19 June 2013

A puppet story

Marguerite Venter

I was walking toward work the other day carrying a baleen, and I couldn’t help wondering how many people can say that they’ve walked around with a baleen.

My second thought was that, “translated” into the language of small children, the baleen is called a “whale tooth”. This was confirmed when I went to pick up my five-year-old son from his school and was still carrying the baleen.

“Look at the whale tooth! Want to touch it?” he said to his friends. This, after repeatedly telling him that it is called a baleen. This happens not because young children are unable to grasp the word “baleen”, but because they speak this special language that everybody understands.

A five-year-old knows that if he calls it a “whale tooth”, all his friends will understand what he’s talking about without any further explanation. I must admit, “whale tooth” has a much catchier ring to it than “baleen”. 

After almost seven years at the Aquarium, I feel privileged to have been taught this extraordinary language by the “little masters” themselves. I perceive young children to be the most important people in the world, mainly because of the fact that one day, when we are all retired, they will be in charge.

Working at the Aquarium, one cannot help to feel inspired and wanting to share information with others. Knowledge gained before a child’s seventh birthday not only moves them, but also forms part of the foundation of their being. Therefore, I feel strongly about enlightening them when they visit the Aquarium.

What I didn’t know seven years ago was that teaching at the Aquarium would come with its own set of challenges. Not too long after I started working here, I had a friendly argument with a boy of about six years old because he refused to accept the fact that paper is made from trees. No matter how hard I tried to convince him he refused to believe me, and needless to say I lost the argument that day, but he taught me two valuable lessons.

The first was that I had to learn to communicate with children as equals, and not as an authority figure. Secondly, I realised that teaching youngsters at the Aquarium is like grating vegetables into spaghetti bolognaise, thus turning a fun and tasty meal into a healthy one as well. Children who visit the Aquarium come here to have fun and because I am neither their teacher nor their parent, they expect me to add to the fun part of their day and not the teaching part.

However, all was not lost, as I soon discovered the power of the puppets. Here were these lifeless soft toys, yet as soon as I put my hand into them they came alive and had the power to easily captivate a group of 70 young children. Today I have watched and performed over 3 000 puppet shows and have learned from this experience that, with the perfect balance between fun, fantasy and fact, puppet shows are one of the best educational tools for young children.

I’ve always had it as a goal to develop accessible and educational material related to our puppet shows, which teachers could take back to school and parents could take back home. Knowing that youngsters learn best through repetition, I wanted them to be able to take the puppet show home as a whole – including the fun and fantasy parts, because with just facts you’re stuck with spaghetti bolognaise without the spaghetti.

This is where the idea of Puppet Stories was born. I had a vision to create illustrated children’s story books using the story and characters from our puppet shows, so that it would not matter if the child read the book or saw the puppet show first – they’d be able to bring the two together and learn.

When reading the book, watching the puppet show is not a must as the book serves as a normal children’s story as well. However, if your child loves the storybook and you travel to Cape Town, wouldn’t it be great for them to see their favourite characters from the book come alive?

Being able to plan this book and illustrate the characters I know so well, has been a joyous journey. And I am excited to share with all the puppet show fans, and all children who have never seen the show, one of our most popular puppet shows: Keep the Beach Clean.

Puppet storybook launches on Saturday

Join us for the launch of Keep the Beach Clean this Saturday at the AfriSam Children’s Centre – more details here.

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