Practical Hand Puppets

A hand puppet can bring a smile to a grouchy toddler's face, and doesn't have to be anything elaborate — just a napkin and a character voice will do.
By Grian Salomon
September/October 1984
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The Baby: Open up a napkin and tie a knot in one corner. This forms the baby's head. If there's a tail of cloth above the knot, you can tuck it in or call it the baby's hair.
Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

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There's hardly an adult alive who hasn't, at one time or another, had to deal with a bored youngster. Occasions vary: Perhaps the moment came for you in a restaurant when the child had finished eating and had to sit while others completed their meals. Or perhaps it was in the waiting room of a doctor's office or bus station. Or when you were visiting adult friends. A toddler can become restless and frustrated at times like these and, being unhappy, can make life miserable for everyone else as well!

Each person must find his or her own best method of handling such situations, of course. Mine is through hand puppetry. Does it come as a surprise to learn that puppets can be practical? Well, I've been teaching preschoolers for a number of years now, and I have an imaginative two-year-old daughter of my own. These tots have helped me discover that puppetry and role playing can be enormously useful—not only in the classroom but also in everyday situations, where a new puppet can provide distraction and even help a child see a different point of view.

Enter the Players

If you'd like to make some practical hand puppets yourself, here are directions for a few favorites that have gotten me out of tight spots with my own two-year-old. I give each speaking character a particular voice (high, low, soft, gruff, or whatever) and one or two special interests or abilities.

[1] The Baby can be played with just like any other doll. To make it, open up a napkin and tie a knot in one corner. This forms the baby's head. If there's a tail of cloth above the knot, you can tuck it in or call it the baby's hair. Decide which side of the knot looks most like a face, then fold the corner opposite the baby's head up behind to form the hood of the infant's bunting. Now, with the baby lying flat in front of you, you'll have a flap of cloth on the left and another on the right. Choose one of these to be the body, and roll it loosely toward the center. It provides plumpness for the bunting to wrap around. Finally, wrap the remaining flap — which is now the bunting — all the way around to the back, leaving the baby's face visible. If you've used a paper napkin, you can draw features on the face, using dots or short, curved lines to show whether the baby is asleep or awake.

[2] Granny Goose is an easy favorite requiring only one knot. Hold up your cloth by two adjacent corners and tie them in a square knot, leaving an opening about two inches wide. This should be big enough for you to insert your thumb and forefinger which, together, make Granny's bill. Place the knot directly under her "chin." If you like, wrap the lower part of the cloth around your forearm to make a long, smooth neck. Granny Goose "talks" when you make little pinching motions with your fingers. As I see her, she's an expert at eating, drinking, and doing impressions of other kinds of birds — such as Granny Eagle, which you make by crooking your index finger down over the end of your thumb to shape a strong beak.

[3] The Snake is playful and enjoys peeking out from inside a pocket or from behind the salt and pepper shakers. It whispers when it speaks, which tends to have a calming effect on the proceedings. To make it, lay the napkin on a table and roll two diagonally opposite corners toward the center. Tuck one protruding corner back inside between the two rolls, far enough to form an upper and lower jaw. Tie a knot to form the head and to anchor the jaws in place.

[4] The Rabbit has a mischievous quality that's endearing. Begin this puppet by holding up two adjacent corners to form the ears. Place them together and grasp the napkin around the middle. Tie a knot at the base of the ears to make the head, leaving long ears for an adult rabbit or short ones for a youngster. Leave the knot just loose enough so that you can thrust your index finger up inside to manipulate the head, then hide your hand behind the cloth folds that are the rabbit's body. Sometimes the folds fall just right for the rabbit to grasp a small object, like a pen — or a child's hand.

Take a Bow

The beauty of these puppets lies in their simplicity. They can appear anywhere, at any time, and they're easy to relate to. Furthermore, children can master them easily and seem to enjoy sharing them with one another, imagining encounters and exploits.

And, of course, fantasy is akin to enchantment. As you play with hand puppets, you begin to see everyday items through new eyes, as stage props and the very stuff of adventure. Your imagination is stimulated ... and when your waiter approaches, you might find yourself saying, "More napkins, please!"

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