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Puppet Play: A Head Start to Learning

By Nancy Anderson

While working as an Activity Therapist in a major Children’s Hospital as well as raising my children I used to make/sew puppets for use both at home and at work. Operating on a limited budget did not allow for the purchase of expensive plush puppets for use in therapeutic programming so I turned to creating them myself out of pre-existing stuffed animals. The process of turning stuffed animals into puppets is not new and I don’t claim to have invented the idea. This tutorial is designed to share with the reader the simple procedures I have used in altering stuffed, plush toys for use as puppets.


Children learn through play. Simple toys are often the best choice, especially in the early formative years, for encouraging learning through creative expression and play. One such simple but effective, as well as loveable toy is a puppet. Puppets can reinforce verbal & communication skills while encouraging imaginative play and so much more. And with puppets, even the simple sock over the hand can become a best friend, a confidant or an alter ego for a child’s imagination. 

Puppet play can also help a child work through uncomfortable and even scary situations, through parent or teacher guided puppet play.  Sometimes children can express themselves through a puppet, in a way that they might have been afraid to do by themselves. For example, they might talk about how their puppet is scared of the dark or maybe the “puppet” told a fib or broke something around the house. With puppet play the parent and child can process situations in a fun, creative manner. Puppets can also be a wonderful addition to bedtime stories and can captivate an otherwise distracted child. Then after the story the child can use the puppet as a security cuddle toy.

The best puppets for imaginative play are the ones that do not necessarily have a commercial persona, (i.e. Miss Piggy, Kermit, etc). While major characters are loveable and fun they already possess set “personality traits” and thus may limit the child’s willingness to animate the puppet in any way other than the predictable, expected “behaviors”. Generic characters allow the user to form their own ideas and expectations as to how the puppet will act thus encouraging unlimited possibilities in the hands of your child. In other words, if adding puppets to your child’s toy chest, look for ones that are simple in construction and style. Better yet, make a puppet with your child.

Whatever the use, puppets need not be expensive or elaborate. They can be made from simple, easy to obtain materials such as: a brown paper lunch bag, a stray sock, a paper cut-out glued to a stick or merely a face drawn onto one’s curled fist.

There is a wealth of information on the internet validating the positive benefits of puppet use both in teaching and play situations, as well as curriculum and teaching plans for puppet use in more structured puppetry programming. Additionally, there are numerous tutorials, patterns and resources for making your own puppets through knitting, crocheting, sewing or simply gluing features to a sock as well as those ideas from one’s own infinite imagination.


Fast and Easy Stuffed Animal Puppet Tutorial

Turn a favorite stuffed animal into a fun and cuddly puppet.

Puppet Play

Materials:
* Stuffed animal
* Socks of varying sizes depending upon size of puppet , to be used as a liner (i.e. finger puppet or hand puppet)
* Sewing thread and needle
* Seam ripper
* Sharp dressmaker scissors
* Optional 1” thick foam rubber for stuffing

Notes:  Look for stuffed animals that will be the correct size for one’s hand, (whether for adult use or child’s use, for children look for smaller animals so their fingers will reach well enough into the limbs and they can animate the puppet)

A good resource for such animals are yard sales and thrift shops as well as your child’s own toy chest. In order to remove dust and soil, the animal can be placed in a pillowcase and be machine washed and dried. Please check your washer’s operation manual before attempting this. If one’s tolerance to dust is strong enough, the toy can be altered into a puppet first and then washed, (still inside of a pillowcase), thus minimizing the amount of bulky stuffing that needs to go through the washer.


