Giant Puppets are a great way for students to learn how to work together! This can be a 1 or 2 week project, depending on the materials, level of complexity, age and skill-level, and whether you’d like to include an element of performance. Usually, this type of puppet-making is done by a team of students working together. Groups work together to create the head, hands/paws (if any), and body. The puppet head can be mounted on a tall pole, carried by hand or tied to a backpack-frame; or carried as a “dragon”-caterpillar line with 2 or more students as the body. This project is best for grades 3 and up.
Types of Giant Puppets are as follows:
Flat Cardboard Puppets: These simple puppets have a striking impact, and can be very useful as props or backdrops in telling a story visually, especially for larger audiences.
A variation of this is the “box-head” Giant puppet, that is made out of cardboard, but also 3D. See the yellow dragon photo, above.
Stuffed-Bag-Base Giant Puppet heads:
A form is created out of plastic bags stuffed with newspaper or other materials. This form is covered in layers of Paper-mache, which is later removed from the armature. This process is fun and fast, cleaner and cheaper than using a clay-based form. A disadvantage is it’s more difficult to get complex shapes.
Clay-Base Giant Puppet heads:
This process is very messy, more expensive, and time-consuming than a stuffed-bag-base, but the results are worth it, if what you’re looking for is realism or greater control over the finished look of the puppet. The method is the same as for the stuffed-bag, except that a layer of clay is added before the paper-mache process begins. This clay can be molded and shaped into the exact desired form. The layers of paper-mache capture that shape, and is removed from the base after it’s dry. The giant “mask” is then painted and mounted to a pole, or otherwise assembled into a body.
Mask Making and Performance is a great way to get everyone in the class on their feet and engaged! What’s unique about this project is that the masks require the student to use their entire body, movement, dance and gestures to express their creation. I’ve used this project to help students gain empathy through imagination, creating “Power Masks” that have personal meaning to each artist, combining this project with spoken word poetry, dance-routines, theatrical storytelling, and more.
For a clay-base mask, a stuffed plastic bag is covered in a layer of clay (so it’s not just a solid mass). This clay is sculpted into the desired shape and details, then layers of paper-mache form the actual mask. When dry, the mask is taken off the base, painted, and details can be added. This process can be quite messy, but it’s also a reason why it’s so fun! The students benefit from exposure to multiple mediums in one project: Clay, Paper-mache, paint, and decoration. In addition, movement and performance can catch those high-energy students and give them a place to shine. This project is best for grades 3 and up. I generally recommend this for a 2-week project; unless working with older students or exceptionally crafty classes who learn fast and focus on the task. For most students, it takes time to get comfortable with each step of the process, and make it just the way they’d like. In addition, a 2-week format allows us to spend more time on movement-skills, choreography and/or storytelling through masks.
A second type of mask-making, pictured above, are Paper-plate-base masks. This project is great for K-3. Students use a simple paper-plate, bend and staple it, and tape on crumpled newspaper, pieces of egg-carton, or cut out cereal boxes to add on noses, ears, beaks or horns. This is covered in paper-mache, and painted. The results are colorful, fun, wear-able, and adorable. Perhaps you can see, in the images above, how students’ projects often reveal elements of their own personality. This is a 1-2 week residency.
Hand Puppetry is a great project for 1st grade and up! Even high school students get really into the process. This project has several great aspects. The creation of the head has just about infinite possibility for variations, and the puppets often reflect each student’s personality in quirky ways. There is less need for storage than with masks or giant puppets. In a 2-week residency, I teach students methods for operating their puppet, character development, funny voices, sound-effects, and students learn teamwork and group-collaboration skills as they develop their own puppet show with others. Usually it takes a full week (5 days, 1-hour lessons) to complete a puppet.
Rod Puppets can be created as a 1-week or 2-week residency, with 2nd – 12th graders. This type of puppet is operated from below, using a dowel or stick (“rod”) around which the rest of the puppet is built. Materials are newspaper, tape, paper-mache, cloth, paint, cardboard, and imagination. In a one-week residency, each student will create their own puppet, and learn basics about how to operate it. In a two-week residency, students will create a puppet, and also learn skills in voice, musical sound-effects, story-making, rehearsal and performance. Group-collaboration skills will be emphasized. Each student will experience performing their own original puppet show for others.
If your school has a theater-production coming up, consider adding a residency with the students to create their own backdrops and cardboard props. I have many years of experience working in professional set design, as well as informal productions. Materials include refrigerator boxes, cloth, plywood panels, paper-mache, and plenty of paint. I work closely with the show director to ensure portability, storage, preset and size options. My residencies are student-centered; as much as possible, I let them do the design and imagination-work behind what each scene looks like. Usually they can come up with more fantastic and original images than an adult, and it adds a level of authentic pride for student-artists to know “I did it myself!” For this residency, it is highly preferable to have a core design-group of students, who work closely with me in making a plan. This core group practices direction and leadership skills, as other students come into the process to help them complete their design.
Street Theater in Santiago, Chile. About protecting Patagonia’s glaciers from exploitation.
Performance by Peace Boat, facilitated in a workshop-series by Malia Burkhart. 2005