Concerned kids — puppets used to educate

Joyce Attis tucks her hair under a black beret, smoothes on the black gloves that match the rest of her dark attire and, Ninja-like, prepares to become a shadow. Her partner, a large wide-mouthed puppet, begins to speak. Not one of the kids in the audience notices the woman who’s actually doing the talking. They’re captivated.

Executive director of The Concerned Kids (a non-profit puppeteering organization formed some 10 years ago), Attis understands the powerful connection between children and puppets. Through interactive puppetry, The Concerned Kids uses that affinity to deliver information and reassurance on a variety of social issues children find difficult to talk about, especially with an adult.

“Kids will ask questions of the puppet that they wouldn’t ask me as an adult,” says Attis. “I realize over and over again, every day I do it, how wonderful the program is — when a kid talks directly to a puppet, asks a question and wants the response back from that puppet, not the adult in the background.”

In this non-threatening way, The Concerned Kids pass on to children valuable, and accurate, information that often dispels the myths passed around the schoolyard. The a-appropriate presentations, aimed at children aged four to 14, include programs on HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, self-esteem, street-proofing and making good choices. In 1998, 52,000 kids will have seen a presentation, a far cry from the first year’s total of 3,000. Over 200,000 children have enjoyed and learned from the interactive puppetry over the 10 years of the group’s busy existence.

Purchased in 1988 from the American-based Kids on the Block Company, the original puppets and their Kids on the Block programs are still fascinating children. As large as an average three- or four-year-old child, they even dress like the kids in the audience.

“They weigh about five pounds each,” notes Attis, “and they cost up to $1,000 U.S., but they’ve got longevity. We do change their clothes, but they have their own personalities. Each one comes with a definition of who he or she is.”

All of the topics are discussed within a story line, explains Attis.

“With any of the information they get from our programs, kids can make the choices right for themselves when they’re older and they’re faced with a lifestyle decision.”

The need for the group’s programs became apparent to its four founders through their involvement as puppeteers teaching about physical disabilities. Teachers and public health nurses began asking for similar presentations that would deal with social issues such as substance abuse and AIDS. Only one of the founders, Margaret Boddy, has retired from The Concerned Kids; Attis is their full-time executive director; Bettyann Elliott is a member of the board; and June Bales, artistic director.

Bales remembers her introduction to the puppets. A friend who represented the Kids on the Block company in Canada invited her to a meeting to see the puppets, and she fell in love with them.

“I joined immediately and took the training,” she recalls. Soon she was off to courses in the U.S. to develop the skills needed to train puppeteers. Each year as many as 50 people sign up for the eight week training course The Concerned Kids organization runs before school starts. Approximately 30 of them will join The Concerned Kids teams.

Bales has taught many volunteers throughout the years, but this year is supervising the training. As artistic director, she’s also concerned with maintaining the high quality of the performances. She drops in to a school where one of their 11 teams is performing, just to see how things are going. “I find that very rewarding. The puppeteers are so enthusiastic. They get a real high from performing,” she says.

Ranging in age from 18 to late 60s or even 70s, the volunteers all enjoy the company of children. They must also be available at least a half day a week, beginning with the training period. “We like people with some dramatic flair,” says Attis, “because it’s acting. We need those puppets to come alive.”

Training involves everything from puppetry technique, to memorizing scripts. For the older children’s programs, the puppeteers must learn to synchronize the puppet’s mouth with the script.

Volunteers have to be pretty agile and in a fairly healthy state, says volunteer Susan Tafler. The former guidance counsellor and aerobics instructor shines as the narrator for the Woodland Tales programs The Concerned Kids has developed. “I really enjoy interacting between the puppets and the kids,” she says. “It’s just so much fun. We’re out at different schools every week — Brampton, Mississauga, Toronto; Catholic, Protestant, private schools — a whole range. And the kids just eat it up. Kindergarten to Grade Three, they just love puppets, especially when a good puppeteer brings them to life.”

The three Woodland Tales evolved from stories a local policewoman told to educate school children about drugs. The characters include Casey, an inquisitive squirrel, Henry and Pixie, giant but gentle bears, Peter the raccoon doctor, and a pharmacist named Tricia Owl. Willie, a magic dragon, gets the children singing (to the tune of Row, row, row, your boat) “Choose, chose, choose what’s right. Be strong, be sure, be true. Love yourself, respect yourself, and be proud of all you do. Yahoo!”

“Maybe through this, something can get through,” muses Tafler. “Maybe some of the kids will say `Yeah, I can believe in myself.` The puppets show that if you have problems and still believe in yourself, even though it’s hard, you can forge through.”

Schools are not charged for the programs, but are asked to provide an honorarium according to their ability to pay. The puppeteering group is supported by corporate and individual donations, grants from foundations and Toronto’s Department of Public Health.