Puppet Basics

  1. Lay animal face down.
  2. Locate the back or bottom seam, depending upon the style of puppet. With seam ripper carefully cut this seam until it is open wide enough to accommodate one’s hand or finger.
  3. Remove stuffing in body & arms leaving the head stuffed. Stuffing can be left in some parts of the puppets’ body as needed.  (Several stuffed toys contain plastic pellets, either enclosed in packets and stuffed into the toy or stuffed loosely, usually in the bottom most part of the toy. These pellets are usually costly so save these for future knitted toy projects).
  4. Try puppet on hand for fit as you work. Once stuffing is adjusted to size you will need to enclose the stuffing so that it does not fall out. Socks can be used to make instant puppet liners. Place sock over extended fingers & trim sock to length as needed. With fingers still extended inside the sock, insert the sock into the head of the puppet, redistributing the head stuffing as needed.
  5. Turn sides of puppet down so that the inside part of the neck seam and the sock are visible. Hand sew the edge of the sock to the inside of the neck using a simple whip stitch. This sock liner will keep the stuffing from falling out as toy is used.
  6. If plumping up is needed for a puppet , 1 “ foam rubber sheets cut to shape can be used. These can then be easily removed for washing.
  7. Some stuffed animals have inordinately long arms. In the white bear & pink bunny examples, the arms were cut and hand sewn to a customized fit. The plush fur camouflages less than perfect stitches. Simply turn the arm inside out and sew closed using a whip stitch.

Finger Puppet

Follow same procedure as above but use a baby sock as the liner insert.

Puppet Play

Puppet Play

Puppet Play


Hand Puppet

This procedure involves cutting the lower body away from the puppet. Make the cut just after the legs end and the torso begins. There is usually no need to hem the bottom.  Remove stuffing as in previous procedure. Insert & sew sock liner inside the puppet’s head. Adjust arm length as needed by trimming and sewing.

Puppet Play

Puppet Play

Puppet Play

Puppet Play

Puppet Play


Full Body puppet

Full body puppets include all of the limbs, not just the upper body and can be a wonderful addition to a group of puppets as they can double as a bedtime cuddle/security toy as well as functioning as a puppet.

Follow procedures as outlined above, but do not remove the stuffing from the legs. In order to keep the stuffing contained, the legs either need to be sewn shut on the inside or a patch of felt or other fabric can be cut into a circle and sewn across the opening. Neatness is not important for this as these patches will not show.

Puppet Play

Puppet Play

Puppet Play

An alternate method for full bodied puppets is to cut the stuffed animal open along the bottom most part. Laying the animal facedown, locate the bottom. Cut a hand-sized slit horizontally along the creatures’ bottom. Remove stuffing and line as in previous procedures.


DIY Puppet Theater

A puppet theater can be as simple and impromptu as using the back of the sofa , armchair or the kitchen island counter. Puppet theaters can also be made fairly simply and inexpensively. A word of warning: children will lean upon whatever they are using to screen them from their audience. Please consider this and prevent injury by not using free-standing folding screens, (i.e. fire place screens), unless they are specifically designed as free-standing puppet theaters and/or under supervision as learning about cause & effect through injury is not fun.


Baby Gate Theater

Materials:
* Baby gate
* Blanket or beach towel
* Optional fabric panel or old kitchen curtain
* Optional Velcro & cement glue

Use a baby gate with a blanket draped across it as an instant no-sew theater by simply attaching the gate higher than normally used, in order to hide the puppeteer. Drape a blanket or beach towel across the gate, add puppets and children.

For a more finished look, cut a curtain out of thick fabric, hem if desired & attach Velcro along the top of the curtain, (or use an old pre-existing kitchen curtain). Likewise, glue the opposite side of the Velcro strip to the top rail of the baby gate using strong cement glue that is compatible with the materials you will be bonding. The curtain can then be removed when using the gate for it’s intended use.

After receiving a Master of Education from the University of South Alabama, Nancy Anderson worked with children in the mental health & psychiatric field for 18 years as an Activity Therapist, where she included puppet play as part of her treatment repertoire. In addition, she has 2 children of her own who grew up playing with the puppets that she sewed.


Nancy Anderson

After receiving a Master of Education from the University of South Alabama, Nancy Anderson worked with children in the mental health & psychiatric field for 18 years as an Activity Therapist, where she included puppet play as part of her treatment repertoire. In addition, she has 2 children of her own who grew up playing with the puppets that she sewed.

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