Puppetry is much more than child’s play for young learners at Children’s Fairyland

PUPPETRY IS MORE than just child’s play at Children’s Fairyland, Oakland’s iconic storybook theme park. Small children have been stimulated by the wonders of live performance at the Storybook Puppet Theater since 1956, but now they will also be exposed to arts education programming specially crafted for preschool learners. A new puppet education initiative, Puppet Playdates, takes hands-on learning to the next level.

Once upon a time comes alive for a new generation every Thursday after the 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. puppet shows, when children are cordially invited to a nearby meadow to make friends with marionettes after the curtain falls.

Amber Rose Arthur. (Andrew Reed/EdSource)

On a recent morning, Amber Rose Arthur, 5, wasted no time breathing life into the unicorn puppet, its sparkles glittering in the sun. Every so often, she gently nudged other children with the unicorn’s horn to bestow them with magic powers. In the interests of total disclosure: She gave this reporter some enchantment too.

“They don’t get enough arts in school anymore, so events like this are great,” said her father, Gregory Arthur, watching as the little girl explored the craft of puppetry and social interactions in one fell swoop.  “It stimulates the brain more than a lot of other things. It gets them to think and learn, and it makes them smile.”

Nestled on the shores of Lake Merritt, this bewitching arts education program invites children to learn the magic of puppetry while immersing themselves in classic fables including James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,”  Frank L. Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” This program also lays the groundwork for a proposed puppet education program that will pay visits to early-learning classrooms in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).

“Fairyland is designed to inspire a young child to have a great imagination,” said Joy Peacock, client and community relations director for the PNC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PNC Bank, which is partnering on the puppet-based early-learning program. “It’s not all laid out there for you, like in TV. You have to rely on your own imagination. Puppetry is very interactive, it’s very tactile, it’s very creative.”

Learning how to make believe

Coming out of the pandemic, Fairyland held focus groups with local teachers to pinpoint what kinds of activities would be most beneficial for the preschool cohort, and the takeaway was that children today need more social-emotional learning as well as more exposure to the creative impulse. Enter puppets. 

“One of the things that actually made me really sad is that the teachers were saying the children are losing their imagination,” said Maria Rodriguez, manager of the puppet theater. “They’re losing their ability to make believe. For me, you know, I can’t imagine life without imagination, so I was just like, oh goodness. We need to help inspire the children to learn how to make believe. We want to help them to light that spark.”

That’s basically Jacqui June Whitlock’s calling in life. A former transitional kindergarten teacher with a background in theater and an affinity for puppetry, this is her dream gig. She studied child development in college and the art of shadow puppetry in Bali. She has encountered more than one child who was too afraid to express themselves, until she handed them a puppet. Suddenly they found their voice.

“For me, this has been like a lifelong career. Incorporating social-emotional learning with puppetry, that’s my bread and butter,” said Whitlock, a puppet education specialist. “Something wonderful happens when you hand a child a puppet. Puppets are a great conduit for storytelling and learning without putting any pressure on the child.”

Whitlock is a master at teaching through play. Holding court with a cavalcade of puppets, from rabbits and dragons to cats, after a recent performance of “Peter Pan,” she relishes helping children spin yarns of their own. 

“In America, we tend to think of puppets as simple toys for children, but really there’s so much more to puppetry. Many other cultures think of them as more than that. They can be a very complex tool.”

Jacqui June Whitlock, puppet education specialist

“I’ve been dreaming of doing a program like this for years. It’s amazing that we finally have the funding to do it,” she said. “In America, we tend to think of puppets as simple toys for children, but really there’s so much more to puppetry. Many other cultures think of them as more than that. They can be a very complex tool.” 

At the play dates, she helps guide groups of pint-sized puppeteers as they learn and play. If a child has a puppet pretend to bite her, for example, she inquires whether the puppet is hungry, opening up a dialogue with the child. But she always wants the kiddo to lead the way. 

“They weave their own story,” said Whitlock, who crafts a lot of her own puppets by hand. “You’re not really telling them what the story is, they’re telling you.”

Empowering children to express themselves is particularly critical right now, experts say, because this generation missed out on so many formative experiences because of school closures and other pandemic disruptions. The arts can be an effortless way to boost special emotional learning, she says, through the kind of make-believe games that children are naturally drawn to. 

Jacqui June Whitlock, a puppet education specialist at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, teaches through puppet play and imagination. (Andrew Reed/EdSource)

“Teachers were saying that they were seeing a lack of imagination or a lack of pretend play happening in their classrooms, noticing that children weren’t interacting as much,” she said. “And puppets are an excellent tool for cultivating that pretend play, also just communicating with each other, it’s sort of like a conduit for your personality … It just makes it so easy for them to communicate with each other and break down that barrier.”

Puppets can play a role in helping children communicate on a deeper level, experts say, by externalizing their emotions onto the inanimate object. The puppet becomes a proxy that helps kids process hard situations, grapple with fears and explore their feelings through metaphor.

“One of my favorite things that I’ve observed is that puppet playtime creates a lot of interaction between the grownup and the kiddo,” said Whitlock. “It’s like time slows down for them. Also, I put in a bench recently, so now I’m also seeing a lot of elders, and I love the interactions between grandparents and their littles. It’s very nurturing.”

A conduit to the imagination

Of course, puppetry can also fuel expressions of pure escapism, encouraging little children to create their own big adventures. 

“Children and puppetry go hand in hand, because kids have no trouble suspending their disbelief, and endowing the simplest props with life,” said Carey Perloff, former artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and a longtime puppet proponent. “Puppets are a direct conduit to the imagination. Because they can be realistic or totally abstract, they invite audience members to project their own idea of character and circumstance onto a piece of fabric or some papier mache, and thus to transform it into something magical.”


Trevor Aguilar finds joy in using his imagination with a dragon puppet. (Andrew Reed/EdSource)

Trevor Aguilar, for one, celebrated his sixth birthday by weaving a tale of intrigue with his new fuzzy friends. He narrated an adventure in which the grandmother puppet saved the townspeople from the evil machinations of the fire-breathing dragon puppet. The last child at the puppet play date, he didn’t seem to want the fun to end. 

Indeed, some children become so enamored of the marionettes that they make a point of paying a visit to Whitlock and her buckets of puppets every time they visit the park. 

“I’ve got my regulars, which is so great,” said Whitlock. “They know exactly what they want. ‘OK, I’m here. I’m getting the raccoon puppet today.’”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.

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