Story Making Through Puppet Play

Support kids to make, develop and retell stories collaboratively using the puppets and settings they have created.
Four students laugh as they show their puppet show to the class. A teaching artist is holding their drawn setting backdrops so that they don't fall over.

What is it?

Kids play with the puppets and settings they have created, to invent or retell stories with their peers. Adults observe and learn how to best support the development of story making, expression and collboration skills through play.

    Kids and adults both learn through play

    Kids play puppet stories in pairs or groups.  Adults observe to learn how students engage with story making and identify supports to develop their story skills and understanding. Over multiple sessions, teachers have ongoing opportunities to scaffold targeted strategies, and gain insight into how skills could transfer into writing.


Kids invent stories through play

Through puppet play, children collaborate to create stories that interest them, or explore stories they are reading. Kids design and create the puppets and objects they need to play the story, making personal connections to story elements.

    Make the elements of story concrete by using puppets as manipulatives for literacy

    Through puppet play, students learn and make choices about

    • Setting details
    • Character traits, emotions, actions and reactions
    • Problems and solutions
    • Sequence and plot
    • Dialogue
    • Nonverbal storytelling through design, movement and sound
    • Creating original stories
    • Retelling or adapting

Teachers as Researchers

Through observing puppet play, teachers 1) learn about and build on the story making skills kids already have, 2) discover and offer supports needed and 3) transfer what they learn into story comprehension, retelling and writing instruction.


    What do kids learn through art making and play?

    Hear from teacher Kathy Anderson and her kindergarten students about what they learned from their art making, play and puppetry experiences!

    Learn about how kids work by watching play.

    Is play rigorous? Ms. Anderson reflects on how students challenge themselves, gain problem solving skills and learn collaboration through play.

    What does productive play sound like?

    Jaqualine Vallone shares insights about building oral expression, engagement and community through play in her class of multilanguage learners.

    Case study: A quiet student making their story

    Watching Anusha at work and play with peers, Ms. Vallone is amazed to see her restrained student engaged in story making and conversation.
  • A diagram with the action research steps for story making through play arranged in a repeating cycle.
    Repeat this action reseach process for each play session
    1. Introduce a story making strategy through a warm up and modeling, before play.
    2. Kids play / adults observe how they work and what skills need support.
    3. Kids reflect & share
    4. Assess and Plan- Revisit observations to identify what story making strategy to introduce in the next play session.
    Use the Puppet Play Observation & Support Tool


Learn about what kids and adults are doing in each step of a puppet play session


Step 1: Introduce a story making strategy

  • Two teachers model doing a puppet show in a colleged backdrop with torn paper puppets. Children watch them do their show with focus.
    15 min: warm up, model, generate ideas

    For each play session you’ll introduce a strategy for story making through puppetry, using an engaging warm up and by modelling and co-generating ideas with your students.

    Warm up

    Choose one warm up that allows students to embody the vocabulary and concepts for the story making strategy you will introduce today.  Warm ups should be fun, low pressure and ideally offer a kinesthetic entry point.

    Model & Co-generate ideas

    Introduce one story making strategy using some or all of the following…

    • Model using a strategy to play a brief puppet story for your class. Reflect- Invite students to share what they notice about what you did to make the play interesting and fun.
    • Model failing to use a particular strategy when you play a puppet story in front of your class. Ask kids for advice- Invite students to advise you on what you could do to improve your story through your puppet play (For example: Use more vocal expression, move your puppets to show the actions or create a conflict). Model revision- Play the story again with the strategies they suggest.
    • Brainstorm and chart ideas together for ways this strategy could be used to play other story ideas.  leave these charts up each time kids have time to play, so that they can refer to them.
    • Challenge the kids to try it!  Post their chart of ideas each time they play and challenge them to choose ideas to try out in their play. Offer to continue to add to the chart as they discover more ideas through play.

    How do I choose a story making strategy?

