The simple way to teach with puppets

  • Martin Olmos
  • 29 October 2018

For the last 12 years, I have regularly squatted inside a wheelie bin to teach children the Bible, giving a hand to my good friend Stinky Pong the Smelly Puppet. He lives in a rubbish bin (hence the name), and he often learns together with our children at church.

Why do we bother with puppets (and in a bin, no less)? Surely they are a high-maintenance luxury that only large, well-resourced churches with many ‘creative types’ can afford? Well, yes, there’s a bunch of keen Christian puppeteers that love spending all their spare time making costumes, props and scripts for the grand Christmas musical. But there’s a simpler way to get started with puppets.

Puppets give you power: power to engage and hold children’s attention, even in a crowd; power to create a ‘proxy child’ with whom the audience can identify; power to create a regular structure that children can master and within which they can learn. But don’t take my word for it. One child learned from Stinky so well that it got embarrassing.

Stinky’s entrance is always the same. He gets wheeled out while a leader announces he is coming. A child volunteer gets picked, they knock on the bin three times, and then everyone shouts “Come out, Stinky!” If Stinky isn’t satisfied with the audience’s volume, he responds with “I can’t hear you, who is it?”, and the children scream louder. The leader then opens the lid, and Stinky comes up singing a regular tune. From that point on, Stinky talks about some new problem or question he has, and we all learn together. But the start is always exactly the same, because I want to help the children transition into a lesson. Having a regular routine helps them gain a sense of mastery and engage in the activity.

This is where Bessie’s story comes in, a then two-year-old with blond curly hair and a jolly personality. She was visiting a local café with her mum, and at some point needed to go to the toilet. It wasn’t a big place, so it had a single unisex toilet facing an open area. Her mum approached the door, noticed the lock was green, but decided to make sure anyway. She gave the door three clear knocks.

Instinctively, Bessie drew a deep breath, filled her little lungs and screamed, “Come out, Stinky!” After a nervous moment, an elderly gentleman sheepishly came out, looking shocked at the size of his heckler.

You laugh because you feel awful for the gentleman and embarrassed for the mother. But think from Bessie’s perspective. She must have wondered “Who was that, and where is Stinky?” You see, even though she was only two, Bessie had learned a routine that helped her interact with a fun character and, in so doing, take its lessons to heart.

I started thinking about puppets at a camp for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Discipline was usually a challenge, yet I recall looking around at the large group during one of the puppet acts. The kids were attentive, engaged, and loving it. This tool seemed worth bothering about. Further, I felt convicted to get out of my comfort zone and teach in a way that would be helpful to them.

Puppets seemed out of reach, however. I was a quiet geek with no drama or craft skills. Worse, I found few resources that would help me with the first steps. I knew I had to keep it simple, if this was going to be feasible. I just wanted to be good enough. With hindsight I can see that we puppeteers can be our worst enemies. In our excitement for the craft, we can over-complicate it for others who might otherwise be open to giving it a go. Back then, I wanted a cake mix, but all I could find were elaborate recipes for experienced chefs.

So I’ve put together a simple format so ‘regular’ Christians can harness the power of puppets. It requires nearly no equipment, experience, specialist skills or people. You need only one puppet, one puppeteer, one leader, and a large bin with wheels.

What’s stopping you from using puppets to serve the children around you?

  • I don’t have drama skills: Neither do I. I am an introvert who gets nervous on behalf of others when watching a live drama. But I’ve found that puppets are much easier. I have the script right in front of me, and I don’t feel the gaze of the audience. There’s a strange relief knowing the audience would rather watch a furry piece of cloth than me. Additionally, the format needs only one other person: the ‘straight man’ who teaches and helps Stinky. The format’s regular structure also makes it easy: Stinky’s usual leader and I often act without a practice, because we know it so well by now.
  • I don’t have a puppet, and I don’t know how to make one: There are several professional puppet makers who can make it for you at an affordable price. Importantly, this format only requires a single puppet playing the same consistent character.
  • I don’t have a stage, and I don’t know how to make one: You can get a 240-litre wheelie bin at your hardware store for about AU$100, in a range of colours. The bin has some advantages over a stage. It is moved in and out of the stage with no one seen sneaking behind it. There’s a dramatic magic effect, as it feels too small to contain an adult inside (yes, it’s tight, but perfectly doable with a little practice).
  • I don’t know how to write scripts: I have shared over 60 scripts on Stinky’s website, for free, including series on the doctrine of God, Ephesians, and Proverbs, plus Easter and Christmas scripts. I also include a sample script with comments on what various lines achieve, to help you adapt mine or write your own.
  • My femur is longer than 70cm: Okay, you got me. You probably won’t be able to squat inside the bin. If you can’t get a different stage, you better get a new puppeteer. You can be the teacher instead!

Stinky and I started teaching over 12 years ago. In another 12, Bessie will be a teenager way too cool for puppets, making all kinds of consequential decisions. I hope that some of the lessons she learned with Stinky will be her gut reaction even then.

Think of the children at your church. Who would be willing to give puppets a go for their sake? Who will come out when they knock on the bin?