Mister Rogers’ puppets were a valuable tool for his show. They were central to the incredible magic of the world he created, even though there was no real magic behind them. Fred Rogers himself revealed their secret in a 1974 episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood when he showed children how he made the hand puppets talk. “You see, puppets can talk about anything,” he told his child viewers.
This perfectly captures the enduring power of using hand puppets to play with children. Hand puppets offer kids and adults both the opportunity to say and do things they would not otherwise say or do. They’re a vessel for role play and as such, one of the simpler and more impactful ways to play with your kids.
Furthermore, “there’s no right way to do this,” says psychologist, educator, and puppeteer Dr. Susan Linn. “One of the concerns about parents today is that they may think that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. And there isn’t.”
Fans of Mister Rogers Neighborhood may recognize Linn. She and her puppet Audrey Duck appeared on several episodes and Audrey had the distinct privilege of visiting the Land of Make-Believe. Linn notes that the goal of playing should be enjoying time together. “Whatever is fun for you and your child works,” she says. “And if you’re uncomfortable it’s not going to be fun.” Of course, for those parents who haven’t put a lifetime of thought into playing with puppets, Linn has a few tips to get started.
1. Make Unique Hand Puppets
Absolutely anything can be a puppet. “It’s a way of making things come to life.” She notes there is one caveat. While everything can be a puppet, that doesn’t mean everything should be a puppet. Linn feels strongly that puppets work best when they aren’t already imbued with cultural significance. Can a Captain America action figure be a puppet? Sure. But the problem is that the child already has an idea of how Captain America should act and behave. A puppet that isn’t connected to any kind of media character allows “more scope for imagination.”
2. Make Your Hand Puppet Character Younger Than Your Kids
Whatever object parents decide to use, be it a sock or a stuffed animal, they should take special pains to make sure the hand puppet has a child-like character. And that childlike character should be curious and, frankly a bit dumb. “Make your puppet both younger and less smart than your child,” Linn says. “it’s just great for the child. Children often feel powerless and suddenly here’s a creature they know more than, they’re better than, they’re bigger than.”
3. Let the Kids Star and Lead in Hand Puppet Play
Once a parent has a puppet and the kid in the same place, you don’t need to feel the pressure to be as creative as, say, Audrey Linn or Fred Rogers. Let the children, with their naturally imbued sense of play and creativity, take the lead. “Start out by making the character be shy,” Linn offers. “That’s kind of a way to ease into it. You don’t have to start out talking.”
So a parent might introduce themselves to a stuffed animal puppet, only to have the stuffed animal bury its face in the parent’s shoulder. At that point, the parent can tell their kid that the animal is shy, and ask what they might be shy about. The point is to make questions open-ended. As much as possible, allow the child to build the world and the character themselves. It gives them a huge sense of buy-in and agency in the play.
4. You Don’t Have to Make a Funny Voice for Your Hand Puppets
Parents don’t even need to be concerned about making up a funny voice, Linn says. “There are people who use puppets and the puppets don’t talk. The puppets whisper to the puppeteer and the puppeteer talks for the puppet. If you’re uncomfortable creating a funny voice your puppet can just whisper to you.” And if parents are at a loss, here too they can ask their kid for guidance by asking them what the puppet whispered. It all plays back into the specific joy of puppet play for parents and kids.
5. Keep the Dialogue Free-Wheeling When Playing with Hand Puppets
“For the Puppeteer, talking through a puppet is incredibly freeing, like almost immediately,” says Linn. “Because you suddenly are not responsible for what’s coming out of your mouth, or your actions. It seems as though you’re not, even though you really are. So people can say and use puppets to do things they would not ordinarily.”
That’s part of the reason Fred Rogers said that “puppets can talk about anything.” It simply means that parents and kids can talk about anything, at least when a hand puppet is involved. And if it can happen with a hand puppet when a child is small, it can translate to free communication when the child grows up. And that’s what makes hand puppets so productive and truly extraordinary fun.