    The initial session should start with a Steps Puppet Safety & Skills Demonstration and Guided Puppet Movement Exploration, followed by modelling the Puppet Action Story | Action Strategy . This will give the children the most support in using their puppets intentionally and safely, as story making tools.

    Base your decisions about which story making strategies to introduce in subsequent sessions on what you are learning from observing your students’ play each day.  Use the  Puppet Play Observation & Support Tool. Some story making strategies can be explored for multiple sessions.

    Scroll for more information on each strategy.

    Puppet action | Story action

    When should I introduce this strategy?

    We strongly recommend doing the Puppet action | Story action Strategy for the first session of puppet play.  This strategy helps kids to understand how they can use the character that they have designed and created to express their story ideas through meaningful movement.

    In the first session allow 20 minutes before free puppet play time to…

    • Demonstrate Puppet Safety & Skills
    • do a unison guided puppet movement warm up or parade
    • model and co-generate specific puppet movement ideas that the kids can try out in their play

    How can we use these puppets?

    Before you pass out the puppets for the warm up, co-generate criteria for using the puppets safely and effectively. See  Steps Puppet Safety & Skill Demo

    Warm up options (choose 1)

    • If your class is working in multiple pairs or small groups with tabletop puppets/ puppet theaters, focus on channeling movement into the puppets (rather than the whole body). See the Guided Puppet Movement Exploration
    • If your class has made larger puppets which lend themselves to larger whole body movements, consider doing a puppet parade as a whole class on a pathway to explore various movement prompts See the video example above. Download the Guided Puppet Parade PDF (coming soon)

    Model & co-generate ideas

    For detailed information about how to introduce this strategy see the Puppet action | Story action Strategy 

    Check out the Action Vocabulary Resource for additional support.

    Scroll for more strategies

  • With studnets looking on, a teacher gestures toward a chart of story problems that her class has generated. Later, the chart is hanging where the kids can reference it as they play with their puppets and backdrops in a small group.
    Generate, Extend & Solve Problems

    When should I introduce this strategy?

    When observing your kids at play, you may notice that some groups engage in parallel play, rather than making their puppets act and react to each other.  You may also notice stories that peter out without really going anywhere, or that resolve very quickly or that never find resolution. If you are observing any of the above, your class may benefit from learning some strategies for generating, extending and playing story problems! Do not try to introduce all of these story problem strategies in one day.  Based on your observations, decide which one will be the most useful to start with and introduce new ones each session as needed.

    Warm up

    Do a Quick Pose Warm Up to show how characters feel before and then in response to a variety of story problems.  This warm up can be repeated on each day that you are introducing story problem strategies, using new story problem ideas each time.

    Model & co-generate ideas

    For each puppet play session, choose one of the three strategies in the Generate, Extend & Solve Story Problems Strategy

    • If your students are not adding problems to their stories focus on the Generating Story Problems Strategy first, before moving on to the others.
    • If your students are resolving their story problems too quickly, offer the Extending Story Problems Strategy.
    • If your students are struggling to resolve story problems or if they are stopping their play to argue about how to play a problem or find a solution, offer the Solving Story Problems Strategy.

    Scroll for more strategies

    Express Character Traits/Emotions

    When should I introduce this strategy?

    Character traits and emotions can be confusing!  Traits remain essentially the same, and emotions change in reaction to what is happening in a story. For example: A frog might be a grumpy character, but even a grumpy frog might feel delighted if someone baked them a fly birthday cake.

    Puppet play is more exciting when the characters’ traits and emotional reactions are both expressed. If you want to encourage your kids to make choices about character traits & emotions, offer strategies for expressing them vocally and through puppet movement. It’s often useful to focus on this for more than one session using different warm ups each time that help them to generate more ideas about character using specific expression tools. Keep adding ideas for character traits and emotions to your chart each week and keep the charts up for the kids to refer to as they make decisions about what to play together.

