If you think pulling a DIY Sesame Street for your kid requires Martha Stewart-level sewing skills and Steven Spielberg-level effects work, you’re coming at it all wrong — and that’s according to an actual Sesame Street puppeteer. “People think, ‘Oh, I’m not imaginative, I can’t do that,'” says Noel MacNeal. “You woke up with a puppet on the end of your arm. It’s way easier than people think.”
MacNeal kinda wrote the book on the topic — his 10 Minute Puppets is an easy-to-follow guide for using puppets and puppetry to help your kids develop motor skills, storytelling ability, and language. But his first piece of advice is the easiest to follow of all: “Don’t be afraid of looking stupid — you’re teaching your kid to go for it,” he says. “Go for the risk. Even if you look stupid, you’ll learn something, and so will they.”
You know how to look stupid, right? Great. Now you’re ready step 2 …
Keep It Simple
Pretty much anything you already have around your house can be a puppet. “The simplest puppet is a finger puppet — all it takes is a marker. The drawing skills required are just two dots and a smile.” This kind of puppet is perfect for babies, because they haven’t yet learned that you’re actually being super lazy.
Once your kid is old enough to call you out, blow their mind with a sock puppet or a mitten puppet. MacNeal’s book comes full of googly eyes and tongues that will hilariously anthropomorphize anything you can wear on your hand, but you can accomplish the same thing with markers, paper, scissors, and scotch tape. “There is no wrong way to do this,” he points out.
Play With Your Voice As Well As Your Hands
When it comes to doing voices, don’t overthink it, MacNeal says. “For characters, just do your own voice, but slightly higher, or slightly lower. Make your natural voice sound stupid, old, young.— think of it in those terms,” says MacNeal. “Once you have that, you can try modeling your voice on cartoon characters you’re familiar with, like Kermit or Daffy Duck. Don’t rule out family members — try imitating your Grandma’s voice, or Uncle Harry’s.” Then, you can explain why a pack-a-day smoking habit is bad for them.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeAM1vwEcFg expand=1]
Deflect Your Kid’s Attention
Puppetry isn’t the same thing as ventriloquism, so quit it with the talking out the side of your mouth (you’re not fooling anyone — even your infant). Instead, MacNeal says the most important thing is to look at the puppet while it’s speaking. If you’re engrossed by what it’s saying, your kid will be, too. “The very fact that this puppet is addressing the kid is going to be kind of magical for them,” MacNeal explains.
Handle With Care
With a hand puppet, try not to move the top part of your hand. “You just want to move your thumb, because that’s the puppet’s chin,” he says, which makes sense because nothing in nature yanks the top of its head back when talking (except a very excited Kermit The Frog). “I have grown ups start with a very professional exercise for this: counting to ten.”
Once you’re comfortable making the puppet look like it’s speaking normally, you can add some oomph: when you’re emphasizing a word in a sentence, move the puppet’s whole head forward for emphasis, which shoots the word forward and makes it feel more real.
Go Big And Go Home
MacNeal has worked with really, really big puppets — he was Bear in Bear In The Blue House, as well as the whole damn Snuffleupagus family onSesame Street. And he says you don’t need access to the Sesame Workshop to go from hand puppets to a whole head puppet.
“You can make a dinosaur out of a box,” MacNeal explains. “It’s just the head, and the great part is that you can just open and close it to make it speak. If you make your kid a cardboard sword, the dinosaur can become a dragon.” Actually you don’t even need the cardboard sword — just let the kid crawl onto your back and, presto-chango, they’re Daenerys Targaryn.
And, when you’re ready to step up from whole head puppets to whole body puppets, just drape everything between your head and a cardboard tail with an appropriately colored bed sheet. Hell, with a big enough sheet, you can turn the whole fam damily into a Chinese Dragon that terrorizes the neighborhood (provided you can get everyone to march in step).
It’s more inventive than a new PS4 game and, you know, about $50 cheaper.