What is Puppetools?

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 20, 2006 2:52 pm
PostPost subject: What is Puppetools?
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What is Puppetools?

Puppetools —a ‘play language’ and play-based communication system—is engineering the role of play in learning and communication; is a recognized model of applied brain science and education reform from the inside out. Puppetools equips teachers and classrooms with play energy. The project delivers the tools and knowledge for the practical adoption of play, and has established play in learning as a birthright of the young. The project has identified puppet play as a wavelength of communication to which children are innately tuned.


What serious problem or challenge with broad significance does Puppetools address? What existing conditions does the project try to improve or rectify?

Extraordinary change has occurred in the last hundred years, yet the basic nature of education remains unchanged.

During the past twenty years in which neuroscience has flowered, we have learned what the brain requires for productive and meaningful learning. We know that emotions warm and fire neuronal activity to create ‘smart’ communication inside the brain. If on the wings of brain science rides the future of education and a new understanding of human learning, how then do we apply this knowledge? And more important, how do we get this science of the brain past the walls of a change-resistant learning culture* and transplanted in the cultural soil? These are the challenges addressed by Puppetools.

If the capacity for reinvention is the benchmark of human evolution, then how and when we reinvent the learning culture will be the signature of our future and perhaps our fate. If the great leaps of science are the result of bold vision and flexible thinking, then something deeper than mere academics must be found to inform the majesty of children’s minds. Our systems of learning—systems that now serve mass populations—must grow tolerant, humane, and inclusive of a much broader population of learners.

The 60s space race made science a top priority in education, but today the urgency of scientific competition will play out on a stage overshadowed by the realities of resource depletion and environmental degradation. Here, again, the science of the brain, which sheds light on our evolutionary roots of adaptation and innovation, has the potential to equip the young with the tools and vision to meet this uncertain future. It is also imperative that the young learn to believe in their ideas and in their power to change the world. If human progress depends on the intuition, imagination, and the capacity of the young to follow their dreams, then education must become more intuitive, imaginative, and speak to the needs and requirements of young minds.

“We need languages that fit the present time—that can deal with the collective as well as the individual and that transcend traditional boundaries of tribe, nation, and culture,” writes Peter Senge, founder of The Society for Organized Learning. Possibly the most civilizing of human instincts, play is a powerful organizing principle of learning. As a ‘form of language,’ play not only can pass through the walls of the learning culture, but can also reach deep into the broad strata of problems that grow in the culture. Confined to early childhood education, the importance of play is concealed. Like the truth of relativity, the impact of play is not readily observable but, when held up to the light, its power is evident and elegant.

Play language, carried via the web, is a force that can transform the learning culture in the same way the force of electromagnetism transformed modern life.

(*) The ‘learning culture’ is defined here as the monolith of factors, including laws, policies, beliefs, attitudes, fears, teaching and hiring practices, bureaucracy, unions—(behavior, communication, and content—all part of the consolidation that is resistant to adaptation and to change in education).

Why is Puppetools online?
How is technology being used? Who is responsible? Who is benefiting? What processes or systems are in place to deliver this technology application?

Puppetools is a “Play-Based Communication System” incorporating a ‘play language’—Puppetools. The technology uses Puppetools, 1) an invented, low-tech paper puppet system that is 2) embedded in a web-based training and dissemination platform—www.puppetools.com. This integration of both low-tech and high-tech delivery systems provides a way for individuals or groups to efficiently access the tools and training needed to speak ‘play language.’ Play language uses a single paper hinge that is central to the system for using symbols and ideas made out of construction paper. Thus, in this system a paper puppet is a "handheld idea, a part of speech in a limitless interactive language of symbols and concepts;" a form of media that is predictable and standardized yet open-ended and creative. The technology application enables the conventional, sometimes impractical but powerful, art of puppetry to be re-cast as a practical teaching language.

Another capability of ‘play language’ is that it can be embedded in high technology and books, and thereby ride within other information carriers in the learning culture.

The website frames a platform for accessing tools and knowledge of play including a database of white papers, media clips, puppet models and concepts; a comprehensive online training workshop, and a forum for continuing refinement, exchange, and research of play-based learning and communication.

Site-based models, demonstrations, and sharing make it possible for ‘play language’ to be easily and quickly moved into the hands of teachers and students everywhere, for use in classrooms ranging from pre-K to college level foreign language, thus demonstrating the crucial role of play far beyond early childhood education. The website serves as both showcase and generating station for play-energy.

