Shadow puppetry is a great tool for teaching stories, myths and legends from cultures and religions all over the world. You can also use it as a storytelling tool for stories that children write by themselves or as a group. Whether you use it as just a class project, or end up with a performance at your school or congregation, it is great fun for everybody involved.
On this site you will find examples of what children can do in just a few hours, a week, or longer. Shadow puppetry is flexible, and it is cheap. And no matter how much drawing and cutting skills may vary, with a bit of help every puppet looks great on the other side of the screen. After all, they are only shadows!
Small groups using desk top screens
The basics of shadow puppetry are simple: you need puppets, light and a screen. The size of the puppets and the type of screen and light depend on what you want to do. You may prefer the children to work in small groups that present their results to the class only. If this is the case, you can use desk top screens that are made from a cardboard box or a display board for presentations (available in craft or office supply stores).
For light, a desk lamp can be used, which may be put in front of the children or clipped to the desk. The children are standing or sitting behind it, holding the puppets against the screen at straight angles. I have detailed instructions about desk top shadow puppetry online.
Whole class using larger screen
If you want to do shadow puppetry as a class project or for a performance, you need a larger screen and puppets that are big enough to be seen well by the audience (12″-15″). The use of an overhead projector is strongly recommended. It provides a safe, strong and even light and enables you to project background scenes, that can be drawn on transparencies with permanent markers.
The projector sits on a desk behind the children, who hold the puppets above their heads to prevent casting their own shadows. If you do not have access to an overhead projector, you might be able to find a used projector on eBay.
Above right: This screen, made of RoscoScreen Twin-White, is supported by two old Halogene lamp stands, fortified with 5 lb weight plates to avoid toppling over
The screen is attached to a freestanding or a tabletop frame. In Worlds of Shadow, Teaching with Shadow Puppetry David and Donna Wisniewski, who experimented with many types of lights and screens, give detailed instructions. To make a screen they recommend the use of RoscoScreen Twin-White, which is available for less than $20 by the yard (55″ wide) and can be ordered online in theatre supply stores. The Wisniewski book is an indispensable resource for elementary school teachers, and provides indepth information about techniques, production, rehearsal and performance for different age groups.
Pictured above: Inside of a 56″x36″ traveling screen made of 1 5/8″ stretcher strips (available at online art stores) with RoscoScreen Twin-White attached to the other side with velcro tape.
Children love shadow puppetry particularly because of the ‘special effects’ that are not possible in traditional puppetry or theater.
You can make ghosts and monsters, transform people into animals, let Nils Holgersson fly on a goose, and make pigs fly too. Even the violence that you often find in ancient stories and fairy tales is less gruesome when it is only paper. You can let Little Red Riding Hood get out of the Big Bad Wolf’s stomach. And the head of a dragon can easily be slayed and reattached when using velcro.
Right: Boy puppet traveling on top of a giant (a child wearing a mask) in a performance of “The Drummer Boy”
Cultures and religions around the world
Shadow puppetry is particularly great for acting out myths and stories from world cultures. With the help of an overhead projector children can let Moses part the Red Sea, make water rise in a Native American flood myth, let Jesus walk on the water, and have lotus flowers sprout in Siddhartha’s footsteps
Stories from Greek mythology, which tie in to Western art, literature, and music, have endless possibilities for shadow puppetry performances (see my separate site about Teaching Greek mythology with shadow puppetry).
Above: Performance of “The Tree that Rained” (Huichol native American flood myth), 9-10 year olds
Narration and sound
In my experience shadow puppetry works best with a narrator, either a teacher, a child, or a group of children alternating. Even if a performance takes place in the class room, the use of a microphone is recommended, not only for the audience, but also for the puppeteers behind the screen.
If you are lacking the equipment, you might be able to borrow a karaoke machine. it has the advantage that you can play music prior to or during the performance, or even use an echo when gods in the story intervene. In a local school the music teacher and a number of students composed and performed music for a 4th grade performance of the myths of Perseus and the head of Medusa (see Teaching Greek mythology with shadow puppetry).
Above: Men celebrating after Prometheus gave them fire. Scene from the Greek myth ‘Pandora’s Box (9-11 year olds). Watch the video.
Some other ideas
Of course, you may just want the children to enjoy shadow puppetry for its own sake (possibly resulting in a brief performance for parents picking up). If so, you can choose an activity or story that enables the puppets to parade behind the screen, giving everybody the same amount of time. A story like “Noah’s Ark” would work well in this respect, particularly for younger children (for whom animals are easier than people).
Older children might like to demonstrate their puppets during any other kind of lineup. They could be deities of an ancient civilization showing off their symbols, or fairytale figures at a talent contest. Anything is possible with shadow puppetry!
Above: Celebration of groundhog day (6-7 year olds). Groundhogs were made by 10 year old)
If you have any comments or questions, please send me an email. Have fun!
Further reading (limited)
A must-read for teachers is the above mentioned Worlds of Shadow, Teaching with Shadow Puppetry by David and Donna Wisniewski
Another book that I very much recommend is Shadow Puppets and Shadow Play by David Currell (2007), a study of the art of shadow puppetry, with clear descriptions of traditional and modern techniques and beautiful, colorful illustrations.