A Moving Experience: Occupational Therapy Meets Puppetry

Surrounded by old tin cans, empty water bottles, newspapers and more, one might think that Vicki Case’s Adventist University Occupational Therapy students are stepping into a workshop on recycling. What the students don’t yet know is that they are actually surrounded by characters about to be brought to life!

In this annual, 2-hour workshop, MicheLee Puppets’ Executive Director Tracey Conner leads these students in the use of puppet building and manipulation techniques that can be incorporated into therapy to benefit their clients. This exploration into Puppetry and Art therapy is a crucial part of the students’ training.

Encompassing all of the art forms, puppetry is more than strictly entertainment. It is a tool for delving into imagination, and from there, creativity and ingenuity emerges.

Working in a Group to Solve a Problem:

What kind of puppet character can be built in 5 minutes using only newspaper and tape?

Students set to work, twisting, tearing, and taping, as they explore this activity derived from the work of late, great puppeteer, George Latshaw. With newspaper flying, students quickly begin to sculpt their characters, each group creating both a unique piece and a unique personal strategy. One group has a quick brainstorm session before beginning, assigning tasks and creating a plan for building. Another group simply dives in and begins putting pieces together as they are constructed. Yet another group splits apart and builds as individuals, planning to come together at the end. In just this short period, it becomes clear how each individual approaches problem solving when working in a group.

Once, constructed, 3 volunteers from each group, bring their characters to the front for a Bunraku-style training in puppetry manipulation. With a direct correlation to their Occupational Therapy curriculum, students practice weight distribution and coordination of movement, putting into practice how to translate and analyze movement. Performers then apply this movement to the puppet so that the group may move together as one. By transforming their energy to match those of others, the students begin to bring their newspaper puppets to life!

Working Independently to Solve a Problem:

In the students’ next activity, they are challenged to independently create a “found-object” puppet, or a puppet created from a random set of found materials (could be clean items from a recycling or trash bin). This character must have at least one moving part. Creativity explodes as individuals set to work, examining materials, brainstorming what supplies they will need and determining how the pieces will attach together.  While each ponders their character, the students also brainstorm ways in which they can integrate both their character and these puppetry activities into therapy with both children and adults.

“Learning about puppetry helps us with understanding activity analysis.” explains OTA Student Luis Johnston. “As both occupational therapy practitioners and puppeteers you have to understand how activities are performed. The experience also helps us to identify how puppetry can be used as a therapeutic media in occupational therapy. We can use puppetry to help our clients deal with issues such as communication skills, socialization as well as anger management/conflict resolution.”

Bringing Characters to Life:

The students’ final activity concentrates most heavily on the manipulation of the character, with the construction element used as a means to an end. With the simple twist of a pipe cleaner, the students’ hands are magically transformed into puppets. It is the movement of each finger, the alignment of the wrist, and the expression of the individual thumb joints that define the characters that they will create. Here the students explore what it is for the puppet to “be alive,” learning how to make their puppets breathe, focus their eyes, and even lip sync to a song. Once the students become familiar with movement, they layer in character through body movement and voice.

“It’s exciting to see the light bulbs go off for these students as they explore puppetry.” shares Tracey Conner, Executive Director of MicheLee Puppets. “Watching these students translate simple activities that we do every day in puppetry, into something that can help a patient is astounding.

MicheLee Puppets offers workshops for all ages! For more information and to schedule a workshop for your group contact jamie@