Play language is similar to the ‘computational origami’ used in MIT’s Department of Computer Science. Whereas the origami is used to explore such enfolded worlds as DNA structure and air bag configuration, play language gives physical form and expression to the inner world of mind and symbol as well as to the outer world of social interaction, verbal patterning, reciprocity, and articulation.

Without play, the young become inflexible. Those at-risk become predisposed to violence. Without play, human sensibilities grow inert and weak. Education without play is rigid, isolating and unresponsive. A playful learning culture ensures the birthright and civil rights of children and adults to enjoy the freedoms of mind, speech, and imagination. Harnessing play will humanize, enrich, and empower our learning culture. Neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean called play “the nicest thing that nature ever did for us.”

(*) Play is defined here is innate, higher order play largely unadulterated and uninhibited that can be consciously, unconsciously, or semi-consciously engaged. Hence, play that is fragile, spontaneous and responsive, involving reciprocal patterns of movement, action, thought, or communication, and often accompanied by the warmth of silliness, surprise, humor, or fun.

Explanation of Leading Edge or Breakthrough Technology

The idea that technology can play a crucial role in changing the way teachers teach and feel about their creativity, the way they perceive and work with subject matter, and the way they understand their students is an exciting breakthrough that impacts education at its heart. The idea that technology could organize and structure the delivery of something as intangible as the play here defined—and then deliver it successfully into the hands of teachers and students—speaks for this improbable use of technology.

Before this application of technology, the impact and importance of play beyond early childhood education could not be visualized, confirmed, validated or transmitted. An extraordinary resource lay hidden. The technology enables play to move quickly into the hands of practitioners, and take on a life of its own. The technology redefines and refines teaching literacy both in the way it changes behavior and in the way it changes the nature of content. For it is one thing to learn about acid rain, for example; it is entirely another to interview a rain drop sick from toxins. The latter is the path to productive thinking.

Thinking symbolically for himself at age 16, Einstein imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. His do-it-yourself field trip led him to frame field theory and relativity. Seeing children and teachers routinely take trips like this through the experience of communicative puppet play, one begins to see a practical ‘teaching media’ in puppet play. Einstein counseled educators to “Keep asking questions that only children ask.” Young children sometimes point to the puppet, and ask, “Are you real?” They sense innately what brain scientists are only just beginning to appreciate: that symbolic art combined with play and communication is alive with movement and energy, an organic superconductor of human intelligence. This technology applies that knowledge as a literal truth.

Play is also at work in the modeling of paper concepts, a process absent from a learning culture too busy to allow children to use their hands to give shape and expression to their ideas. If we believe that the young deserve to experience the joy of belonging in the culture we call ‘school,’ we must ask, What are the elements that comprise the heart of such experience, and where will that experience come from? In a learning culture indifferent, and often antagonistic, to creativity—except for creativity legitimized in the media—we must seek and promote forms of media that reverse this condition.

Play language also allows images and ideas to take on a life of their own. Once they see this potential, teachers and students never look at a page or monitor in the same way again, since such content can now be ‘activated.’ Again, the single paper hinge system makes this possible.

Computer learning involves much time interfacing with the monitor. This application of technology uses the computer for accessing the tools and resources needed to learn and apply play language, but ultimately the real benefits are experienced in the classroom, away from the computer. Even the research involved in the use of play language is ultimately used away from the computer in shared and dynamic learning experience.

Puppet play transformed into a play language enables play to leap into conventional communication. As play penetrates communication, the results are ‘catching.’ People fall in love with the ability to elicit such a powerful response in one another. Using puppets, a teacher can personally transform common learning barriers—oppositional behavior, negative moods, defensive attitudes—into a windfall of learning benefits and surprises. Children become more responsive and motivated. Teachers find themselves suddenly having fun. Teachers who tend to keep themselves and their emotions at arm's distance in the classroom become fully involved with the puppets and the children's response to them.

The site showcases a process in which the world at large comes to life in the moving and talking of symbolic art. The world of the classroom comes to life in a language that invites responsiveness, relatedness, self-expression, and ideas that are inherently alive.

Play language represents a one-of-a-kind strategy for achieving systemic change, in principle and practice, of the learning culture, and for establishing a unified theory of communication based on play language for the field of education. If the field of education has any chance of having a field theory to help ground and direct its future course, it will be in the science of learning. In such an event, play will be pivotal, and a language based in play will be a propelling force into that future.