    Warm up options (choose 1 for each session)

    Model & co-generate ideas

    It’s often a good idea to focus on this strategy for 2 or 3 sessions, so that kids have time to generate and play with many ideas for character traits and emotions.  Add more of their ideas to their charts each week and keep the charts up for the kids to refer to as they make decisions about what to play together.  For detailed information about how to introduce this strategy on the first day and then briefly review it in subsequent sessions see the Expressing Character Traits & Emotions Strategy.

    Use these resources for additional support

    Scroll for more strategies

  • A torn collage puppet character buried under a pile of
    Show, Use & Revise Setting Details

    When should I introduce this strategy?

    Use these strategies to encourage kids to develop stories that show setting details and use setting to inspire story actions, dialogue, problems and solutions.  They are an excellent choice if you are working on revision and other skills needed to develop work further.

    Warm up (choose 1)

    • Do a mini 5 Senses Journey to a setting to remind kids to think about how their puppet characters can react to what they see, hear, touch, smell and taste in the setting.
    • Do a Guided Puppet Movement Exploration to practice puppet movement in unison that shows the different ways puppet characters might move in different settings.

    Model & co-generate ideas

    Based on what your students need, choose one of the three strategies in the Show, Use & Revise Story Setting Details Strategy

    • If your students have made puppets but not backdrops, model the Show a Setting Strategy in one of the early puppet play sessions, so that they have permission to create a world using objects from the classroom for their puppets to play in.
    • If your students made backdrops but are not really using them to get ideas for their puppet stories, model the Use the Setting Strategy.
    • If you want your students to work on revising and developing their puppet stories (and writing) further, model the Revise the Setting Strategy.

    Scroll for more strategies

  • Children in different classroom settings using their voice dramatically
    Create Story Soundscapes

    When should I introduce this strategy?

    You may observe that quieter students or multilanguage learners are struggling to find opportunities to insert their voice and ideas into the puppet play.  Offering a soundscape strategy provides a very effective entry point for children to offer their ideas and build their confidence.  It also helps the other kids in the class to value,  listen to and include the ideas of everyone in the puppet play.

    On the other hand, you may have a group that loves to make sound effects and noises!  Offer this strategy as a way to validate the ways that they already know how to make stories.

    Warm up options (choose 1)

    • To establish an environment where kids are invited to create their own sound effects through non verbal oral expression and have fun making experimentng with what their voice can do, play Pass the Sound Effect (coming soon).  Use the Soundscape Library as a resource.
    •  Do a unison Guided Puppet Movement Exploration with sound effects to inspire kids to use non-verbal oral expression when making puppet stories.

    Model & co-generate ideas

    For detailed information about how to introduce this strategy see the Story Soundscape Strategy

    For additional support, use the Soundscape Library Resource


Transition into puppet play

  • Four kids exuberantly playing with puppets they drew and taped to wooden sticks in front of background settings they made form torn paper.
    5-7 min: Set up and transition

    Before transitioning into play, clearly communicate to the students how they…

    • will be paired or grouped, or if there are any guidelines for how they choose who to play with.
    • can / cannot handle the puppets.
    • can use the settings that they made, or create settings for their puppet play with objects in the room.
    • can / cannot use the various spaces in the classroom during play time.
    • can work together & remember community agreements
    • can be aware of sound levels.
    • use any strategy charts that you made this week, or have up from previous play sessions to help their group decide what to play.

    See the planning logistics section of this page for tips and guidelines to help you make decisions about the above.


Step 2: Kids play / adults observe

  • A group of four first graders play with puppets and collaged settings that they made. A teacher watchers them, smiling enthusiastically.
    At least 20 min: Child driven play

    What does the teacher do, while the kids play?

    Adults can play too!  It builds trust and connection to see the adults in a playful mode, especially for groups that seem nervous about letting loose and playing at school. Sometimes, it’s useful to continue modeling play with your kids in their small groups.

