Will Puppet Shows Ever Be ‘Out Of Style’?
“The fight [with puppets] always is: “Why is this better as a puppet show than something else?” And if you can’t answer that, then you should do the ‘something else’!”
From leading roles on Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show, to supporting characters on Mr. Dressup and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, many adults today can reminisce about their favourite puppet characters from the shows they watched as children. The 80s and 90s presented a particular plethora of choices in North America with everything from Lamb Chop and Under the Umbrella Tree, to the re-introduction of the Muppets in Muppets Tonight. But what do today’s Canadian children know about the surreal world created by puppets?
Today, it is believed that CGI (computer generated imagery) is the only thing kids are interested in watching; even 2D animation is perceived as outdated by many children. That is the thinking that created the (almost) puppet-free zone that is children’s television content in the 2000s. But fear-not nostalgic puppet-lovers! There are currently some creators working to re-introduce the magic of puppetry to the screen!
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Lawrence (Larry) Mirkin, producer of Marble Media’s newest hit Hi Opie! and long time veteran of puppet-featured productions, including work with Jim Henson’s gang on Fraggle Rock. As I spoke with him, it quickly became clear that puppets will always have unique value as a medium for kids’ television, and there will always be methods for making them relevant to future generations.
Almost everyone had a teddy bear growing up. I know I did. Bears are a common theme when we are children — from stuffed animals to TV shows. I remember watching many shows with bear protagonists: Little Bear, The Berenstain Bears, Winnie the Pooh. These shows portrayed bears with friends and families, at “home”, cooking meals, attending school, reading newspapers! They were relatable and lovable bears because they were so human-like. Portraying bears this way transitioned them from “scary predators” to lovable family characters. In reality both are incorrect, but one is clearly better for bears than the other.
I believe those shows are where my fascination with bears originated. I was surrounded by the idea and imagery of bears my whole life. This fascination didn’t really take root until a few years ago during my time at Centennial College. In 2013 I visited the Toronto Zoo and photographed the male Grizzly Bear, Samson. During my last year in the Fine Arts program, we had a large final project. For this project I decided to focus on bears, and use Samson as my model. I started thinking about bears, their role in our culture. Typically bears make the news when they venture into an urban area where they can feed on garbage and scare the residents, thus labelling them as pests, like raccoon and mice. We also regularly hear stories of bear attacks and how dangerous they can be.
For today’s tech-savvy kids, computers, tablets and smartphones are the new paper, pencils and crayons. Long gone are the days of writing everything on paper and learning cursive in the 4th grade. Technology didn’t play a prominent role in my life from the minute I was born, and therefore, my peers and I had to slowly incorporate these techniques into our daily practices — especially as they began to contribute to our educational success.
I’ve gained a lot of insight about the modern-day classroom, thanks to my younger cousins. The fact that one of my cousins got her first laptop when she was in grade 6, says a lot about its relevance. I didn’t get my own laptop until I was in grade 12!
Let’s make some more comparisons. In 1998, when I was in kindergarten, the teacher taught us on blackboards. Today teachers use smart boards. Until I hit high school, most of my assignments were to be handed in via paper. Today, it’s Moodles and Google Docs. I used poster boards; they use multimedia platforms like PowerPoints and Prezis. Cellphone and technology agreement forms are a necessity today; they were never an issue in my world until I reached high school.
Of course, every generation likes to compare themselves to the younger generation, but what makes education intriguing today, is the effect these advancements have on children’s learning processes. According to Jason Hames, a Toronto District School Board teacher of 7 years, “[Technology] allows students to grow their community beyond the constraints of distance or time, and it is truly amazing to watch [the students’] discussions deepen as they extend their learning skills.”
Bringing these new teaching tools to the classroom also creates a “win-win situation… [because] student engagement often correlates with achievement,” says Hames. On the other hand, he also points out the importance of setting boundaries so that children understand the difference between using technology for entertainment versus, “think[ing] of them as toolboxes to be used constructively”.
From what Hames has told me about his ever-changing experience as a teacher, the words “immediate”, “interactive”, and “collaboration” really stand out to me. These words resonate as he describes the environment and outcomes offered in elementary schools today. Today’s technology allows students to get in touch with their teacher or peers outside of the classroom, giving them the chance to do work at home just as they would at school.
Considering all the positives of having this new system of learning, maybe making comparisons to when I was a kid isn’t the best approach. Rather than looking at technology as a change, we should perhaps look at it as a development – one that brightens the current generation, and of course, will probably seem out-dated to the next!
Interstellar Book Reviews
If possible, outer space is even more popular now than it was during the first moon landing in 1969. Today, we have endless online content about the universe being thrown at us, including Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s kid friendly series of videos shot on the International Space Station.
Hadfield makes a peanut butter and honey tortilla, squeezes water from a washcloth and even plays a game of space darts. His videos are fun and inspiring and most importantly, set in space.
Even as adults, we never lose that feeling of awe when we look at a sky full of stars. It’s like looking up at a billion possibilities and our imaginations can’t help but run wild.
