Therapy on a puppet string


An enduring source of fun, puppets can also be used to help children deal with emotional difficulties

PUPPETS HAVE long been associated with children. The classic Punch and Judy is still going strong, though its violent overtones may be somewhat dated today. Rainbow, Boscoand Sootyare familiar to an older generation. Puppets abound in current children’s television too, with programmes such as CBeebies’ Big City Park, Penelope K by the Wayand Mighty Mitesall incorporating them.

While puppets can be both entertaining and fun, practitioners are increasingly seeing their value in teaching and therapy. In the UK, educator and author Ros Bayley has written extensively on the benefits of puppets in education and therapy.

Meanwhile, Dr Lynne Jones, a child psychologist with the International Medical Corps, has taken puppets to Kosovo and regions affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami, working successfully with traumatised children. In Ireland too, puppets are used for both education and therapy.

Helene Hugel runs the Puppet Portal Project, a programme which brings puppetry to paediatric hospital settings. Artists help children to create puppets and the worlds these characters inhabit. Using technology provided by Trinity College, they transmit films to children in other hospitals, thus engaging them in creativity and attempting to allay the isolation children can experience in hospital.

“We are not targeting a specific problem . . . it is about creating a sense of community within the hospital and bringing the soul back into the healing environment,” says Hugel.

Puppetry provides a safe place for children to go – they can go places in their imaginations despite what they might be experiencing in hospital.

“It’s about the child gaining control over their own experience through the characters they make and the stories they tell,” she says. “Hospital can be very much about people doing things to them, so puppetry allows them to develop a world that they can control.”

Siobhan Prendiville is a primary school teacher and play therapist who incorporates puppets into her work. She uses puppets as educational tools to develop the social and emotional wellbeing of her students – tackling issues such as bullying or parental separation.

Puppetry, she says, allows the dramatic distance necessary to talk about difficult subjects and acts as a bridge between projected play (using cars, dolls and so on to create imaginary scenarios) and role play.

As a therapist, Prendiville uses puppets alongside other techniques to deal with bereavement, parental separation or to help children with learning difficulties. They can be used to help kids control their emotions and fears, and deal with separation anxiety or impulsivity. Prendiville believes that puppets can also be useful with teenagers in therapy, as they are attracted to the creative aspect of the medium.

When Prendiville meets a child in therapy, she uses finger puppets to create a story about the child. The puppets give an indirect mode of address and help the child to avoid difficult eye contact. “[A child’s] play is an external representation of their internal world,” she says. “If a child can’t tell you what’s happening, their play can show you.”

Prendiville’s approach is non-directive. However, she finds that children are often attracted to the puppets and will start to role-play their lives in the sessions.

“They can use puppets to externalise what’s happening in their lives, or they can try out new ways of being. For example, a child can learn to say ‘no’ in play. If they can play at saying ‘no’ then they may be able to say ‘no’ in real life.”

Helen Sholdice, also a play therapist, agrees that puppets are invaluable in her work. Parents often approach her with issues such as toilet training, problems at school or marital disharmony.

“Instead of acting out feelings of violence or frustration themselves, they can imbue the puppet with those feelings,” says Sholdice. “If they have a ferocious feeling, for example, and it manifests through the puppet, it can be followed by great relief and joy.”

Sholdice says that often children do not have the sophisticated language to deal with difficult topics and emotions.

“It is natural for children to play and take leaps of fancy. The more you can allow natural play to take place, the more you can return that child to a good place inside,” she says.

“When children feel powerless, they can become tyrannical. Puppetry play can restore feelings of power within a child.”

For more information, contact Helene Hugel at 087-780988,;

Siobhan Prendiville at 086-196250

Helen Sholdice at 086-1204781, helen