    Use the Puppet Play Observation Tool to notice how the students are choosing to work. What interests and excites them? What brings them together? Where do they get stuck? How could they develop their story making further?

    Learn a story, so that you can retell it. You will need to facilitate a moment for kids to share and reflect on their play (see step 3 for reflection options). One reflection option is to choose a story each session to retell verbally at the end of class. If you are doing this reflection, use the play time to really study and learn the actions and details of the story that you will retell.

    What am I noticing? How do I respond?

    Your students will integrate story making strategies at their own pace in their own way. Some kids may not try the strategy you have introduced.  Be curious about what that means.

    I’m noticing that kids are not using the strategy I modeled!

    • Sometimes kids take a while to work up to trying something new. Often, the group waits for one of their peers to model integrating the strategy, and then the approach takes off for the whole group.

    I’m noticing that kids are using strategies other than the one I modelled.

    • They’re choosing to draw on their own play expertise! What can you learn about them as storymakers from this observation? How can this inform what you choose to offer them next? How can you amplify what students already know and facilitate peer to peer learning?

    I’m noticing that they need more explicit modelling of the strategy.

    • While observing kids play, you may realize that you didn’t model some crucial step or element. In the next play session re-introduce the strategy with the missing step or element. Be transparent with the kids about what you learned from watching them. For example, “I was watching you play last week and I noticed that some kids used character voices and some didn’t! I didn’t change MY voice when I showed you my puppet dialogue last week. Can you help me choose a character voice for my puppet?”

    I’m noticing that the kids are struggling to move their story forward

    • Remind  them about what they did in the warm up, what they noticed when you modelled the play strategy. Refer them back to the idea charts that the class has generated.
    • Think about how you can use Step 3 (kids reflect and share) to prompt kids to reflect on how they are and how they could use the strategy.

    Why is it important to let the kids drive their play?

    • Time for children to problem solve and discover how they like to make stories. Give the kids time to discover strategies and solutions on their own. Notice when you have the urge to intervene and direct the puppet play and push  against this impulse. By witnessing the discovery process that is natural to our students, we can learn more about how they learn.
    • Time for adults to learn about their students through observation and playful interaction. Educators are highly pressured to move children toward goals, and are rarely afforded the time to observe and learn about their kids. Observing children at play can be particularly revelatory if you have a certain student or students who you are struggling to understand and support.

Step 3: Kids share & reflect

  • First graders in groups of four at the front of the class standing behind their torn paper collage settings using their drawn puppets to play a story as their classmates watch. Classmates with hands raised to give feedback to the kids who shared.
    Integrate reflection into play time

    Build in moments for kids to share and reflect on their play to  help them get inspired, learn from each other, build confidence and learn about giving and using feedback. The timing will vary depending on which method of facilitating reflection and sharing  you choose.  Scroll to see some options…

  • kids sit in a circle watching a teaching artist retell one of their stories with expression
    Storyteller Reflection

    The teacher honors the stories that children are inventing by verbally retelling one of the stories they watched during play to the whole class, with expression & enthusiasm.  Then, the kids share and retell a story that they saw or heard, either in a whole group conversation or by turning and talking. This reflection works best at the end of a session, once puppets are put away.  It’s a great reflection for building confidence during the first few sessions. For more details see Steps & Tips- Storyteller Reflection

  • First Graders gather around to watch a student play a story with puppets in a backdrop made out of a folder. The teaching artist is narrating the story.
    Narrator Reflection

    The teacher honors the stories that children are inventing by announcing and narrating a group’s story while they play it with their puppets. Often, this will spontaneously attract other groups as audience. At the end everyone claps and reflects on what was inspiring, exciting, funny or interesting about the puppet story. This can be integrated throughout any play session and is great for building confidence and a culture of peer to peer learning. For more details see Steps & Tips- Narration Reflection

  • First graders sit on the floor with their collaged setting backdrops and drawn puppets. One child is showing thier puppet story to the other three.
    Pair & Share

