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Outdoor Puppetry and Big Movement

Outdoor Puppetry and Big Movement

 friendly antidote to inactivity of our times.

By Suzanne Down


I grew up in the countryside where my brothers and I spent hours everyday in active outdoor activity, running through the woods, making forts under and in the trees, building igloos, sledding, and riding bikes. When my children grew up in rural British Columbia it was much the same for them. It then expanded to include skiing, snowboarding, backcountry hiking, horseback riding, lots of yard and garden work, shoveling snow, and chopping wood!! Country life is a gift to childhood.

But the overall sign of our times is that people have reached an all time low in physical movement, and are inactive. Many children live in suburbs and cities where parents are afraid to let children play in front yards. Young children are strapped into car seats for endless errands, and as they get older sit in front of TV, computer, or video games. This of course contributes to a host of childhood ailments. This inactivity is an illness of the Will. The organs of the metabolism (home of the Will) need to be strengthened or the human will becomes weak or damaged. It’s cure is activity, or more importantly, meaningful, purposeful activity, especially with movement of the limbs.

The young child develops their nerve-sense system through physical movement. Dr Michaela Glockler states, ”Until nine years children should move and be active as much as possible in order to develop their thinking. The kindergarten teacher relies upon movement in order to teach young children, and it is movement which helps the child develop the nerve-sense system. Movement is the best education for stimulating the brain.”

Puppetry can support the child in large movement that carries with it the added meaning of story and social artistry. I have long been interested in outdoor puppet theater, using natural settings as the stages, and employing large and small puppets that children move with bigger movements than indoor puppetry allows.

I periodically give an outdoor puppetry summer camp for children. One year we created big birds from wire and hand made felt. They were every wonderful assortment of color! We strung them on long branches with long strings creating bigger than life size birds with a large range of movement. The children climbed trees and had them flying through meadows.

We improvised nature stories as well as performed short pieces from songs and poems about birds. We are encouraging the ‘will’ development with the children using large limb movements, while at the same time were embracing the unfolding imagination and fantasy forces. The children became airy, and almost flew themselves as they enlivened the puppets in the element of air. The weaving of puppet arts, connecting with the elements, the seasons, and delicious physical movement was enthusiastically taken up.

You can encourage the quality of children’s own larger movement woven with the magic of puppet activity. Try adding the four elements to your puppet stories.
Air – birds flying in the tree tops
Earth – gnomes crouching and digging in caves
Fire – fire fairies flickering, or a large Michaelmas dragon manipulated by several children.
Water – fish flowing along the stream, dolphins leaping over the waves

Work with the children crafting puppets from found objects in nature. Add movements that connect the children truthfully to the four elements. The world of nature becomes a large story stage! In a coastal park in West Vancouver, British Columbia, called Lighthouse Park, there is an outdoor amphitheater perfect for giving puppet plays. It is found in the midst of ancient moss covered trees, and the sound of the ocean sets a magical mood.

I have also found a different forest place in another part of British Columbia where there is a circle of tall, tall pine trees which encloses a small forest meadow. We call it the ‘Chapel in the Woods’. A group of first grade children made large simple marionettes and presented a Christmas Play called The Little Shepherd Boy’ for their parents. It was just turning dark (though it was 4:00), we had lanterns hanging in the trees and a circle of snow candles and the stars above were our stage lights. The stage was the meadow, and the children walked the large puppets through the story. The puppets were as tall as their waists. Everyone had a nice forest walk to get there, and back! It was a memorable and vigorous puppet adventure for all!

We can create these outdoor puppet experiences in many places. I have a group of children that go to a park with me every Monday and we create puppet stories there. There is a bridge over a stream bed that is dry right now until the mountain snows melt. We have made large very simple marionettes for the Billy Goat Gruff story out of burlap and branches. The children take turns being the characters, and play the Troll under the bridge themselves. They want to play it again and again, with space to run in the ‘meadows’…We end it after a couple of hours of puppet play with a long walk back to my house. Lots of movement sparked by the creativity of the puppet story.


Join us June 2018 for a  5 day immersion in puppet theater!