By: Pat Pfeiffer
Jesus, and puppets, and me– what a wonderful way to teach Christ. I find puppets bring new emphases to familiar stories.
You no sooner begin a story in Sunday school about “the man who went down through the roof,” when Johnny pipes up, “I know that story. They made a hole in the roof and let the sick man down, and Jesus made him walk.”
Mentally, you say, “Thanks, Johnny. There goes the lesson.” But… Johnny hasn’t heard the story from Lizzy Lizard who, lying on a hot roof tile, saw it happen.
Puppets help with discipline. If your class becomes more interested in the new boy than in what you are trying to say, have Priscilla Pig say, “I don’t know that new boy sitting by Timmy. Isn’t he cute? Is your name Archilbald? It isn’t? I’ll bet it’s Fauntleroy. Oh, I give up. What is your name? Where do you live? I just love visiting boys (giggle, giggle). Let’s be still now, boys and girls, so I can tell a story.”
Children don’t resent a puppet’s asking for correct behavior. They willingly obey because they don’t want their friend Priscilla Pig angry at them.
The class mentally prepares to listen when the puppets appear. The playful nonsense captures their attention, then settles them down for the lesson.
Puppets hold an audience’s attention not only during the story, but also during the application, a time when interest often drifts. Children think the application is part of the story.
For instance, Dudley Dog says, “But I still have to earn my way to heaven, don’t I? I mean, do good things so God will let me in.”
Franky Frog replies, “You haven’t been listening, Dudley. Lift those floppy ears, and get this straight. Jesus earned the way for you! He wants you to be good and do good deeds to show people his love, but not to earn his love.”
Dudley Dog sighs, “Boy, that’s a relief! I was scared all the time that I wasn’t being good enough to go to heaven, and I didn’t want to end up a hot dog.”
Puppets get away with preaching.
Too often adults and children mentally turn off when the punch line is reached and the preaching begins. It doesn’t sound like preaching because the puppets are friends. When Franky Frog speaks, he is just telling Dudley Dog the facts straight out.
Children pay attention to what puppets say.
Ask them to listen to see if the puppet has the story correct. Priscilla Pig tells the story of the Little Lost Pig who stayed lost in a ditch for three weeks because the shepherd didn’t come looking for him.
Franky Frog and the children correct this garbled story of the Lost Lamb. It’s important that children remember the correct story and principles.
Children are quick to catch errors in pronunciation and garbled names (the Mosquito Bites instead of the Amalekites) and sheer stupidity. They enjoy ridiculous poems and songs. Fran Wallace, accomplished
puppeteer in Spokane, Washington, has Elsie, her puppet, sing:
“Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world, Red and yellow, orange and green, Strangest kids I’ve ever seen. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
Fran interrupts, “Elsie, children aren’t orange and green!” “I know,” says Elsie, “But these here kids today are sure strange.”
Puppets help children learn.
Children will respond to a puppet’s mistakes mentally and out loud and will learn by correcting the errors. They also learn when they can respond physically and emotionally to the message.
Children can talk back to the puppets. They aren’t afraid to give a wrong answer because the puppets give wrong answers sometimes, and it’s okay. Even a shy child will respond to a puppet.
Memory work and review are specialties for animal puppets.
“I can’t learn that long verse,” moans Dudley Dog. “I can’t even pronounce the words.”
“Yes, you can,” responds Franky Frog. “We’ll all help you. Besides, we don’t want that Priscilla to think she’s smarter than you. Let’s say it three times together. Come on, kids, help ol’ Dudley learn it before she gets here.”
As they help Dudley Dog, they have actually taught themselves the verse.
For review, have one of the puppets retell last week’s story and what he learned. Ask the children to listen to him and see if he remembers the story correctly. The children by so doing review it themselves. They are involved and learning.
Puppet ministry is a wide-open door–limited only by the teacher’s resourcefulness.
Pastor Byron Evans, when living in Oregon, looked around in desperation when babysitting six preschoolers while his wife taught a women’s Bible Study. He grabbed a potholder mitt shaped as a dog’s
head and told a story. Dudley Dog was born.
This puppet was so successful, Rev. Evans next used his son Kenny’s stuffed turtle. Soon he had a whole ark full.
Evans says his Kid’s Club ministry leaped from six to thirty when he began using puppets. And attendance stayed constant.
“Puppets have brought more response than any ministry we have ever had. People of every age from nine months to ninety years respond to them,” agrees Mrs. Wallace and her husband Neal.
Puppets can be purchased or made at home. They get hard use so they should be well made. Each puppet becomes special and is not replaceable.
The easy-to-make puppets include paper finger puppets, mouth puppets, hand puppets, and marionettes. They range in price from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. They are found in Christian bookstores, toy
stores, and even in grocery stores.
Libraries have excellent resource books with directions for making and using puppets and stages. Dialogues can be purchased from bookstores, publishing companies, or magazine advertisements. Stages, curtains, and props may also be purchased or home-made.
A stage, especially helpful when the teaching location is permanent, is not a necessity. One can be made from wood, plastic, or simply by cutting a hole in a large cardboard box and curtaining the back to hide the puppeteer(s).
Many teachers stay in the open. The teacher talks with the puppet as if it were a person standing beside him. And the teacher’s mouth may move as the puppet talks back. The children may notice; but puppet
attraction is so strong, it makes little difference.
Puppets are handy. They go anywhere and require little space. There are no flannelgraph figures to lose; no pictures to blow away; no bulky easel to stand up, carry, and store.
Anyone can teach with puppets. The adult too self-conscious to stand before a class feels relaxed when attention focuses on puppets. Senior citizens, unable to stand for an hour, can help teach with puppets by
sitting behind the stage. Scripts can even be read behind a curtain.
People with handicaps such as leg braces, wheel chairs, or disfigurements can teach with puppets without having the attention fall on themselves or their handicap. Soon the audience identifies the speaker with the puppet. All become regular people, different but real.
Many puppeteers create their own characters and write their own scripts.
Puppets should be lovable. This is almost automatic in animal puppets. The character doesn’t have to be pretty. Oscar on Sesame Street isn’t pretty, but he’s loved. The actual color of the animal isn’t important.
Fake fur is sturdy and gives reality to the animals. Let the children feel the puppets but don’t allow the puppets to be handled. Take puppets into the audience occasionally to shake hands or to kiss the children. Puppets are real personalities to children.
Develop a personality for each puppet you work with just as the children are growing in Christ. Each puppet must stay within his own character or children will recognize the error.
A good puppeteer is a good actor. The Puppets must live. They must be believable. Dogs don’t fly off the stage. Fit the walk and voice to the character of that animal. Practice, practice!
Become the character–the audience does.
The puppet talking should look at the puppet to whom he is speaking. The other puppet can look at the audience for eye contact. Keep an easy rapport between yourself and the audience. Develop the ability to
Make the most of your mistakes. Laugh with the audience and keep going. So what if Franky Frog growls like a dog because you forgot which puppet was speaking. Love your puppets and love your audience. They will love the puppets and you.
Animated puppets in the hands of a servant of God can effectively capture the attention of audiences and reach hearts and lives for the Lord Jesus.
(The above material originally appeared in a January 1982 issue of Moody Monthly.)
Christian Information Network