Children find fun in ‘puppet chats’
Since April, MicheLee Puppets has been entertaining kids for free.
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.”
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.
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.