    Each group is paired with another group.  The class reviews the storytelling criteria & strategies that they have been learning and exploring.  The teacher models how the audience can give feedback. Then in their pairs of groups, they take turns playing their story and being the audience, and reflect on what they noticed, liked and wished.  This can be set up at the beginning of the play time, so that kids are sharing and reflecting the entire time.  This is a great reflection to try once kids have been playing for a few sessions. For more details see Steps & Tip- Pair & Share

  • 1. Four first graders at the front of the class standing behind their torn paper collage settings using their drawn puppets to play a story as their classmates and teaching artist watch. 2. Classmates with hands raised to give feedback to the kids who shared.
    Fish Bowl

    The class reviews the storytelling criteria & strategies that they  have been learning and exploring. A group that is willing, plays their story in front of the class. The rest of the class gives feedback about what they noticed, liked and wished.  The teacher scribes ideas on a “What makes a great puppet story?” chart. This reflection can happen at the end of a play session or at the beginning, to provide inspiration.  The fish bowl  is usually most appropriate for classes that have been playing stories for many sessions and are confident and eager to share with an audience.  Only groups that actually want to share should be in the fish bowl. For more details see Steps & Tips- Fish Bowl


Step 4: Assess & plan

  • A diagram with the action research steps for story making through play arranged in a repeating cycle.
    After each puppet play session…

    The Observing Puppet Play Tool is intended to support teachers in planning puppet play sessions that are responsive to the students’ strengths, needs and interests as they discover how they like to invent stories!


Start Planning!

Use these planning resources to help you set up story making through puppet play in your classroom.


Helpful Tips

  • Kindergarten teacher sitting playing side by side three students with torn paper puppets and backgrounds in folders.
    Set up a research mindset

    Set a focus

    Choose one story making strategy to introduce for each play session. It’s better to introduce one strategy that you have thoughtfully chosen, and give kids lots of time to play and integrate independently. Don’t try to introduce multiple strategies at once. Set aside time for multiple play sessions so that you can introduce different strategies as needed. We recommend starting with the Puppet action | Story action Strategy. (See the Step 1 section on this page for more info on each strategy).

    Observe with an asset based lens

    Watching kids at play offers adults a valuable opportunity to notice and build on the childrens’ strengths. Use the first page of the Puppet Play Observation Tool to help you notice how your kids naturally create story through play. You may be surprised by how much they already know how to do. Look for opportunities for your students to engage in peer to peer learning.

    Plan in response to students

    Plan each session in response to students’ strengths, needs and interests. Use the second page of the Puppet Play Observation Tool to identify which strategy to introduce in the next session, based on what you are observing and on your goals for your students.

    Respond to “failure” with curiosity

    Your students will integrate story making strategies at their own pace in their own way. Some kids may not try the strategy you have introduced.  Be curious about what that means. Do they just need more time to work up to trying it?  Do they need to see a peer integrating it first? Is there some other way of working that they are connecting to instead? Was there some aspect of this strategy that you did not model?  Do you need to model this same strategy, slightly differently next time? Can you set up moments of reflection for the children to check in on how they are (or are not) using the strategy?


Planning: Making Groups

  • Three children play with their puppets in a torn paper backdrop. A fourth child watches them.
    Who will kids collaborate with?

    Make a plan before the first session, so that you can transition into puppet play easily.

    • Will they work in pairs or groups?
    • Will the pairs or groups be assigned by the adults or chosen by the kids?
    • Do the pairs of groups need to stay the same from session to session or can they change?

    What is the goal of their grouping? How are the groups being decided? Here are some options…

    • Group or partner kids together who are interested in making the same kinds of stories. Maybe each group has a genre of story they share an interest in.
    • Assign each group or pair a story or a chapter/ section of a story to retell or adapt.
    • Group or pair kids together who have made the same or related settings.
    • Group or pair kids with friends they like to play with.
    • Let kids choose who to play with in each session, and require them to change partners/groups every time, so that they practice collaborating with new people.
    • Group or pair multilanguage learners with kids they share language with, so that they can choose to include multiple languages in their play.

