The Power of Puppets: Using Playtime to Improve Social Skills

Most kids are shy about expressing their feelings. And when other children are present, it can seem even harder. A proven way to make the process of sharing non-confrontational and safe is through play with puppets. Play therapists have been using this method in their practice, along with sand-tray play, very successfully. Of all the social skills activities used to help children communicate their thoughts and feelings, puppets are generally seen by most kids as the most approachable.

While adults may see a fuzzy bunny puppet as just a toy, a child can identify with a small creature who is vulnerable, and who may not know “the right thing” to do in social situations. Children generally warm up to animal puppets very quickly. A turtle might represent a shy child — who understands what it’s like to want to hide in a shell. A child who has trouble using words to express frustration can usually relate to a lion puppet, who roars when he wants to be heard.

Puppetry as a Social Skill Activity

Puppets can also assist children with their development in many areas, including hearing and speech. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that puppets can help children improve enunciation and regulate the rate of their speech. Communication isn’t the only skill that puppet play can improve. When your child’s brain is still developing, the creativity and fun supported by puppet activity helps stimulate neural activity.

One of the greatest benefits is that children can learn how to interact with others by watching how the puppets do it and by putting on a puppet show together. When learning about fairness, taking turns, and speaking up, children can observe how their peers handle these important elements of belonging to a group through cooperative puppet play. And when Mr. Turtle and Miss Rabbit have to work together, their expressed feelings of wanting to run the show will have kids squeal with laughter, as they recognize in those puppet friends the same feelings they have.

Using Puppetry at Home

Learning how to improve social skills doesn’t end in the classroom — or on the playground. Consider the times at home when you feel frustrated trying to get your child to communicate with words rather than acting out. Take the heat out of the moment by playing make-believe. Step back and speak to a puppet instead of to your child. This takes the pressure off your child so they don’t feel like the focus is directed on their behavior, making it easier to listen. For example, if your child is crying but can’t seem to tell you what is wrong, picking up a puppet to speak indirectly to your kid can help. A fuzzy bunny may have an easier time saying it’s feeling sad than your child can.

Similar to how mindfulness and relaxation can calm a child who is dealing with anxiety and hyperactivity issues, puppetry allows a child to keep their brain active while developing social and improvisational skills for a better life. Whether you use it as a way to communicate discipline or to help your child come out of their shell, improvements in your child’s social skills will make this fun exercise all worth it.