Like so many brave educators last school year, I accomplished the unthinkable—I wore a mask, rode on public transportation, and taught a “pod” of kindergarten students IN PERSON during a global pandemic. It was scary and challenging, but thankfully, it was also eye-opening and inspiring!
Having a small class size of twelve students was a reprieve from the teaching I had done previously. It allowed me to be creative in ways that I had not felt possible before and get to know my students and their interests more clearly. I rethought some of my curriculum so that I could prioritize play for children who, after so much time spent in isolation with their families, had all but forgotten what it meant to be part of a school community or even have a playdate.
At the school in NYC where I teach, we do an intensive creative storytelling unit in early spring that shifts the writing into a more open-ended domain in which children are encouraged to use their imaginations to tell and write stories of all kinds.
Last year I was tasked with deciding how this writing unit should be organized within my own classroom. I was fortunate to have the support of my administrators to see it through as I saw fit for my students. Given the fact that play, community, and joy were central to my teaching agenda, I wanted to create a space in which each child could invent and develop a character—specifically an animal character—that resonated with them and that they could grow to love and know, just as they might a special stuffed animal. But how could I accomplish this?
With puppets! I wanted to use puppets in writing workshop as a device through which children could explore a character and do some storytelling and “pre-playing” before actually writing about them.
Puppets are both abstract and concrete. They are a medium through which children turn private, internalized hypotheses about the world into public, externalized experiments and proven theories. They allow the child to “try out” and “try on” a character’s identity and create a persona for them. A child’s character persona often contains many of the child’s own personality traits and interests, but it also allows the child to explore feelings and emotions that might be new or unfamiliar to them. Puppets give the child freedom to experiment with dialogue and expression and develop their character’s “inner voice.” Puppets are physical manifestations of ideas-in-formation!
To do this puppet work, I first had the children think of an animal character, sketch it, decide on its name, where it lives, and a few of its interests such as its favorite foods or activities. Next, I had them use materials like cardboard, pipe cleaners, felt, and feathers to make their character puppets. Witnessing the children as they saw their character puppets come to life was magical!
Then came something I like to call, “character playdates.” I organized the kids into groups of two or three, and with their character puppets the children were told to play. They could play however they wanted. Some children stayed in one spot and spoke through their puppets with an emphasis on dialogue. Other children got up and moved about the classroom—allowing their puppets to run, leap, or fly through the air together. Each time we had a playdate I gave children new character partners to play with. There were no prompts, scenarios, or requirements given.
The time that children spent playing together with their character puppets was joyful and natural. They had no trouble suspending reality. After all, pretend play is what children do best! These character playdates were fruitful for future writing because they gave them opportunities to live and speak through their characters, invent their personalities and identities, and even get to know the characters of their classmates.
After spending some time in this playdate phase, children were ready to write stories. They used a graphic organizer to sketch out a setting and plot (beginning, middle, and end.) Then, using stapled booklets, students drew and wrote their stories across three (or more) pages.
As students wrote, some really incredible things began to happen. Students experimented with writing in new ways. They were free to develop stories any which way and they took pride in being the experts on their characters. For some, it was an opportunity to write about personal experiences. One student’s character was based on her dog who had passed away soon after we began the puppet-making process. Her stories were focused on the joyful moments they spent together rather than on the dog’s death.
Another interesting thing that happened was that students began to write stories that included other characters from within the classroom. For example, the plot of one student’s story about, “Prescott the Bird” started to include the character “Izzy the Koala,” and “Lily the Bunny” began to go on adventures with “Bloom the Unicorn Bird.” The children knew each other’s characters so well that they were able to bring them to life in their own stories too.
After a while, students became so excited to write more and more on each page. I taught them how to add “extra lines” by taping more paper onto the bottom of their existing pages. The pages of their books became so long that students could no longer work at tables. Instead, they had to stretch out on the floor with their scroll-like books. Their enthusiasm for writing was contagious and their stories were getting richer and more detailed! We eventually displayed their books alongside their character puppets by hanging them high up on the wall and letting the pages flow down to the floor.
I have just begun this creative writing unit with a new group of kindergarteners this year. I am excited to witness the ways in which they grow as writers, engage with their characters and each other, and develop stories that are at once imaginary, but also deeply personal and meaningful to them. I hope that one day you will have the opportunity to try out puppets and playdates as a pre-writing strategy with your students too!
Jenna Komarin is the Head English teacher in a bilingual English / Chinese Kindergarten classroom at Avenues: The World School in New York City. This is her tenth year teaching Kindergarten. She has also taught in both charter school and public school settings in NY and NJ. Jenna prioritizes creativity and play as essential components of her teaching. She particularly loves teaching writing workshop because Kindergarteners are such natural storytellers, artists, and makers. When Jenna is not teaching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and reading, baking, and exploring art materials with two-year-old daughter in Maplewood, NJ.