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Tiny Big Moments: The Puppet Episode

Updated: 1 day ago

We’re so excited to announce the re-launch of our podcast, Tiny Big Moments. 



Listen time: 25 minutes


In this episode – which we’ve dubbed The Puppet Episode – we dive into the ways an inanimate object can become a remarkable tool to support children’s identity development, social-emotional growth, and to create a supportive community in the classroom. 


You can also listen to Tiny Big Moments on Spotify.


A transcript is included below.


Clarissa

Hello and welcome. This is Tiny Big Moments, a podcast about the tiny moments in early childhood that teach us big lessons. I'm your host, Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven. I'm the communications specialist here at ParentCorps, an evidence-based early childhood program housed at NYU Langone.


Clarissa

On any given day, if you walk into Ms. Migdalia's classroom in the Bronx, you will meet an unusual three-year-old.


Ms. Migdalia

Can you use your other hand to hold and support his head? There you go. Don't let him bite you. Okay, talk to Marco. Talk to him.


Clarissa

What are you doing? Who's on your hand?


Child

Marco.


Clarissa

Who's Marco? Is he a member of your classroom?


Child

No, he's a puppet!


Clarissa

And if you go next door to Ms. Kaitlyn's classroom, you'll meet Sunny.


Clarissa

Do you know does your friend Sunny like vegetables?


Child

Yeah.


Clarissa

Yeah?


Child

He loves carrots, but I don't like the taste of carrot.


Clarissa

Oh.


Clarissa

Marcos and Sunny are, as our pre-K friends have shared, puppets. But they also do the things that real-life preschoolers do. They have favorite foods, they take naps, they go outside, as Ms. Migdalia explains:


Ms. Migdalia

Does Marco go outside to the playground sometimes with us? We took him outside one time. Yeah. And where was, where was he?


Child

In the park.


Ms. Migdalia

In the park, but where in the park? What was he doing?


Child

He went on the slide.


Ms. Migdalia

Yeah, he went on the slide with us! You think he had fun?


Child

Yeah.


Ms. Migdalia

I think so.


Clarissa

Sunny and Marcos also experience big emotions. During our visit, one little boy, who we'll call Jack, told me he was drawing me a picture of Marcos. As he glued gemstones onto a circle, Ms. Migdalia asked what part of his face those were.


Ms. Migdalia

You can use it as a mirror. All right. Is it going on Marco's head? Yeah. Oh, my. Okay. Wow, it's a

beautiful red.


Child

Maybe this can be his drops then.


Ms. Migdalia

His what?


Child

His sad drops.


Ms. Migdalia

His what?


Child

His crying drops.


Ms. Migdalia

Oh, he's crying! Why is he crying?


Child

Because he likes crying.


Ms. Migdalia

He likes crying. Okay. What makes you cry?


Child

Well, that makes me, when I leave from school.


Ms. Migdalia

When you leave from school, you cry? Why?


Child

When my mom leaves, sometimes I cry.


Ms. Migdalia

Oh, when your mommy brings you in the morning, you're right. You do cry.


Child

I cry.


Ms. Migdalia

You do. Why? Be careful. You're going to drop these nice gems, these stones. But then after mommy leaves are you okay? yes? Are you okay when mommy leaves?


Child

Yeah.


Ms. Migdalia

Yeah? All right.


Clarissa

Is that also why Marcos cries? Does he get sad if his mommy leaves?


Child

Yeah.


Ms. Migdalia

He does. What can we do to help Marcos not be sad?


Child

He has other children in other classes.


Ms. Migdalia

Oh, other classrooms could maybe...


Clarissa

What Jack is getting at there is that when he's feeling sad, Marcos might want to talk to other kids in other classrooms about his feelings. Marcos has helped Jack and all the other children in this class learn that when we have big feelings, like sadness, fear, or anger, we can make choices to help ourselves through those feelings. Marcos and Sunny are part of a social emotional learning program called Friends School that was developed by the team here at ParentCorps. During Friends School, children learn to navigate strong feelings, build healthy relationships, and they get practice developing a positive sense of self, which includes their cultural and racial identities.


In today's episode, we're going to talk about the Friends School puppet, where it came from, what role it plays in the classroom, and why it works. We'll hear from Parent Corps staff, pre-K teachers and students, and maybe even a puppet themselves.


Dana

My name is Dr. Dana Rhule, and I'm a clinical psychologist and programming manager here at ParentCorps. So I focus a lot on our work with teachers, including our professional development and our coaching of teachers to support them in their work with children in the classroom, and also to implement our Friends School program.


Clarissa

Over the years, parts of Friends School have changed, but there's always been one permanent fixture.


