Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Magic of 21st Century Puppet Tiering

Guest Post
Matthew Parker MA-CCC
Speech-Language Pathologist Verndale Schools, MN

Speech-Language Pathologists have used puppets to engage and teach children for a very long time.  There are many theories about why puppets are so engaging for children.   It has been speculated that when children see animals talk it captures their interest because they know that animals are not suppose to talk.  When they see this rule-breaking creature; it peaks their curiosity and takes their engagement deeper.  Another thought is that because, in general, animals are not threatening to children and this makes animal puppets attractive.  Animals are also more predictable then humans so this may be why animal puppets hold attention.  For whatever reason it works, Speech-Language Pathologists use puppets because puppets are good teaching tools.  Likewise, there are times when teachers and parents might find that puppets are the perfect teaching tool.  Now imagine putting a puppet on the computer and like a hand-held puppet, making that puppet talk to a child about any topic that needs to be discussed.  This may seem like a farfetched idea, but it is actually easy and relatively inexpensive to do. 
Last school year (2009-2010) I was introduced to the webcam, and instantly I saw the potential of this device in my therapy sessions.  During lunch I was sharing my excitement with a coworker and he told me how he Skypes his brother in North Dakota and that with his webcam he can be animals and have goofy facial effects.  That’s when the wheels started turning.  Knowing that all the classrooms at the Verndale Public School have interactive whiteboards I started thinking that I could use Skype puppets (which are called Avatars) and interact with students in an entirely new way.  
I can still remember the first time I interacted with a little boy as a shark.  I remember the magic and wonder in that little boys face as the shark greeted him by name and asked him how his little brother was doing. I knew how he felt because I had once had a similar experience as a child.  It happened the first time I went to Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd, MN (where I grow up).  Inside Paul Bunyan land there was a huge ceramic figure of Paul that had a jaw that moved, and his arm would move in a waving fashion.  Your parents would tell the workers your name so that when you walked into amusement center  the huge Paul Bunyan would greet you personally, “Hello Matthew Parker from Brainerd” he would say.  Every time I would go there I was amazed that he talked to me, personally. 
I have continued to interact with many students, individually and in groups, using Skype Avatars. I have talked with whole kindergarten classes about Halloween safety as a friendly looking monster; i have talked, as a Gorilla to a 1st grade student about how he needed to behave in music class. I have found different ways to use many of the Avatars available, creating unique voices for each character, just as I would when using hand puppets.  What I have learned is this:  In this kind of work, I am dealing with young kids.  Young kids will naturally fall into pretend play because this is what young children do.  They have unbelievable imaginations when given the chance to let their imaginations expand! In the state of mind that is pretend play, a child is particularly ready to learn.  

I wanted to share this idea on Autism Games because I have had particular success using this strategy with young children who have autism. I felt the readers of this blog were interacting with the perfect audience for 21st Century Puppet Tiering.   I have seen young children with autism, who didn’t have desire to learn more about another person turn a corner socially and start to actively ask questions to learn more information about the digital puppet.  I have interacted with students who shut down after moments in a typical therapy session (sitting across the table from one another) stay socially engage for over 20 minutes with me as an avatar on screen.    I have been able to put young children with autism into their mainstream classroom while the classroom is engaged in a Skype conversation, and have these students participate just as much, and on some occasions more, than their peers.  I have been able to send prerecorded messages home and have my students conform to directions given to them by an avatar that their parent’s had spent countless hours trying to get them to do. 
The world of autism is challenging, exhausting, and difficult to predict.  With 21st century puppet tiering you get to throw a curveball to kids that they can hit.  You get to give them something that they don’t expect in a fun, engaging, magical way (and to this point for me hasn’t caused any huge meltdowns)!  The next time you’re saying to yourself, “what should we do now?”  Try using a digital puppet to help your student move forward.  It is truly easy to do!   You don’t even needed a trained professional.  Think about what behavior you want to teach and use the digital puppet to teach the behavior. 
The  equipment that is needed to complete the 21st century puppet tiering are:  two computers with high speed internet connections, one Logitech 9000 webcams ( or models above the 9000), and a second webcam on a computer in the room with the student,  a quality pair of speakers for both computers,  you will also need to have “Skype” or another face-to-face communication  program installed on both computers (these face-to-face programs are generally free downloads off the internet).  An interactive whiteboard is also a huge plus for anyone talking to a group of children.  The size of the screen is dramatic and makes it easy for all the kids to see.
            HOW YOU SET IT UP:
The set up of a 21st century “avatar show” takes some thoughtful planning but it is not hard.  If you are going to have the child/children manipulate, retrieve, sequence/order objects you will need to have your room “staged” in advance.  Putting your props or material in a convenient place is important.   If the room is staged appropriately and the child can follow multiple step directions the child will take their lesson directly from the avatar.  However, if the child is unable to follow directions, another adult will need to be with the child as he or she interacts with the Avatar.   It is important that you position your webcam in the room with the child so that you can see what the child is doing.  It is helpful to have another adult in the room with the child/children to tell you even more about what is going on. It is helpful if you can be in a room where you won't be interrupted while you are in the role as Avatar.
a.    Teach social skills (turn taking, waiting to be called on, the inappropriateness of nose picking, keeping your hands to yourself, looking at the teacher, quiet body/quiet mouth, introducing yourself to someone,  and the list goes on)
b.    Teach multiple step direction following and other listening skills
c.   Teach reading skills like identifying letters and word or listening to stories.

If you have questions or feedback please feel free to contact me at  I encourage you to check out some of the prerecorded lessons that I have created at

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