Puppets Teaching Children Around the World

I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS, in VOA Special English. Do you think it is possible to make children laugh and teach them about very serious problems at the same time? Two organizations in the United States and Britain say "YES!"

Brenda Dubrowski is eleven years old. Her parents do not live together anymore. Brenda sometimes has a hard time talking about that. Diane Delaney is also eleven years old. She has a very serious disease called cancer. Salimah Rahman came to the United States from Pakistan. She wants people to know that she is a Muslim, she is an American and she wants to work with computers when she grows up.

Brenda and Diane and Salimah are just like real children in America. But they are not real. They are puppets. They are made of wood and cloth. Each puppet is about one meter tall. People called puppeteers stand behind each puppet and use sticks to make the puppet's arms and legs move. The puppeteers also talk for the puppets.

These puppets are part of an American organization called Kids on the Block. There are more than fifty puppets. They all have names and stories about where they live, what they enjoy doing and the other people in their family.

Almost all of the puppets are working on a problem. Some have a disease or a disability. Some are not treated fairly at school or in their community.

Some are treated badly at home. They talk about their problems in plays that are presented in schools all over the world. One thousand two hundred groups of Kids on the Block Puppets perform in the United States, Canada and thirty other countries. There are Kids on the Block puppets in Hong Kong and Japan, Kuwait and Brazil, New Zealand and Australia as well as many countries in Europe.

Kids on the Block started in the United States almost thirty years ago. At that time, the puppets had physical or mental problems called disabilities. There were new laws in the United States that said children with disabilities should be educated in the same schools with other children. The puppets helped all children understand what it is like to live with a disability. Now it is very common to see children with all kinds of disabilities in American schools.

Kids on the Block puppets now talk to children about forty-two different diseases, disabilities and social issues. There are plays about AIDS and cancer, learning disabilities, alcohol and tobacco use, pregnancy, and children who are treated badly.

One very popular new play talks about bullies. Bullies are children who treat other children badly. They may hurt them physically or just say words that are harmful or unfriendly.

A Kids on the Block group in the state of Kentucky decided to present the play about bullies because there have been too many shootings in schools in America. Davida Warren is the director of Kids on the Block in Kentucky. Mizz Warren says many shootings are caused by a child who was hurt by bullies. She says children feel safe around the puppets so they talk easily about places in school where they are afraid of bullies.

School officials are then able to make those places more secure. Mizz Warren also says the puppets help children feel strong enough inside to say to a bully, "I am not going to let you do this to me anymore."

There are also Kids on the Block puppet shows about children who are treated badly at home, often by a friend or family member. This is called child abuse. Sometimes it can be sexual abuse. Mizz Warren says one seven-year-old girl talked to a puppet after the play. She said the man who had married her mother was sexually abusing her and her five-year-old sister. Police were called to investigate and the man is now in prison. The little girl had never been able to tell her mother or anyone at school about the problem. However, she was able to talk to a puppet who had talked about having the same experience.

A Kids on the Block group in the state of Florida presents plays about bullying and child abuse in about one hundred thirty schools every year. Trish Sandag is the director. She says that last year, twenty-nine children told a puppet they had been treated badly at home. Government officials or police always investigate a situation like this.

Mizz Sandag receives many letters from children who see the puppets. One child wrote, "The puppets made me feel safe." Another wrote, "They showed me how to say no." Here are some of the other things children have said after they see Kids on the Block puppets:

"Something lit up in my head when I saw the puppets. I act like a bully sometimes. I will not do that anymore."

"This is not just a funny puppet show. This is real."

"Thank you for letting me know I should not decide what I think about people just because of the color of their skin."

"These puppets make it easy to pay attention and learn."

A man from Ireland has also learned that puppets make it easier for children to learn about difficult problems. For many years, Johnie McGlade worked in emergency camps for refugees. One time he had a puppet called Seamus. He said children in Sudan and other countries loved the puppet. He said the children would remember the puppet's name but not his name.

One day, Mr. McGlade met Kathryn Mullen and Michael Frith. They are a married couple from the United States who created puppets for television shows like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Together these three people started an organization called No Strings, based in Britain. They wanted to use puppets to give children information that could save their lives.

First, they wanted to teach children in Afghanistan about landmines. Landmines are small bombs placed on the ground that have not yet exploded. They can be colorful and even look like toys. The British Red Cross says two thousand people are killed or hurt by these bombs every month. Many of them are children.

The puppeteers wrote a story and created a puppet that children in Afghanistan would understand. A grandmother is very sad because her grandson was killed by a landmine. The grandmother makes a puppet named Chuchi. The puppet is made of a floor covering material called a carpet. People make many beautiful carpets in this part of the world.

Chuchi learns about landmines. But when he is walking near his home, he forgets what he has learned. Bad men called jinn urge him do things he should not do. He loses both his legs when a landmine explodes. There is a happy ending, though. A five-meter tall puppet called a genie changes Chuchi into a real boy with two legs. The puppeteers tell the children that Chuchi had a second chance. But children only have one chance, so they need to know how to be safe.

Mr. McGlade says the puppet stories make the children laugh, but they are also very realistic. He says children will listen and talk to puppets even if they do not listen to adults. During the show, children shout directions at the Chuchi puppet, trying to make him stay away from the landmines.

The puppeteers from No Strings went to Afghanistan in July, two thousand three and again in January, two thousand four. They were not able to go a third time because of security problems. Instead, they created a video which will be made in English, Urdu and Pashtun. Mr. McGlade wants to take many copies of the video to Afghanistan. The organization is training people to be puppeteers and to make the puppets. Mr. McGlade says he wants to have a group of puppets in every province in Afghanistan. Someday he wants to use puppets to help children with other problems including the disease AIDS.

Why does Mr. McGlade think puppets work so well to teach these difficult lessons? He says children are not afraid of puppets and they find it easy to talk about anything with a puppet. Puppets can also do or say things that people cannot. "A puppet is always right," says Mr. McGlade. "A puppet can make you laugh or cry or learn."

This program was written by Karen Leggett. It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. You can find more information about Kids on the Block on the Internet at www.kotb.com. The Web site for No Strings is www.nostrings.org.uk. Listen again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: Puppets Teaching Children Around the World
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