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Children Gesture and Learn with Puppets

Children learn from them just like they do in pretend play.

Key points

  • When children move with puppets, they learn more.
  • Developmental research doesn't often take movement into account.
  • Puppet play is more like role play than watching others play.

Puppets are everywhere—on beloved TV shows and movies, in local theatre productions, in classrooms, and even at the doctor’s office. And while most parents may not know this, puppets are also integral to developmental science. Researchers use puppet shows of all kinds to test children’s understanding of a whole range of social, emotional, and cognitive phenomena.

When this practice was called into question a few years ago on a public listserve, as all widely used methods perhaps should be every now and then, it inspired a recent special issue of the academic journal Cognitive Development, with commentaries, experimental papers, and also work from our lab showing there’s more to puppets for kids than just sitting in front of a TV, watching Bert and Ernie discuss pigeons.

The special issue called for academic theories and findings on how children understand, relate to, and learn from puppets. The broader call, however, was to put into context the various ways in which developmental scientists use the attention-grabbing and motivating brightly colored pieces of cloth to discover truths about how children’s minds develop.

With my students, we’ve long been interested in how pretend play of all forms—in costume, with props, through puppets, or miming—recruits different kinds of social and cognitive skills, and what the effects of engaging in such activities may be for the development of social and cognitive skills. In fact, we recently completed a series of studies in which we randomly assigned preschool-aged children to do one of three tasks:

  1. Watch TV shows, puppet shows, or story time.
  2. Engage in interactive play with an adult following a script from the TV shows or stories, wearing costumes as the characters from the activities.
  3. Use puppets to interact with an adult and play the puppet character through the story.

Across three separate studies, we looked at how each of these activities (watching, playing with puppets, pretend play in costume) affected children’s understanding and learning of the facts and characters in the stories. In general, the findings were mixed. While children learned more in the active conditions (where there were puppets or there was costumed role play) than in the passive condition, there were not many differences between the puppet and the costume conditions. Those studies can be found here and here.

At the same time, there is a fascinating and well-regarded set of findings on how gestures with hands or body can help children’s learning across a variety of topics, including math, science, and other academic topics (see "How Our Hands Help Us Think" by Susan Goldin-Meadow).

We asked the question from our puppet v. costume v watching data—are children gesturing more or less in any particular group? If so, are the types of gestures they are using different? And, does the amount of gesture, or the type of gesture used, predict learning in any way?

We used the findings from the math and other gesture literature to look carefully at the videos of children listening to and playing through our studies. And we found, unsurprisingly, that when children are playing with puppets, they are gesturing and moving more than when they are passively watching someone else tell a story. The academic paper that reports these findings is here: Moving With Puppets: Preschool children’s gesture with puppets during pretense.

However, it's really interesting when children are playing a character; when they are engaged in role play in a costume, they are gesturing the same amount as when they are playing with a puppet. This means puppet play is closer to acting out or role-play than it is to sitting and watching. And given what we know about the importance of movement and gesture to learning (see the book by Macrine and Fugate), puppets may be an important conduit to children’s learning.

These studies add to the growing literature on the importance of embodiment and movement for children’s cognitive development and learning. Children aren’t empty vessels to be filled with knowledge as they sit still; they need to physically and actively engage to learn and move in ways that are representational and metaphorical for the information being presented.

Given that this kind of movement is often where puppets are typically used in children’s lives— everything from Elmo inviting children to dance with him via TV programs, puppets used in classrooms to teach lessons, or therapy puppets helping children learn about calming themselves down—it is imperative that developmental researchers also investigate the use of puppets in experiments in a physicalized and active way.

References

Goldstein, T. R., Stutesman, M., & Thompson, B. (2022). Moving with puppets: Preschool children’s gesture with puppets during pretense. Cognitive Development, 63, 101198.

Macrine, S. L., & Fugate, J. M. (Eds.). (2022). Movement Matters: How Embodied Cognition Informs Teaching and Learning. MIT Press.

Goldin‐Meadow, S. (2009). How gesture promotes learning throughout childhood. Child development perspectives, 3(2), 106-111.

Packer, M. J., & Moreno-Dulcey, F. A. (2022). Theory of puppets?: A critique of the use of puppets as stimulus materials in psychological research with young children. Cognitive Development, 61, 101146.

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