Molly Piper has worked as an artist and children’s author since the 1980’s, and in 2009 she created the Acorn & Rose Puppet Theater in Yelm. She has given shows and workshops for libraries, schools, museums and homes throughout Washington. Here, she shares some of the adventure.
I had worked as an author and artist for decades, taught in every possible venue, and found myself in 2009 wondering what new adventure I could come up with. Out of the blue, I was offered a grant to teach writing to fifth and sixth graders. These kids told me they were tired of writing at the end of long school days, so we switched to puppetry. My restless, rebellious charges calmed down to a happy hum when given earthen clay to fashion into puppet heads. Yup, kids these days still like dirt! They loved the feel and smell of clay, and were passionate about sculpting tiny heads. Eagerly, they took on the fine-tuned work of detailed papier-mâché, painting, and sewing, and were exuberant about bringing their creations to life in a play before family and friends.
Ultimately, these students were the ones who inspired me to design and build a puppet theater and take what is now known as Acorn & Rose out on the road.
My first solo performance had eight puppets, which meant eight different voices to keep distinct, to say nothing of all their interactions on the play board and with the audience. I was terrified! To my amazement my little audience of forty kids and pre-teens sat quietly responsive for a full forty-five minutes. So, I expanded my repertoire, gaining confidence as I went along, and can say for sure that shows and birthday parties are a lot of fun to do. Especially, though, I like showing kids how to do things.
Kids live in the present moment without duplicity, well aware that what adults say and who they really are can be two different things. Usually they stay quiet about this, but puppets can give them a safe way to express truthfully without getting in trouble for it. Also, there are moments when a child needs to reinvent herself, and a puppet offers the perfect opportunity to behave in new, productive ways.
As a visiting artist who gets to do special programs in schools, I’m allowed to seek out what matters to kids. They all love learning about animals and nature. Last year one of my groups of first graders was impressed by a whirlwind they saw on their playground. They were mystified by leaves rising up in spirals of invisible air. So we got into it – there are endless spirals in nature, in the weather, in galaxy formations, in seashells and pinecones and flowers, spirals right down to our fingertips. I brought my kids lots of books showing these things, and some of them were so taken they tucked the books inside their desks to study in quiet moments. We made up a song about spirals for the kids’ puppets to sing. They drew spirals in tiny booklets they had made to share with their puppets. In a playful way, we really expanded their interest in reading; they felt a great respect and connection to nature. They were writing and reading with tiny sidekicks they themselves had made, named and given voices to.
In addition, I’m doing private tutoring for three little girls who are in love with mermaids. With help, they’ve made their own mermaid puppets.
Part of the inspiration for this has come from dozens of wonderful library books about our oceans, and the girls love pouring through them. They’ve become mystified and delighted by seahorses, octopi and other sea creatures, and have learned to draw them quite well. Now, we are making up a puppet show together – brainstorming, mapping, drawing and singing a story that is loaded with information – all skills they will not forget. It is all coming from them, so they passionately want to do the book-learning, preparing the big surprise they will share with family and friends. This is folk art woven into academics, and it works very well.
In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, children used to learn on farms and homesteads, and they were taught skills as apprentices. Mixing puppetry with current-day education offers some of that. Kids gain experience and self-respect by doing things hands-on, and their confidence grows as they meet challenges, ask questions, and find solutions. People who are now grandparents and great-grandparents learned to memorize long poems, they knew how to repair things and make something out of nothing. Being frugal, thrifty and imaginative means that a button, a scrap from an old shirt, or an unmatched sock can be used to make a toy that brings meaning and joy. This is not instant gratification or entertainment; it is work that requires patience, imagination, and cooperation.
If I have learned anything from being around children over several decades, it is that they are overloaded by the thinking that goes into their movies and video games. The numbers of cable channels for kids, even educational videos and games, lead children to become passive and zoned-out in front of screens. Nothing can compare to time spent talking, playing or reading with an adult who is really with them mindfully, working together on a project that involves mastering new skills and bringing them to fruition. There is deep and lasting satisfaction that comes from making something with your own hands, or making up a story from things you have learned. Kids thrive with eye contact and the joys of conversation, and the ups and downs of working on projects they care about.
A question for members of The Mountain News community: I wonder what senior citizens and elders have to say about sharing hands-on experiences like this with children. What do you remember about your childhoods and raising children? What do people with grey hairs see and feel that would benefit parents, teachers and children today? Kindly share your comments with us, for all to see and learn from.
P.S. Please visit Molly at www.acornandrose.com
© 2011 Molly Piper
All pictures courtesy of Molly Piper