The Science of Puppet Play: High-Touch Implications and High-Tech Applications

In this little thing we prop up by hand outside the self, the workings of the mind become manifest in a symbolic language, a language that children experience as larger-than-life, a language they speak instinctively….The archetypal hand puppet is a physical form of internal mental states. It induces human play, audio-vocal and psychosocial communication. It synthesizes symbolic thought and visualization, emotion, humor, and nurturance. –J.P.

What many teachers describe as "magical" in puppets may be the fruits of the brain's deeper nature in response to vocalization, movement, and visual information associated with a powerful behavior unique to human play and communication. Thus captured in the passing moment of puppet play may be found the physical and symbolic expression of neurological and evolutionary factors foundational to human learning (movement, play, symbol, the hand, and the brain). In the workings of puppet play is a language closely aligned with the workings of the brain. Puppet play is a form of spontaneous behavior that induces predictable individual and group responses. It is similar to specialized behaviors in other life forms with which we share common neurological building blocks such as the schooling of fish, the worm-like tongue of the snapping turtle designed to attract passing fish, and the tails of African wild dogs used to signal each other during the hunt. Puppet play is the remarkable stimulation mechanism that speaks irresistibly and unconditionally to the young (and young at heart) which this technology application has harnessed.

Evidence of Contribution

It has taken over thirty years to build and maneuver Puppetools into the mainstream of science and technology.

The pilot brain-imaging study I directed measured the effect of puppet play on brain physiology. (Novel Motor/Somatosensory Activity Is Associated With Increased Cerebral Cortical Blood Volume Measured by Near-Infrared Optical Topography (Journal of Child Neurology) Jeffery L. Peyton, BS; W. Thomas Bass, MD; Bonnie L. Burke, MS; L. Matthew Frank, MD) http://puppetools.com/library/pdf/JCN-Paper.pdf

In 2004 I was invited to present two papers:(Factors of Evolution Revealed in Hand Puppet Behavior: Temporal Synthesis of Movement, Play, Hand, Art, and the Brain; and Play Language) to brain scientists at a symposium sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Copenhagen, Denmark. My remarks will be published in a paper summarizing a seven-year OECD project to promote brain research in education.

The Puppetools website attracts teachers from all over the world, many of whom tell me that I have created an important gift. The teachers’ journals and the insights they share—and the ongoing documentation in the forum—represent a growing base of evidence directly contributed by teachers. For more than three decades I have worked with thousands of teachers and, of course, have indirectly reached the children in their classrooms. Compiling these achievements without the benefit and support of an institution of higher learning and an advanced degree counts as additional evidence that the project’s merit and success, in pursuit of a powerful and beneficial idea, have stood the test of time.

Measurable Results

The above-cited brain-imaging research is a significant and pioneering benchmark for understanding play as a powerful conductor of brain function and physiology. The increased blood flow and oxygen generated by play in the brain may reflect the increased level of motivation and receptivity generated by play in the classroom. More research such as Amy Wallace’s paper studying the impact of play language on student attentiveness will follow.

I continue to build a web showcase so that the impact of play can be clearly seen and demonstrated, and to spark further research and inquiry into the application of play in classrooms. I am professionally accountable to organizations such as the Search Years project in India as well as the many teacher-members from Japan, Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Romania, Great Britain, Scotland, Spain, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, and Canada, and the United States who have entered and are continuing to enter my community to learn and share. As they apply play in their classrooms and schools, they also contribute to the growth and development of the project.

Replication Potential

The Puppetools website is dedicated to the mainstreaming of play as a resource, a language, and organizing principle. A play language, by definition, implies a ‘viral’ process of sustained replication. One teacher or organization that begins to apply play language possesses the tools and knowledge to share it with others. Again without the benefit of the web technology, something this creative and appealing could not be systematized.

Hand-held representations of clouds, planets, seeds, raindrops, gears, ears, germs and flowers are but a few isolated symbolic life forms part of an infinite symbolic and communicative species. Like the flowering plants that once spread across a monotone green earth, these forms, appropriately engineered, give rise to a diverse, grass roots, integrated, ever-unfolding landscape for learning and discovery—the way the brain intended.


I could not have built this project without the risk-taking teachers who have met me halfway and followed me with open minds into a relatively unknown dimension. Internationally recognized scientists have opened their minds and their laboratories to this project. These include Dr. Thomas W. Bass, Professor of Pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Division of Neonatology at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, Norfolk, VA; Paul D. MacLean, Senior Research Scientist, Emeritus, in the Department of Neurophysiology, at the National Institutes of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD; Britton Chance of The Chance Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; and Stuart Brown, M.D., The Institute for Play, Carmel, CA.
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