    Tip- This activity is meant to tap into play impulses and channel them! Avoid grouping kids together based on an assumption that certain students will be unable to focus if partnered kids who they like to play with. Dynamics that might usually be problematic in school may actually be useful in this context.


Planning: Setting up the space

  • Three kids with their backdrops and puppets set up on the floor in the corner near the cubby and coat hooks.
    Where will kids play?

    Create a plan for puppet play locations in the classroom. Here are some options to consider.

    • Sitting or standing a desks or tables.
    • Sitting on the rug or other floor areas.
    • Using corners of the room such as the cubby area, the teacher’s desk, the library or block zone.
    • All of the above!

    Tips for setting up use of space

    If your room is crowded  there is a benefit to spreading kids out and allowing them to work both on the floor, at tables and in corners of the room they may not usually use. If they are too crowded together, their play worlds will collide and it might feel overstimulating for everyone.

    If your class has made small puppets and are working in multiple pairs or small groups, each group should have a clear designated space. Clarify that kids should be finding their puppet movement within their space, not moving their own body around the entire space (i.e, no running around the room chasing each other with puppets).

    If your class has made larger puppets which lend themselves to larger whole body movements.

    • Consider doing a puppet parade as a whole class on a pathway to explore various ways of moving without crashing into each other.
    • Try using music as a way to unify movement.

Planning: How to set up puppet theaters

  • Kids using classroom objects build settings for their drawn table top puppets.. A witch cave made from a sweatshirt. A vertical obstacle course made from standing markers for a mermaid puppet. Various puppet characters trapped in jails made from markers and colored pencils arranged in a square.
    How will they set the scene?

    If your students have not made setting backdrops, expect kids to use whatever they find in the room to create the world they want their puppets to play in. If you like, you can offer them materials to work with, or just see what they come up with! You can also model using objects to create a setting. See the Show, Use & Revise Story Setting Details Strategy.

    If your students have made setting backdrops, make a decision about how they will use them as “puppet theaters” and model how to do it when you introduce story making strategies using your setting backdrop and character puppets.

    Scroll to see videos and ideas for various ways to use kids’ setting backdrops as puppet theaters in your classroom.

    Make kids' setting backdrops into theaters

    Watch the video above for various ideas about how to set up collaged setting backdrops as simple puppet theaters.

    Modular standing settings in folders

    • Fold the setting collage so that it can stand up. Staple it into a folder for added stabiliy. Settings can stand on desks or on the floor.
    • Standing backdrops can be used alone, in pairs or in large groups.  They can be rearranged and reordered as needed for the stories that kids are making.
    • Multiple settings can be set up facing inward, with the group in a circle around the outside. (good for keeping sound levels down)
    • Two or more folded settings can stand up side by side with puppeteers behind or in front.
    • Binder clips can come in handy to attach standing backdrops together and add stability.

    Stable outward facing settings

    Multiple Settings on card stock can be taped on the back in a stable triangle or square facing outward.  In this set up, the group is  able to play all around it.  This works on desks or on the floor.

    Project the settings big!

    You can project collaged backdrops one at a time on a smartboard to make them larger.  Kids can play in these backdrops one at a time or in small groups.  This works really well with a small class size.

    Scroll for more ideas

    More simple puppet theater ideas

    Keep it simple and flexible!

    Kids can put their setting backdrops flat on the floor or on their desks and rearrange them to tell the story they are making

    Modular standing settings in folders

    • Staple story setting drawing into a folder so that they can stand up.
    • Standing settings can stand on desks or on the floor.
    • Standing backdrops can be used alone, in pairs or in large groups.  They can be rearranged and reordered as needed for the stories that kids are making.