A child’s paper bag puppet-in-process, Pittston School Artist Residency with Robin Brooks, May 2022

Puppets and Stories is an artist residency I designed for the elementary school children in Pittston, Maine. This past winter, art teacher Karol Carlsen reached out to me about doing a puppet-making workshop in her school. Excited about this opportunity, I proposed a plan to combine “Beautiful Stuff” collage with puppet-making and story telling. By using “Beautiful Stuff,” or found objects brought in from home, we invited children and families to participate in our classroom learning project.

“Beautiful Stuff” as an Ethical and Creative Way to Enrich Classroom Learning

I see using repurposed materials, or “Beautiful Stuff”, as an ethical and creative alternative to the typical materials found in an art classroom. And when teachers integrate Beautiful Stuff into their classroom environment, children can start to see the stuff around them with new eyes. As Cathy Topal and Lella Gandini demonstrate in their classic text, a lot of learning can happen with found materials. You really can make art out of anything!

Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials, book cover

Collecting “Beautiful Stuff” from home

As a visiting artist, I wanted to create anticipation, excitement, and engagement from everyone–classroom teachers, students, and their families. So I loaned Karol my copy of Lella Gandini and Cathy Topal’s Beautiful Stuff . Motivated by the book, Karol sent home a letter with the children attached to a paper bag. In the letter, she invited families to collect items that could be repurposed for puppet-making. Her list of possible items was long. And when the children returned to school, they brought bags and bags of materials from home.

Beautiful recycled materials for puppet-making

Sorting and Presenting Beautiful Stuff for puppet-making

To prepare for the puppet-making workshop, Karol and the children sorted the materials into categories. These included natural materials, metal objects, buttons, broken jewelry, and yarn. With the addition of a few purchased items–paper lunch bags, fuzzy “pipe cleaner” wires, and wiggle eyes– we were ready to begin!

Respect for Children’s Ideas–Creating their Paper Bag Hand Puppet

I decided to demonstrate making paper bag hand puppets because they are simple yet very expressive. Interestingly, some children came to the project with a clear idea for their puppet–a ball player, princess, or favorite animal– while others improvised with the materials until an idea emerged. Regardless of how they approached making a puppet, I believe every child’s ideas are worthy of respect, provided they stay within safe parameters.

grade 5 puppets-in-process, Pittston School, Maine
Getting started with puppets using colorful printed paper–a mother and daughter? The pointed ears on the smaller bag suggest an animal, maybe a cat.

I loved observing the variety of approaches children took as they got started with the process of designing their puppet character. And, once they finished, I gave them a fact sheet to write about their puppet.

Here are some puppets-in-process by students in a fifth grade class. Notice that Felix has started filling out a fact sheet for his father and son puppets.

Two Finished Puppets from Week 2

I just love this third grade girl’s puppet with her essential wardrobe accessory, a cross body purse with flap!
Here is another wonderful puppet made with Beautiful Stuff by a child during my artist residency. Look at the many details they added to their puppet, from the key nose to earrings, loop arms, and a glitter smile. Fabric, patterned paper, and feathers also added color and glitz to this special character!

Introducing our puppets using a stage

Finally, some children finished early and were ready to do some writing to get to know their puppet character. To make the magic of performance happen in the classroom, I constructed a tabletop puppet stage. Using recycled cardboard, an Exacto knife, and my hot glue gun, I assembled it rather quickly.

My puppet stage design, with its simple proscenium arch, gave children a chance to become performers, introducing their puppet character to their classmates in the audience. I would like to have shared photographs of the children using the puppet stage to perform puppets. But due to privacy concerns, these photos of my cat will have to suffice.

My cat Toshi discovers the puppet stage.
Toshi sits behind the puppet stage.

The Magic of Puppets in the Classroom

For me, the magic of this project was offering children a chance to explore character and personality through the creative arts of collage and puppet-making. After completing my “Puppets and Stories” artist residency I am reminded that often it’s the simplest projects, like a puppet made from a paper lunch bag, that can be the most fun for children.

The idea of making puppets generated a lot of excitement in the classroom. And, once we started, the children quickly became makers and entered into creative play. This is the true gift of arts education–we allow children to connect with their innate creativity. It’s always harder for some children than for others–I think of the boy who was all about hunting and guns on my first day in Pittston–but even he gradually came around. I like to think that my being playful, rather than judgmental, helped. Ultimately, he chose to tell a hunting story with his puppet “Tom” from the point of view of the turkey rather than the hunter. 

I did not offer a template, just the encouragement to “Make a face for your puppet” and add details. By doing so, each child connected with their innate capacity for being imaginative, creative artists. In the second week, not everyone was ready or willing to perform their puppet. Fortunately, children can learn a lot by watching how others perform. And I felt excited to see the children make their puppets talk for their peers. Watching children perform their puppets was simply magical!

Robin with Frog and Mira the Mermaid, two hand puppets she created to inspire the children at Pittston School. Photo credit: Susan Potters
Robin with Bob the Gull at Pittston School.