Dana

I've been working with Friends School for 15 years, since I first arrived at Parent Corps, and we've always had a puppet as part of Friends School. I think it's the highlight for both teachers and students alike. The puppet is really meant to be this model student. And model not meaning perfect or perfectly behaved, but really just your average child, and also a child that follows the directions of the teacher, but also can bring in their feelings and their concerns, their worries or struggles or problems, so that they can really provide an example for students to walk through skills as they learn them together.


I think what's cool about our puppet is that as our program has become more and more focused on children's identities, and also making sure we're attending to diversity in our communities, we've really helped teachers think about and consider who do they want their puppets to be, what identities do they want their puppets to have, what puppet identity is really representative of the kids in the classroom, who can best help kids learn, and also feel so that kids can feel represented themselves in the classroom.


Clarissa

In Ms. Migdalia's class, for example, Marcos is Latino. So is Ms. Migdalia and a good portion of the kids in her class. During our visit, my colleague Cindy got to ask one of the preschoolers about that.


Cindy

Do you speak any other languages? Do you speak Spanish?


Child

Yeah.


Cindy

Yeah? What does Marcos speak?


Child

Spanish.


Cindy

Spanish, too?


Child

Yeah, like me!


Cindy

Wow! Thank you.


Dana

Sometimes teachers will want to give the puppet a cartoon identity, and we really encourage them not to do that because though it would be fun and playful, we really want kids to feel like this puppet could be me. Teachers have thought about the housing experience or where their puppet lives, sometimes even their family structure. So the puppet might live with their grandma or maybe a single father. We've seen a really wide representation racially and culturally for puppets. And sometimes we've had teachers think about their puppet having an immigrant experience to be able to talk about that in the classroom. What I see most is that kids in the classroom, when they see themselves represented, they just really light up. They feel like they're not alone. And it also helps teachers be able to talk about issues in the classroom or that any children might be wrestling with in a way that just feels really normalizing. I think there's just a deep sense of validation when you see parts of yourself

outside of you. To really recognize recognize that this identity is valid. It's part of our classroom. This identity is welcome and accepted.


And so as kids are, first of all, just learning what their identities are and then recognizing what

identities are really loved and embraced and cherished in our society, where there's different

messaging about different identities, right? To see that this identity and this puppet's identity is loved and cherished and embraced and affirmed. I think that then really translates to kids' views of themselves.


Clarissa

Seeing positive representations of themselves is an important part of how young children start to develop their understanding of who they are and what person they can be. Research shows this identity development has a big impact. Children who have a strong racial or ethnic identity are more likely to do well in school, have higher self-esteem, and get along well with others.


Tara

Representation matters, I will say for myself. It's so important for myself as a Black woman to see folks that look like me, that represent me, and I think the same for the classroom. And especially if you're talking about a classroom that's predominantly Black and Brown children, of course, you want a puppet that looks like them.


Clarissa

That's Tara Bowser. She's a ParentCorps educator, which means she works with the Friends School program and also with our program for the families of pre-K children.


Tara

So I grew up in the '70s, and much of the material in the '70s the children did not look like me. And so I can honestly say I wish I grew up seeing more books, seeing more children that looked like me in books. It would have instilled more pride in myself as a Black woman a lot sooner. I grew up in an age where my family thought that color-blindness was an essential value. And I think accepting everyone is an important value, but also seeing yourself represented is really important. I think for myself, it created this feeling like I had to be somebody else, I had to be other, that I wasn't good enough in myself. And I often worry about that in children. If they don't see themselves, are they getting this message that who they are in their own skin isn't good enough or isn't lovable? I think about the doll experiment where you have the Black children and they have to choose which doll that they want, or

they have to attribute certain characteristics to the doll, and in that experience, the Black children were choosing the white doll, and they were saying the Black doll was bad. And so I think about that a lot. And so that's why it's so important to see themselves represented and

see themselves represented in a positive way. And so, yes.


Clarissa

A big part of Tara's role is supporting early childhood teachers as they implement Friends School, which is important because...


Tara

They're nervous. There's something about controlling a puppet that makes teachers nervous. Actually myself, too, because you just want to make it feel real. It's only until they see the children's reaction, that's when there's more excitement, because often when I ask about the program, How's it going? It's often, 'The children love love the puppet.'


Clarissa

Teachers get nervous operating the puppet for lots of reasons. It's new, it feels silly, they don't want to mess up. It all makes sense. And it's also a perfect lesson for pre-K kids. As Dana explains


Dana

There can be a lot of fear in trying something new and doing something in front of other people, making a mistake or messing up or not knowing the lines that they want to say or the puppet's backstory they want to tell. And all of our work with kids of this age is really about helping them learn while making mistakes and growing by taking risks and really encouraging that growth mindset that we're always trying and working on something, we're always practicing something. The same is true for teachers.


Clarissa

When teachers are developing the persona of their puppets, the puppet often comes to be a version of who the teacher was as a young child. That's certainly true for the puppet that my colleague Cindy, who you heard earlier, uses.


