Using Puppets to Animate STEM Ed

Using Puppets to Animate STEM Ed

Sam Patterson says he isn’t going to be the guy telling everyone else that they should teach with puppets, but he is happy enough to tell you why it works really well for him. Patterson is the makerspace coordinator at Echo Horizon School. He talked with us about using puppets to help students think about design goals, building puppets to teach students about iterative processes and more.

STEAM Universe: Building puppets sounds like a great art project, but it's not as clear how it relates to the rest of the STEAM acronym. How does puppet construction help you teach more traditional STEM concepts?

Sam Patterson: In a number of ways. Like last week, I was actually using one of my built puppets with my kindergarten class. We were having a discussion about push and pull forces and this was actually like puppet as co-teacher. Instead of the  kids building these puppets this is really just about getting them to think about push and pull forces and I was using the sloth puppet to essentially slow down our conversation so more of the kids had access to it and to keep myself from rushing through it. It ended up being a really great conversation. But that same group of kids just yesterday went to the local marionette theater and  it'll be interesting to see what we can do with string puppets with those kids moving forward as we look at things like balance. Anything that you might have traditionally taught using, for instance, a mobile you could do with a marionette.

With the older kids it's really about getting them to go through that process of planning something, measuring something, patterning something and constructing it and getting them to do that with fabric instead of or in addition to other building materials.

STEAM Universe: In your puppet house or communication projects, why ask the kids to design for puppets? What advantage does that hold over asking them to design for each other or a character from books or TV, for example?

Patterson: And those are also strategies that I use. I love doing designs from stories and that can get everybody good access to it. I sometimes will have them design for each other. It's all just about what you want them to be doing and creating a full menu of design options.

Puppets work particularly well in a situation where I need to give them multiple users in a short amount of time. So one of my "Design Thinking with Puppets" videos usually has four to five users and they talk for less than a minute but they have fairly exaggerated personalities and the students tend to identify with one or another of those puppets in a fairly significant way. Anecdotally I can tell that my students retain the information presented in that video longer than they retain my directions. And there's less distraction than when they try to get information out of each other because kindergarteners interviewing each other about their interests, you know that only works so well.

But the Children's Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop) in the '70s did research on how children view information presented on a screen, and they found that the children they studied held onto the information presented by the puppet actors longer than they held onto the information presented by the human actors. So I don't know, if I dressed up in five different outfits and presented myself as five different characters if it would work or not, but my kids really enjoy designing for the puppets. And I have the bonus of, when they finish their designs, I'll go in the next room, put the puppet on and come back in and have the puppet talk to them about their designs, and that's always really fun.

STEAM Universe: How does working with puppets help you to integrate STEAM concepts throughout more of the curriculum?

Patterson: It depends. Often times it's just engaging the kids further in conversation. Because, really, STEAM concepts for me a lot of times is just getting them curious about the world and how it works and talking about it. So sometimes the puppets can be a really good prop for getting that conversation moving.

We also do a lot of stuff in the makerspace that sometimes falls outside of traditional STEAM,  but at the same time if you're thinking about the engineering process and seeing that whole thing, like setting a goal and then designing. One of the projects we have them do — it's a little metaphysical because we have them design the best possible student. And this is usually like first or second grade and they're making paper-bag puppets. It's weird because the characters are blank paper bags, and they have to choose which one they want to design. I don't want to put too many examples in front of them so I only give them Mr. Baggins, who does the presentation, and the kids picked students who had struggles that mirrored their own. And they designed a paper bag puppet that would better meet those struggles. So in a lot of ways it's kind of this mindfulness, thinking through our own limitations and making a plan for moving forward. They're having to plan, and they're having to figure out how it's going to work and they're having to cut out the pieces that are going to go together into that, so there's definitely a STEAM thread that runs through it, but we're also hitting some pretty heavy educational psychology goals.

STEAM Universe: With students coming to the makerspace and using an environment outside their normal classroom and then engaging in activities that seem different from the rest of their day, I'd imagine it's easy for them to kind of separate the stuff they do in your room out a bit. Is that the case and, if so, how do you try to ensure that the concepts you work on with them translate outside your makerspace?

