Puppets, Their Palace, and Keeping it Funny!
As many parents of kids with emotional special needs know, Christmas can be an extremely difficult time of year. Behaviors can be off the charts crazy, emotions run high for everyone, and an attitude of entitlement rages in the background. One of several things we’ve found over the years that really helps with the whole Christmas and entitlement thing is to keep the individual budgets for the kids to a reasonable, but fairly modest amount and then put the bulk of our Christmas budget toward a larger “family” gift…something that we all get to use and enjoy together. We’ve actually done this for many years (long before the boys came home). It’s something that’s just worked for our family.
One particular year not too long ago, we had a marked need, but not a lot of extra funds to make it happen. The most obvious place we could pull funds from was our Christmas budget. We let the kids in on the deal early in the season and everyone was in agreement. All individual budgets were very modest and the bulk of the funds set aside for Christmas were combined with what we had left in another fund and we took on the task of finishing a much needed basement bathroom. This is something that everyone was on board with and very excited about…especially the big kids who would very soon won’t have to jockey for the shower in the mornings.
If you can’t make if fun, make it funny!
While highly practical and something we were all very excited to get finished up, there’s not a lot about that project that screams “fun” on Christmas morning. Just like we’ve done when we’ve modified many other things so they work for our family, our motto is “If we can’t make it fun, at least make it funny!” And so we did. This was the first thing our kids saw when they walked into the room on Christmas morning.
Wanna know what was in those packages? It’s something that fits the theme for sure! Yup, that’s right. Everyone got a brand new gift wrapped package of underwear delivered in a toilet on Christmas morning. It’s also something our kids have never forgotten and still laugh about to this day. They also still joyfully remember the paint cans under the tree and finding paint brushes and other building supplies in their stockings.
Puppets: Essential Tools for Therapeutic Families
Of course, the kids still did get a little something fun for Christmas in addition to the bathroom getting finished. They each got a little something for themselves to enjoy, and then we gave all of them a whole bunch of good quality puppets to share. Note that I said good quality ones…not the cutsie little preschool ones that don’t really do anything or that are too small for adult hands. We knew these were an investment so went on a quest to find the stuffed animal or Muppet type puppets with moving mouths.
Why puppets? Well, first of all, they’re just plain fun for people of all ages. Really, they are! I’ve never met a person, big or small, who can put a good quality puppet on their hand and resist the urge to put it on their hand and start making it talk. For this reason, puppets are also fabulous tools for therapeutic families. In fact, I think they’re essential tools.
Puppets can tell all kinds of stories, create all kinds of different social and relationship situations, and encourage cooperative and creative play. They are wonderful teachers, chase away the grumpies and turn frowns upside down, they can take on all kinds of different moods and personalities, and most importantly, puppets almost always say more and talk a lot more openly and honestly about stuff than people are willing to do on their own. As a bonus, they also keep bored kids busy for quite a long time!
One of our most favorite Christmas traditions was born a few years ago totally by accident. Sometimes those are the best kind! Our theme that year was “wheels”. Our kids had been begging for new rip sticks. Had we just wrapped it in a traditional way and stuck them under the tree, our daughter especially would have immediately known what they were. That’s no fun!! So we sent them on a treasure hunt instead. We wrapped up the first clue in a very small box sent them on a treasure hunt all over the house and yard (yes, in the fresh blanket of new snow that arrived just in time to welcome Santa’s arrival) find their real presents. They had so darn much fun with the treasure hunt that we’ve kept on doing it every year since. It’s now something they very much look forward to.
This year we wrapped up one of the “people puppets” and a note informing the kids he’d been separated from his tribe their mission was to find his friends. They knew this was the treasure hunt gift before they opened it, so they were quite baffled when there was more than just a piece of paper in the box. One of them even said “What is this doll doing in here?” It took a bit for them to realized that wasn’t a doll, but a puppet. Even then they were kind of like “Really?? What are we going to do with a puppet??” And then they started cluing in as they started finding all of the rest of them. It didn’t take long before the puppets were instinctively involved in the hunt, reading the clues, and talking to each other. In fact, as expected, it took less than 5 minutes of finding the second and third ones before each kid had one on their hands, they already had their own personalities, and were now telling the people where to go look for the rest of their friends. It was quite hilarious to watch!
Our Family of Puppets
We ended up with more puppets than we initially intended simply because we got a sweet deal on a whole set of people puppets. At first we thought we’d sell some of them, but once they arrived, we just couldn’t part with any of them. They were too darn much fun. In addition to the people, we also deliberately added some other characters to the mix that could fill some very specific therapeutic roles. These include an aggressive 3 headed dragon where each head and all the arms move independently (and often argue with each other), a turtle that hides in it’s shell, a family of kangaroos including a daddy, a mama, and a baby in the pouch, and a bald eagle who is the wise overseer and protector of puppet land.
Then we had to come up with all kinds of crazy places to hide all of these puppets where the kids wouldn’t find them before they were supposed to. The one in the picture above was in the piano bench. One that looks like “Goldilocks” was sleeping in mom and dad’s bed. Another was hiding in the freezer wrapped in a blanket with a note that said he was cold and glad to be rescued and he didn’t think it wasn’t such a smart idea after all to hide in there. Others were hidden in other random places like the dryer, inside cupboards, on the printer, etc.
The Puppet Palace
There was just one thing missing, though. All good puppets need a stage. It’s one of those projects I just didn’t have time to get done before Christmas. Oh, well. Life happens. And, it made for a fun Christmas break project that we all created together. We started by searching the internet for ideas. We especially liked this video. After that, we just kind of winged it and created our own design from there. Our theater turned out so awesome that I just couldn’t not share. When it was all said and done, it exceeded even our expectations! We’ve now affectionately dubbed it “The Puppet Palace”.
Creating Our Theater
Our theater started out looking like this…a bunch of PVC sprinkler pipe pieces and connectors. Then we pretended they were a giant set of “Tinker Toys” and made the framework for the theater. Once it was all put together, I color coded all the poles so the kids can easily put it together on their own. Yes, it is big! It’s taller than I am, over 5 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and easily accommodates two adults or all three of our kids.
We built it that way on purpose. One thing that’s constant in this life is the marching of time…and with it comes kids who won’t get any smaller. We knew the puppets would be part of our family for a long time, so we didn’t want their stage to be something they would outgrow. Plus, we wanted to make it so mom and dad can play in too! Yes, we’ve already put on our own show for the kids in it.
The best part…
And what’s the best part about this grand theatrical palace, you ask? Why, of course, it’s that the whole thing comes apart and fits nicely and neatly into three small bags…
So what do the teens think of the puppets?
The long and the short of it is they love them! They have had a blast putting on shows for the past couple of weeks. At first they tried to write formal scripts, but they never work as well as the improv shows do. As long as they have a general idea of what they want to accomplish with their show, they just make it up as they go now.
When they ask me for ideas, I just tell them to have the puppets solve a problem. They’re now using the puppets to teach each other social skills and life lessons. Tonight’s show was all about temptation, redo’s, and making better choices. Last night’s show was all about teaching the bickering three headed dragon better ways of dealing with his big feelings…ways that don’t involve roaring or breathing fire…a particularly poignant lesson for the often fire breathing puppeteer. These shows were created, produced, and performed entirely by my kids, too. Of course, they do it in a really fun and funny way…because seriously, who can’t laugh at a wide eyed, big mouthed puppet whose yarn hair is flying all over the place and opens the stage curtains with their teeth?
Now it’s your turn!
What are some of your favorite ideas and ways for engaging your kids and keeping them busy during the holiday season and school breaks? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!