Plugging in with Puppets On-Screen

In a recent e-newsletter for the Fred Rogers Center, early childhood development expert Hedda Sharapan unpacked how and why Fred used puppets with children. He believed that puppets helped adults understand children’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Hedda wrote, “Puppets can be powerful learning tools for you [the adult] too. Because they can open the door for some important conversations, they can help you gain insight into what children are thinking about and how you might support them.”

Essentially, puppets help children to pretend, which is an important component of childhood. Fred said that we need pretend “to try out, to get relief, to rehearse for the future, or to become more comfortable with the past” (Rogers, 1986, p. 83). Children can pretend with traditional tools and materials (such as a paper bag or sock puppet) as well as with more modern options (such as an on-screen puppet or avatar). Like traditional puppets, on-screen puppets can be utilized as tools that adults and children can use to explore their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. They can also be used to recreate stories and events familiar to them, or to pretend new things.

In my role as the Early Career Research Fellow for the Fred Rogers Center and the TEC Center at Erikson Institute, I’ve identified a set of research studies that contribute an additional perspective to Hedda’s points about puppets. The studies collectively tell of how and why young children use on-screen puppets and avatars to engage in their work and play, and the impact of those experiences on their development.

In their study on iPads, digital play, and preschoolers, researchers Verenikina and Kervin discuss how Iris, a 3-year-old preschooler, created puppet shows at home with her father. While the details of the play were not published, the researchers noted that Iris revisited the puppet plays from the iPad’s library when her father was not around and that “watching the plays and hearing the voices of her family appeared to be an enjoyable experience for Iris” (p. 16). Adrian, another 3-year-old from the same study, engaged deeply in creating stories with the same app Iris used with her father (Puppet Pals). Adrian’s father found that the app allowed his son to control many aspects of the play, including “where it finishes and how it starts, how the characters are introduced and what they are doing and saying” (p. 11).

In another study, Wohlwend (2015) studied a classroom of preschoolers using the same on-screen puppet app (Puppet Pals). Wohlwend found that children were deeply engaged in creating puppet stories, worked collaboratively to achieve goals, and negotiated their roles in the play. The many fingers on one screen created a context for children to experiment with pretend roles of power (one animal “going to eat” the other), and to negotiate their play.

Mills and colleagues have explored the use of devices in libraries and found that 40 percent of libraries are using devices in their story time programming. Christner, Hicks, and Koester (2015) expand on these findings and recommend that librarians can include on-screen puppet play as a potential activity during story time programming. In their chapter, Christner and colleagues describe how they have a puppet play recorded to review the rules of story time and suggest, “Children can recreate key phrases from stories and rhymes using sock puppets, creating an engaging and memorable story time experience” (p. 86). The authors also offer story time ideas for recreating nursery rhymes using an on-screen felt board (Felt Board – Mother Goose on the Loose).

In addition to the puppet play, I’ve identified a set of studies that have examined the social, cognitive, and linguistic outcomes of children engaged in avatar-based play. Avatars are online characters that are designed, created, and controlled by the user. A child can often choose the accessories, body type, facial features, and personality characteristics of an avatar. The child uses an avatar to engage with others in an online world. Conceptually, a child can treat an avatar much like he or she would a puppet—the avatar can engage in conversation with other on-screen avatars. But the use of an avatar creates limitations that are different than when a child uses a physical puppet. With traditional puppets, adults can talk to the puppet directly, and the child can use the puppet to talk to the adult. But with an avatar, adults can only communicate directly with the child’s avatar by using another avatar.

Wohlwend and Kargin (2013) and Wohlwend, Vander Zanden, Husbye, and Kuby (2011) studied children ages 5 through 8 in online virtual worlds (Club Penguin and Webkinz) during afterschool programming. Here, the children used avatars and web toys. The 2013 study highlights two children named Kyra and Corey working, sometimes collaboratively and strategically, to explore how to make friends. While this is inherently a different act than more traditional puppet play you might see, especially with younger children, it still clearly involves the exploration of feelings about making friends, gaining social status, and identity formation—all issues children in the 5- to 8-year-old range are learning a lot about everyday. In this type of play, the child uses an on-screen object to distance the action and dialogue from the child’s person; trying, and perhaps failing, to make friends online through your avatar may arouse fewer feelings of rejection than doing so in real life.

In the end, both children were frustrated that their attempts to gain friends were unmet by others online. Kyra’s solution was to make her avatar dance, which got her more friends. Through this experience, the children learned something that Fred Rogers said 30 years ago: “One thing our children need to know for sure is that wishing can’t make things happen—not good things [like making friends] and not bad things [like failing to make friends]” (Rogers & Head, 1986, p. 82). When we use puppets—made with either traditional materials or on-screen pixels—we have space to let our pretending go deeper and to explore emotions on a level that could be uncomfortable in the real world with real consequences.


Christner, C., Hicks, A. & Koester, A. (2015). New media in storytimes: Strategies for using tablets in a program setting. In A. Koester (Ed.), Young children, new media, and libraries: A guide for incorporating new media into library collections, services, and programs for families and children age 0-5, pp. 77-88. Retrieved from

Mills, J. E., Romeign-Stout, E., Campbell, C., & Koester, A. (2015). Results from the Young Children, New Media, and Libraries Survey: What Did We Learn? Children and Libraries, 13(2), 26–32. Retrieved from

Rogers, F. & Head, B. (1986). Mister Rogers’ playbook: Insights and activities for parents and children. Family Communications, Inc.

Verenikina, I., & Kervin, L. (2011). iPads, digital play and preschoolers. He Kupu, 2(5), 4–19.

Wohlwend, K. E. (2015). One Screen, Many Fingers: Young Children’s Collaborative Literacy Play With Digital Puppetry Apps and Touchscreen Technologies. Theory Into Practice, 54(2), 154–162.

Wohlwend, K. E., & Kargin, T. (2013). “Cause I know how to get friends–plus they like my dancing”: (L)earning the Nexus of Practice in Club Penguin. In A. Burke & J. Marsh (Eds.), Children’s virtual play worlds: culture, learning, and participation (pp. 79–98). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Wohlwend, K. E., Vander Zanden, S., Husbye, N. E., & Kuby, C. R. (2011). Navigating discourses in place in the world of Webkinz. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 11(2), 141–163.

Photo courtesy of the Lynn Johnson Collection: Ohio University Libraries.

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  • Randy / 26 June 2017 9:52

    Two absent puppets: Daniel Striped Tiger and Donkey Hodie.

  • Vivi / 17 April 2018 6:25

    When did Fred Mcfeely Rogers learn puppetry?

    • Karen Struble Myers / 9 July 2018 4:49

      He created puppet shows even as a teenager and young adult. It came naturally to him.

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