Patterson: Well I'm lucky enough that their classroom teachers — I teach pre-k through sixth grade — the classroom teachers actually accompany them into into the makerspace. So that makes it a lot easier for me as a specialist focusing on process and technical skills to integrate what they're learning in other places. Often times we'll talk about a curriculum that spirals and comes back to the same concept in different contexts, so I like to use the makerspace as one of those alternative contexts for engaging in whatever they've been learning about. When I'm really lucky they've been learning a whole lot about something and I can just give them a cool way to apply it and highlight the skill that I'm trying to get them to use. At the same time I don't have to teach them a bunch of new stuff — I just have to teach them how to do something.

STEAM Universe: From engineering concepts to geometry and other math ideas, there's plenty of STEM material associated with puppet construction, but it might not be so apparent to students, especially younger ones. Do you explicitly try to help them connect those dots and if so, how?

Patterson: We have a lot of conversations about what we're doing as we do it. So when we're planning out the puppets we'll talk about the shapes that make up the generic pattern. It's kind of like a big cone shape with a Pac-Man shaped head on top, so you can talk about circles and triangles and that kind of thing and that works for first and second graders, that kind of stuff.

Once they start —  if you're working with them in a situation where they're actually constructing the puppets then you can actually get into some pretty interesting design conversations because puppets, stuffed animals, etc., are all built inside out. So when you're constructing them you're doing everything inside out and backwards, and it's really interesting to help kids develop that kind of spatial awareness and that ability to visualize turning something inside out and reversing its shape and how that's going to work.

There's certainly points where we call that attention to everyone and make sure they're aware of different concepts that they've covered somewhere else or that they're talking about that we can set that up. We totally do that. But then there's a lot of just the process of making one, or I typically try to do a couple. We're not going to make one puppet, right? We're going to make two or three. Maybe we're going to make two or three of a couple different designs. Because creativity isn't about having the opportunity to make one thing — that's a craft, maybe, but creativity is really the process of being able to make multiples of something so you understand how that thing is made and how the things you did changed what it looks like.

And puppets are a great opportunity for that because, honestly, I tell the kids, "The first puppet you make will be very special," and by the time they're done making the first puppet they're like, "Man this is ugly and kind of messed up."

I say, "No no no, it's very special."

And they're like, "Oh. Yeah. Very special.

And I'm like, "Right. So you want to start on another one?"

And they say, "Yeah, let's get started on another one."

And they get more control of the process because there is sewing, there's hot glue — there's all kinds of opportunities to make mistakes and some of them can be undone and some of them can't. Sometimes you're just like, "Wow you just cut that like that huh? You're going to have a hole. You need a cape."

You just help them through the process of solving those problems because they're all problems that can be solved. And in our world today there're a lot of people who talk a lot about embracing failure and I'm not necessarily wholesale there, but the kids need to understand that it's a valuable part of the process, that there's never somewhere we stop. It's not like, "Woo, we failed  and we're done right?" No, it's just that this is iterative and I'm going to prove it to you by giving you the opportunity to do this more than once.

STEAM Universe: What would you recommend to a teacher looking to start with puppets and puppets construction in their class?

Patterson: Get on YouTube. There are some really good videos about puppet construction, and there are actually a couple good Facebook groups about teaching with puppets. Basically puppets worked for me because it matched my interests; it was kind of a creative outlet for me and kind of a match for my quirky personality, and it gave me a way to bring that into the classroom. For somebody else it might be something else. I'm not going to be the guy saying everybody should teach with puppets, but I can say that when I brought them into my own practice and I was brave enough to ask the kids how we could and should use them, they came up with amazing ideas and it transformed my practice.

STEAM Universe: What questions do you have about using art projects to help students make STEM connections?

Patterson: I think the biggest question I always have is how we do those things in a choice-rich environment. Oftentimes I'll come across one of these projects and will be like, "Oh that's a beautiful project where we make a little house and it lights up," and then the next thing you know the entire class is making a little house that lights up. But what I find much more powerful is a situation where we say, "Oh we have the central concept of a circuit. One example of that could be a little house that lights up. Or you could make a simple circuit these other ways. What I want you to do now is make  a choice about what you're going to do. Make a plan and follow it through with whatever assistance you need."

But as a teacher that's challenging. We're typically haven't set up a lot of learning like that. And you know that's the kind of challenge I keep putting in front of myself. The question I keep asking myself is, "How can I do this in a way where it's much more about the process and it gets the kids to have more buy in because they're making important decisions about what they're doing?"

Check out some of Patterson's puppet videos at his Edu Puppets YouTube channel or visit for more information.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at