cardboard box for the puppet stage.
- Cut slim holes in the side to slide your puppets through.
- Paint and decorate the outside of your puppet theater.
- Attach white paper to the front and glue or tape its edges securely.
- Place a small lamp at the back of your theater.
- Dim your room lights and start the show.