Chil­dren find fun in ‘pup­pet chats’

Since April, MicheLee Pup­pets has been en­ter­tain­ing kids for free.

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - BY MATTHEW J. PALM

When­ever Deanna Buck­ley opens her com­puter, her two chil­dren come run­ning. Elijah, 4, and Sanaiya, just shy of 2, have one ques­tion on their minds, mom says: Is it pup­pet time?

“Their faces ab­so­lutely light up,” said Buck­ley, of Or­lando.

Since April, MicheLee Pup­pets has been pro­vid­ing free, on­line “pup­pet chats” to chil­dren all around Cen­tral Florida.

“With the coro­n­avirus, all of a sud­den kids were locked up at home,” said Tracey Con­ner, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Or­lan­dobased non­profit. “They missed their teach­ers, not see­ing their friends.”

Sud­denly, the chil­dren had new friends, made of felt, wool and yarn.

“All the kids love Tommy,” said his pup­peteer, Ro­drick Black­man. “He’s su­per-en­er­getic.”

With a life­long in­ter­est in pup­pets, Black­man de­signed and con­structed Tommy, a 7-year-old who “loves di­nosaurs, loves lol­lipops.”

From his Kis­sim­mee home, Black­man talks, sings and jokes with chil­dren in 10- to 15-minute in­cre­ments.

“Some­times you have kids who laugh the whole time, and guess what I do?” he says. “I gig­gle along with them.”

Black­man, who has per­formed at all of Or­lando’s ma­jor theme parks, is one of about 10 pup­peteers work­ing on the project.

For Con­ner, the on­line chats are an ex­ten­sion of MicheLee Pup­pets’ mis­sion of ed­u­ca­tion and em­pow­er­ment. Dur­ing nor­mal times, the troupe vis­its

schools through­out the re­gion to present child-friendly shows that pro­mote arts-and-science learn­ing and en­cour­age girls to con­sider ca­reers in math and the sci­ences. The troupe also tack­les tough top­ics such as bul­ly­ing, vi­o­lence and sex­ual as­sault.

“So we’re pre­pared for what­ever comes up” in the chats, Con­ner said. Although the in­ter­ac­tion doesn’t sub­sti­tute for med­i­cal ther­apy, “chil­dren will open up and talk to pup­pets and say things they might not say to a per­son.”

That’s use­ful in the cur­rent cli­mate.

“This type of ac­tiv­ity pro­motes kids’ de­vel­op­ment in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, cog­ni­tive and so­cial-emo­tional skills,” said Dr. Candice W. Jones, an Or­lando pe­di­a­tri­cian. “And in times like these, with all the fall­out from the COVID-19 pan­demic and so­ci­etal un­rest, kids are cer­tainly be­ing ex­posed to trauma and could ben­e­fit from talk­ing and play­ing with pup­pets as a way to ex­plore emo­tions and pos­i­tively cope with stress.”

So far, Black­man hasn’t had to get too se­ri­ous in his chats, though he has en­coun­tered chil­dren who were sad.

“When I first started, it was scary,” he said of the un­scripted en­coun­ters. “But I just try to help them laugh. I let the kids guide me where they want to go.”

Some­times, it takes a few min­utes for first-time chat­ters to warm up.

Oth­ers fly straight into the emo­tional strato­sphere as only young chil­dren can.

“We’ve had par­ents chas­tise their chil­dren and try to get them to calm down,” Con­ner said. “We ex­plain that it’s OK. We don’t ex­pect them to sit qui­etly like they are in school.”

For Buck­ley, whose chil­dren have par­tic­i­pated in mul­ti­ple chats, there’s joy in watch­ing their ex­cite­ment.

“From mo­ment one with the pup­pets, I did not see even a glim­mer of re­serve,” she said. “The kids im­me­di­ately con­nected with the pup­pet and treated them as if they are old friends.”

That’s mu­sic to Black­man’s ears. He’s build­ing a new pup­pet, named Elijah, who will have dread­locks made of wool. With demon­stra­tions for racial equal­ity a daily oc­cur­rence, Black­man wanted a pup­pet with African-Amer­i­can fea­tures be­cause “rep­re­sen­ta­tion is im­por­tant.”

The chats al­low the pup­peteers to es­cape the stress of the real world for a few min­utes.

“Kids have their own world. They’ll show you toys, they’ll in­vite you into their mo­ment,” he said.

That has been an “un­ex­pect­edly spe­cial ben­e­fit” of the pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to Con­ner.

“We knew we’d be pro­vid­ing heal­ing mo­ments for chil­dren,” she said. “What we didn’t con­sider was we’d be sup­ply­ing heal­ing, joy­ful mo­ments for our pup­peteers.”

The pup­peteers are paid by money ob­tained through the gov­ern­ment’s Pay­check Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram. MicheLee Pup­pets also has re­ceived some do­na­tions, though that’s not the pro­gram’s point.

Con­ner said par­ents might feel grate­ful for a bit of respite them­selves.

“These mo­ments con­nect­ing with a pup­pet have left an im­pact and given the chil­dren a much needed dis­trac­tion that didn’t in­clude me and their im­me­di­ate fam­ily,” said Buck­ley. “It re­ally has just been a bright spot in an oth­er­wise chaotic and un­cer­tain time.”

More in­for­ma­tion, with in­struc­tions on sign­ing up for a chat, can be found at MicheLeePu­p­pets.org/blog. The chats are recorded, with video sup­plied to the fam­i­lies so chil­dren can watch the chats as of­ten as they would like.

The pup­peteers, too, are left with mem­o­ries.

Black­man re­calls one shy girl who even­tu­ally was drawn out by the idea of danc­ing to a fa­vorite song with a friend. As she jumped and twirled with de­light, watch­ing Tommy bop­ping along with her, her face lit up. Said Black­man: “Those are the mo­ments I cher­ish.”

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

MicheLee Pup­pets artist Ro­drick Black­man leads a 10-minute on­line “pup­pet chat” on his home com­puter with Ren­nie Men­dez (on com­puter screen at left) on Tues­day.

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

MicheLee Pup­pets artist Ro­drick Black­man ducks be­hind his desk to stay out of the cam­era’s view as he leads a 10-minute on­line “pup­pet chat” on his home com­puter with Ren­nie Men­dez.

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