Puppets in Education

Vermont / Dec. 21, 2012 / by The Team

Puppets have forever occupied a special place in the hearts of children.

From their use on television to their place in schools, puppets are often used to teach and entertain. In Burlington, Vermont, Puppets in Education is using the fun aspects of puppets to help school children learn about and discuss difficult topics.

Executive Director Deb Ward Lyons explains that the nonprofit, “travels throughout the state teaching children in grades K through 8 how to keep themselves safe and healthy and to appreciate each other's differences. We do this through engaging workshops and educational programs that use life-sized puppets.”

Now in its 31st year, Puppets in Education has a collection of 23 programs that, using puppets, educate young children about topics such as disabilities, illness, and abuse.

“The prompting for the beginning of this organization came from the parents and the educators who worked with children with different abilities and the idea of promoting inclusion for all,” says Ward Lyons.

“It really was to help educate the peer group of the children who have different abilities so that they can learn better how to include and be friends with and play with children who are not typically developing.”

Ward Lyons herself joined the organization in 1985, three years after its inception. She explains that, “Really my interest was in helping stop the cycle of abuse for children and then I figured puppets would be the most accessible way to get that information across to them.”

She and another mother at her children’s school put together a curriculum and program that would address the topic of abuse, something which “was not a topic that was broadly talked about in schools.”

Sadly, a few years after starting the abuse prevention program, Ward Lyons discovered that one of her own children was “abused by somebody in our neighborhood.”

“I became like this mom on a mission,” says Ward Lyons. “I helped support my child and did everything that needed to be done to support our family and my child ... It really drove home to me how important it was. I didn't want this to happen to anybody else again, no kids, any parent to ever go through that.”

Ward Lyons thought that puppets would be a perfect way to broach such a difficult topic with children, staff, and parents alike. Abuse and its prevention were not being discussed enough and Ward Lyons was determined to make that change.

“Over a six year period,” she says, “we tracked our abuse prevention program, and through offering 40 presentations for free to schools, we had over 90 disclosures of child abuse and domestic violence.”

Although she joined determined to change the way abuse prevention was being discussed, she places as much importance of the other 22 different programs that cover a multitude of challenges young children might face.

Everything that a child going through school could experience is addressed from creating friendships in school and fostering an understanding of disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders, to recognizing the signs of bullying and abuse in others.

“We have a program that talks about HIV and AIDS, children's mental health addresses ADHD and depression, and last year when Hurricane Irene came to Vermont and devastated much of our state, we created a new program to address that and talk to kids about the stress that that caused.”

They even have a program that addresses divorce and one that discusses stereotypes of boys and girls, emphasizing that, “girls can be doctors and boys can knit.”

What makes the program so successful is not simply that they are taking the time and effort to speak with children about the difficult and heart-breaking challenges in their lives. The use of the life-sized puppets really does give them the perfect tool for making the children feel comfortable enough to address topics like bullying, disabilities, and abuse.

“When a child is in the audience and they're listening to this puppet character and role-modeling this and explaining a lot of the same feelings that they're having also, they just start speaking right to the puppets and talking to them and telling their story.”

“Puppets can work the edge between entertainment and education,” continues Ward Lyons. “They can both teach and persuade. The entertainment comes first, it draws us in and then once we've lost ourselves in the world the puppets create, we accept the message without even realizing that we're learning.”

Karen Newman, a master puppeteer for Puppets in Education, explains that, “Even though we’re entertaining, and we’re making kids laugh, we’re using that to teach them important things about how to be empathetic and how to take care of themselves and their environment, how to take care of each other.”

There are 50 puppets as part of Puppets in Education, although each has his or her own role within a specific program and topic. “We have the larger puppets that ... are about 3ft tall,” says Ward Lyons, “and then we have smaller puppets that we use in workshops, and we call that 'pass the puppets'.”

The children really appreciate the chance to watch and interact with the puppets as well as handling their own puppet during the workshop, through which they can truly feel free to speak their mind.

Casey, age 10, says that, “When I look at them, they are so entertaining. I love how they always have a smile on their face and how every single show is individual and different.”

The program is also important to the teachers, as it means that the children who otherwise would not feel able to speak up for themselves are making friends, disclosing bullying or abuse, and in so doing, finding the help they need.

Matt Hajdun, a teacher at Champlain Elementary School explains that, “to be able to sit in there and then hear how the puppets talk to each other and then pull that out and give that language to kids ... when you talk about things like bullying, abuse, health or the like, whatever the topic is, how we communicate about it is the most important piece, that’s how you deal with your problems, it’s that communication.”

Although the topics that the team deals with and the fact that children they speak with are going through such difficulties themselves can be devastating, they know that by doing the work they are doing, they are helping children in need.

For those children who are themselves facing any of the difficulties discussed, they are able to tell others what is happening, how they feel, and get help, and for those who aren’t faced with those same challenges, it is the chance to learn how others might feel.

The emphasis lies heavily on promoting understanding and empathy, rather than highlighting any differences between people. It is not about categorizing or separating the children, but about bringing them together.

“We work to prevent problems before they happen but also to serve a safety net, an opening through which kids can get answers and seek help,” says Ward Lyons.

It is always heart-wrenching when the team hears of a case of abuse of any kind but they know that if they had not been there to engage the children, those cases might never be disclosed and that child would have lived in fear and pain for far longer than with their help.

Most importantly, if there are any disclosures, the team knows exactly how to handle it and they ensure the children get the help they need.

“Afterwards, we follow up with each school to see if there's any disclosures, to see if any children have been talking about bullying behaviors or abuse has happened, to get letters of support from the teachers, to find out what happened after we were there.”

In order to always give the best possible care and help to the children, the Puppets in Education team makes sure that they are always up to date with the most recent research about each of their 23 topics.

“We go to many conferences and train ourselves to make sure we have all the background information on that topic, or we interview and debut our programs for people who are living with or experiencing any of the challenges that our puppets talk about so that ... we can stay up to date and current on ... what is accurate in terms of how to address some of the different topics that we have.”

“For example, we will present our abuse prevention program to the investigators that go in and talk to children in schools about potential abuse that's going on to make sure that we're using language that is current.”

All the work done by the Puppets in Education team is geared directly at helping as many children as possible. As many of their performances as possible are given to schools completely free of charge, with about 70% of their costs being raised by the nonprofit in the form of donations.

Finding the badly needed financial support and getting up at 4am to drive across Vermont is just one part of the job, and as long as they continue to help “between 75 and 100 schools a year, over 8000 students every year,” the challenges will pale in comparison to the work they do.

“When children leave our presentations, one of my biggest hopes is that they will leave feeling confident and sure of themselves,” says Ward Lyons. “Sure enough to make a difference in somebody else's life, maybe to stop some bullying behaviors that they witness happening to somebody else.”

Puppets in Education wants the children to “realize that they are awesome kids that are going to make it in the world and people care about them, there's somebody that cares about them, that they're not alone, that somebody has experienced or lived through some of the same things that they have and they're okay, that there are adults that care for kids and will help them. Maybe it's not the first person you talk to but there is somebody out there that's going to make a difference. We just want to make a difference in their lives.”

To learn more about Puppets in Education, please visit their website and Facebook page