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The Benefits of Using Puppets in Early
Childhood Classrooms

From the Desk of Maureen Donnelly, M.Ed
Years ago, I was cherishing a few quiet moments during free play in my inclusive, mixed-age preschool/kindergarten classroom when I found an old, dirty puppet lodged in the back of a high bookshelf. The puppet was a giraffe, and since my class was called “The Giraffes,” I thought I would (literally!) try my hand at puppetry. I clapped out the dust, slid this long-lashed creature onto my hand, and turned out the lights.
“Friends,” I said, affecting what I imagined to be a puppet voice. “My name is Ginger. I am here to help with cleanup. Is everybody ready?” The room quieted instantly. Every head turned. At that moment, I knew I had found a new opportunity for shared attention and engagement.
Blue background with five furry puppets including the purple robot Geartrude puppet from ReadtopiaGO

Puppets: An Evidence-Based Instructional Practice

I didn’t realize then that puppetry in the early childhood classroom is an evidence-based practice that supports academic learning, social communication, emotional learning, and more. Research indicates that exposure to puppetry in early learning has a wide range of positive effects, including learning benefits, increased engagement, and new opportunities to learn vocabulary and communication skills.

Developing a Comprehensive Literacy Solution for Young Children

Flash forward a few decades; I am now a curriculum developer for an education technology company, Building Wings, Inc. Once hired, the mission was clear: Don Johnston, founder and CEO, wanted a comprehensive literacy solution for young children who face learning barriers. It sounded like a tall order; in some ways, it was. But the team at Building Wings had some clear advantages. Our passion for the work and the established reputation, efficacy, and overall prowess of the flagship product, Readtopia, has been driving outcomes and enhancing teaching for over five years.

Creating Geartrude: Puppets for Early Childhood Learners

Blue background with Geartrude the purple puppet from ReadtopiaGO
In addition to providing daily, comprehensive literacy instruction for instructors in special education classrooms, the team at Building Wings endeavored to create the “little sister” version of Readtopia, both in spirit and function. We identified what makes Readtopia so appealing for students and inspiring for teachers. This included step-by-step implementation supports, age-respectful books, and topical videos.
A classroom setting with a teacher facing the class with Geartrude the puppet on a bookshelf behind her.
The purpose of the videos is to build background knowledge and deepen engagement. We knew how powerful these videos were and how much Readtopia learners loved them. But we also knew that if we wanted to provide videos for younger learners, they’d have to have a slightly different purpose, look, and feel. Enter puppetry and Geartrude!

How Puppets Inspire Learning

If you’ve ever seen Geartrude in action, you’ll know that the topic of each video is different (and aligns to a science, social studies, life skills, or SEL), yet the format is the same. This kind of repetition with variety is both research-based and soothing for young children. This is one of the reasons why young children ask us to read the same story repeatedly. When the whole world is new, it’s reassuring to engage with predictable content. It allows children to develop a feeling of confidence while also integrating new elements into their understanding.

The Building Wings team got to work designing a puppet representing ReadtopiaGO and finding the right puppeteer to portray us. We settled on Spencer Cohen, a talented performer who has been delighting audiences with puppet shows throughout New York for the last decade. We chose Spencer for many reasons, but his passion for the art and musical abilities made him a real draw.

Spencer also wrote songs into the shows since music provides learning opportunities and enhances memory (Ho, 2003). Each show begins with an interaction between Geartrude and one of her puppet friends. Together, they develop a question, and each puppet sings about it– first, Geartrude wonders about the importance of the question, and her puppet friend responds by sharing what they know about the topic. Embedded are key vocabulary words and concepts that relate to each theme.

How Puppets Enhance the Learning Experience

Using puppets with your youngest students is an effective and engaging way to help learners connect with curricular content. Its benefits include:
  1. Multisensory learning. Incorporating puppets adds a multisensory component to literacy instruction. Students can engage with lesson content visually, through audio, or tactile experiences. Such variety supports every kind of learner.
  2. Storytelling. Puppets are powerful storytelling tools. The instructor can use puppets to act out stories or create experiences when the puppets and the students interact. Such interactive storytelling helps students “see” the story, begin understanding story structure, and build background knowledge.
  3. Expressive language. Puppets are a way for students to express themselves and give voice to their thoughts and emotions. Puppets can be particularly beneficial for students who may struggle with oral communication.
  4. Learning partners. Puppets can serve as a learning partner or a reading buddy. Students may feel more willing to read aloud a puppet because the situation is non-judgmental. This may be particularly helpful for students who are shy or struggle to read aloud to others.
  5. Building vocabulary. Puppets can introduce and reinforce vocabulary. Teachers can act out words, demonstrate meanings, and invite students to use the puppets themselves to showcase their understanding.
Puppets are a versatile tool, and teachers can adapt their use in ways that make the most sense for their students’ abilities. They’re whimsical and charming assets that ignite the imagination, help students develop language and communication skills, nurture emotional intelligence, introduce cultural differences, and build confidence.
Want to introduce Geartrude to your emergent learners? Contact us to learn more about bringing ReadtopiaGO to your organization or district.
From the desk of Maureen Donnelly with the title of this article - The Benefits of Using Puppets in Early Childhood Classrooms

Maureen Donnelly, M.Ed., is a Curriculum Development Manager at Building Wings. Maureen is an early childhood educator by training who has worked with students of diverse ages and abilities, from preschool through college. Throughout her 25-year career, Maureen has developed numerous products and written hundreds of books that support the literacy learning needs of beginners. She lives and works in Kittery, Maine, in an office stuffed with children’s books.

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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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