Clarissa

So tell me about Kenji.


Cindy

Kenji is my other half. No, Kenji is my puppet. Kenji is, I don't know, it's weird. Kenji is described as Hispanic boy on his tag. But Kenji has a striped red and blue shirt. He has jeans, and he has red converse. He has short hair like me, black hair. And he has, I'll say, light brown skin. And I am a huge cook, a huge food nerd, huge a huge food science nerd, and one of my favorite recipe developers and fellow food science nerds is J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. And I decided to name my puppet after Kenji.


Clarissa

What's Kenji -- what's his backstory? Who's his family? Where does he live?


Cindy

That's a good question. I hadn't thought about it too, too much. I tend to actually just go from my life, I think, which is that Kenji has a mom and a dad, a little sister, just like I do, and lives with a beautiful, rotund 14 pound cat, like I do. So, yeah, I would say he's living his best life


Clarissa

Does he speak any other languages?


Cindy

Yeah. So I speak... I'm half Japanese, and so... And Kenji, J. Kenji Lopez Alt, actually, is also half

Japanese. And so I speak a little Japanese, so I will sometimes bring that element in.


Clarissa

Tell me about Kenji's personality and about developing that personality.


Cindy

Gosh, good question. I think Kenji... What is his personality?


Clarissa

From what I've observed of Kenji, he's a good listener, and he's an active listener, in my experience. He nods his head.


Cindy

I think, yeah, Kenji does like to be involved. He also likes to, he likes to show people that he's paying attention, and that he hears them. And I think that Kenji is everything that I wish I could be, which is a better listener, and showing that I'm engaged. I'm often quite distracted as a person, and so I don't really make eye contact very well I've heard -- people have told me. But Kenji is very aware that he should be looking at who's speaking, that he should be nodding his head. But sometimes he's a four year old like the rest of them and likes to be a little wiggly. And I like to bring in that element of just these little movements that help the kids see that this thing is alive, that this thing is real, and that they can ask him questions and learn from him.


Clarissa

Lots of teachers do the same thing as Cindy. They create a puppet that, were it to magically come alive, wouldn't be dramatically different from the other four-year-olds in the room. That's what Ms. Tanya, a pre-K teacher at PS-1 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, shared with us.


Lisa

I really wish that we were on camera because I'm watching Tanya and... What's your friend's name, Tanya?


Tanya

Diego.


Lisa

Diego. I'm watching Tanya


Clarissa

That's Lisa, another ParentCorps educator.


Lisa

And Diego is just doing this interpretive dance with his hands, which is something that Tanya, she doesn't really sit still. She is always moving and being expressive. And it's killing me that he's sitting on your lap, but he's doing these really groovy hand movements.


Tanya

Diego was waving to Rosita over there.


Lisa

Oh, really?


Tanya

But this is like one of our students, some students, that we don't tell them to sit up. We let them lay on the floor, and you see them, and Diego be on the floor. Diego be in the cozy corner. Next to Rosita the first.


Lisa

So why do you do that?


Tanya

Because it's like the children. They're in the cozy area. And there's a couple of times where we caught the kids talking to Diego because he is in the cozy corner. So it was like their friend or whatever. If the kids are playing, you see a couple of them that will talk to Diego. So Diego's very helpful.


Lisa

But he's not the perfect student. He's a unique student.


Tanya

What student is perfect?


Clarissa

The puppets play a part in all of the Friends School lessons, and their roles are especially helpful when speaking about big feelings.


Dana

In one lesson, the puppet shares a time where they were angry.


Clarissa

That's Dana again.


Dana

And then we have students think about if there's a time when they feel angry themselves, and they're really excited to share after the puppet does, or maybe even more vulnerable feelings, like a time when the puppet shares that they were scared, or a time where they felt excluded or left out. That's a time when you really see kids wanting to connect with the puppet and say, me too, and then share some experience they might have had as well, maybe more than they might have if we had just asked them outright. And I think there's some kids who are always really ready and willing to share about themselves. But there's other children who need an example first or need to know they're not alone in it before they're really willing and ready to share about their own experiences.


I see this as a psychologist, but I also see this the most with my own children, that sometimes,

oftentimes actually, they have a hard time talking about their own feelings, but they're very ready to help me figure out my feelings or to help another child talk about their feelings. When I am able to share experiences from when I was a kid, my son just lights up. He's really excited to know that he's not alone in it. He wants to help me figure out my feeling and what I can do to solve my problem much more readily, and much more accessibly than me asking him about some struggle that he's having or some big feeling that he's having. So I think it really provides a window for kids to think about how they can help the puppet, and in doing so, really learn skills that they can eventually and hopefully transfer to themselves.


Clarissa

Tara has seen that play out in the classroom. She was working with one teacher, and that teacher's puppet was upset.


Tara

And so the puppet was sad or angry and walked off. Walked off into the cozy area. And I believe the cozy area was a tent at this time. And so she had the puppet go and sit in... I believe his name was Jose. Had Jose go and sit in the tent, and the children walked over to Jose, and they would ask, How are you feeling? Are you feeling okay? They would check on Jose to make sure that he was feeling okay, and understanding that this is a place that you go when you're feeling sad or angry, or when you have some big feeling, or you just want some time alone. And so Jose was able to model, like this is what we do when we have these feelings. And then it was extra special when the children went to check on him to make sure that he was okay.


Clarissa

Providing children with the language to talk about their feelings also supports later lessons, like when kids and the puppet get to practice talking about qualities they like about themselves, both internal and external.


Tara

We're giving them the vocabulary. We're saying, Here are some of the some of those things that you're feeling, here are the words to them. And the lessons on internal and external characteristics is also giving them the language, the vocabulary, a way to describe those things that they see in themselves, and also build affirmations, build a sense of pride. Here are some of the things that are about you that are unique and beautiful. And these are things that we hope that you find unique and beautiful in yourself, and build some self-love and increase their confidence. A lot of times I think we're like it's good it's great to feel good on the inside, and that's so important. But a lot of times when you get bullied, you're getting bullied about a lot of things on the outside. And so it's important to focus on both. On both the external and the internal.


Clarissa

One of the main goals of the puppet and Friends School in general is to make sure children's early learning experience is not just about academic skills like math and reading, but social emotional skills. Learning to process feelings and build relationships is not a distraction from learning. In fact, early childhood social emotional development is considered the foundation for children's long term health and development. Cindy, who we heard from before, has thought about this a lot. Before she came to parent corps, she was a pre-K special education teacher.


Cindy

I think friend school could have been really useful for me to interrogate my own teaching practice as a person who was really serious, who was really driven by academic success and achievement in my students. I think that, yeah, Friends School could have helped me reflect on what are the true goals that I have for my kids. And I think the true goals that I have for my kids is that I hope that they know how to make friends.


So there was this one time where I was teaching summer school, and it's these kids that I don't really know, I only had them for a couple of weeks. But anyway, one day, this one kid in particular, Eugene, he was Chinese, had a big mohawk, and I thought it was so cute. And mom always dropped him off. And one day, dad requested a meeting with me. And so, and Eugene was so incredibly bright. He could write and read in English and Chinese. He was writing in paragraphs at four years old. Like, wildly brilliant when it comes to his writing and all that stuff and math. Anyway, so dad requested a meeting with me, and I gathered up all this, his writing, like little writing samples his drawing samples, like his math stuff, whatever. And I was prepared for this meeting. And dad came in, he sat down, he started talking to me about

how Eugene is doing, blah, blah, blah. And so I showed him all this stuff. Like, look at how well your son is doing. He's writing this stuff. And he's learning these things and blah, blah, blah. And I thought I was doing great, and he burst into tears, the dad. And I was frozen, stunned. I had no idea what was happening. And after he calmed down a bit, he said, do you think he'll ever have a girlfriend? And I was stunned. I was like, what? And he was like, do you think that he'll ever have a girlfriend? Do you think he'll ever make friends And I was like, he's great. He's so funny. I mean, he likes the adults more than he likes the kids. But all of the teachers think that he's so charming and wonderful. And he's like, yeah, I just worry. I see him learning and progressing, but I don't ever see him with other people. He's always just by himself. And it makes me so sad. And truly, in that moment, I was like, here I am, also a half Asian person, immediately assuming that this Asian dad was going to want all this academic proof that his son is doing well.


And all he wants to know is if he can make friends. It changed my whole life realizing that. And I it's like, whoa, these are the things that families really care about. And these are the things that school really helps kids do is to learn and be with each other. I think that if I had a program like Friends School in the classroom, it's just another opportunity to create a safe environment for them to experiment with how to make a friend, because Kenji is never going to be mad at them. Kenji is never going to make fun of them. Kenji is never going to bully them. But it's just a safe place to, even if they don't like Kenji, and they try to push him or whatever, Kenji is not going to push them back, because it's, it's a safe place to just experiment and figure out how to be a person.


Clarissa

Thank you for listening. Tiny Big Moments is produced by me, Leila Eldomyati, Lisa Ellrodt, and Cindy Gray. Special thanks to Shanika Gunaratna for editing support, and to Dr. Dana Rhule, Tara Bowser, the pre-K teachers at PS-1 in Sunset Park, and the pre-K classrooms at Bronx House for participating. Our theme song is Fancy Day by Sunsides, available through Pixabay. You can learn more about ParentCorps on our website, weareparentcorps -- with an s -- dot org. You can support ParentCorps programming by donating to the link in our description box.

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