Thanks to this wave of space popularity, authors can take advantage in fun and educational ways.
Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort, includes two all-time favourite children’s book subjects in a fun-filled rhyming story about creatures from space who come to your house and play with the underwear hanging on your washing line.
You Can’t Eat a Princess! by Gillian Rogerson and Sarah McIntyre has Princess Spaghetti rocketing through space on a rescue mission to save her father from the aliens who are all set to cook him for dinner.
Princess Spaghetti is a strong female character; she rather forcefully makes the aliens let the king go, and then suggests the aliens come to her birthday party where she introduces them to chocolate cake.
I have always felt a strong connection to wildlife. The interest has been there for as long as I can remember, and now it just feels like a part of who I am.
I believe our interests stem from our surroundings and environment as we grow up. What you’re exposed to can help develop an interest, but can also help you realize what you are not interested in.
As a kid I never went hiking or camping but the desire to be outdoors was always there. My next door neighbour introduced both me and my brother to a local trail when we were both very young. I still walk this same trail almost daily.
As a kid I was content with just enjoying the outdoors, but as I’ve grown, and been exposed to naturalists like Robert Bateman, there is now a thirst for knowledge.
During the Bateman seminar I attended, he said something that really stuck with me, “get into particularity.”
Movie and book franchises that span generations
In the past 10 years, there have been a lot of complaints about the increasing number of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and spinoffs. “Nothing is original anymore,” my dad, who is 64 years old, commented the last time we saw a film together.
As a film major, I saw this as proof of our growing mass media mindset and the vanishing role of the auteur. When I’m in my 60s, am I going to be subjected to Spiderman 3000 and Star Wars: The Jedi Robot Revolution?
Last month, I went to see Paddington with my mom, who is 58, and my nieces who are five and seven respectively. We are from three very different generations, but we all laughed and cried together as the young bear from darkest Peru took his first trip to present day London.
In the car on the ride home, we talked enthusiastically about our favourite scenes and how much we loved the adventures of Paddington. It was then that I realized something: Paddington is a cross-generational franchise, enjoyed by my mom when she was young, then read to me in my childhood and now introduced to a new generation of kids. Paddington is familiar to all of us and we were brought together by our love for that little bear.
Disney movies have definitely seen a change since the original days of the prince who was strong and silent and would sweep his submissive princess off her feet.
Today, Disney movies follow the lead of their strong female characters who are no longer dependent on their gentlemen “friends”.
Let’s take a look at some of the newer princess movies.
Brave looks at the life of Princess Merida, who defies the wishes of her mother and challenges various princes to win her hand in marriage. The strong man in this story happens to be her father, the king, who instead of pushing her into marriage, sees her fire and drive, and accepts her wishes. The king shows the importance of believing in the power and strength of his daughter.
Princess and the Frog
In Princess and the Frog, we see a prince who needs the help of a woman. He doesn’t instantly fall in love, it’s gradual and it’s on her terms; a huge change from the usual princes who ride in on a white horse to save the princess. Instead Prince Naveen learns that he does not need a real princess and he falls for the woman who is strong and independent.
There is no doubt Frozen was the number one movie last year for young girls. Not only does it portray two strong women, it also has strong and devoted male characters for young boys to look up to. Olaf is a male snowman who delivers the most beautiful lines to Anna and will do anything for the princesses. Kristoff is a man of his word and travels to help Anna find her sister. He is a true gentleman, who has the princess’s interest at heart instead of dominating them.
There are strong males in many of the Disney movies but the stereotyped days of the dominant prince and the submissive princess are gone. More and more, male and female characters are equals who work together to overcome obstacles, all good lessons for young girls and boys.
I was out for dinner with friends awhile back and while enjoying delicious chicken chow mien, happened to notice a family of four – two adults and two children under the age of six – sitting at the table beside us. Nothing out of the ordinary there, except both adults were sitting across from each other using their cellphones and not really engaging each other – or their children. One of the kids, a young girl maybe two-years old, watched, as her mother snapped a blog-worthy photograph of her sushi. The little girl yelled to get her mother’s attention, which was met with a stern rebuke. Over the next hour as I glanced at this family, the parents animatedly engaged with their mobile phones. Meanwhile I couldn’t help but wonder what message their children were getting. It seems to me the message was cellphones are more important than spending time with their kids.
As an Early Childhood Educator, I often hear parents lamenting the challenge of getting their children to put down their media devices. Eventually, they say, it deteriorates into a screaming match as parents try to get their children to the dinner table. Parents everywhere are struggling with the balance between online and offline engagement. As I watched this family, it occurred to me the parent’s obsession with their own electronic devices might be part of the problem.
Children watch us, and as they watch, they learn. This is how they discover the world. In the late 1970’s Psychologist Albert Bandura developed The Social Learning Theory noting that children learn social cues and behaviours by observing the behaviours and interactions of those around them. What they are learning, in this case, is that it’s okay to use cellphones, tablets and computers during family meals, ignoring those around you. Overly harsh? Maybe, but I’ve seen this often enough to say it’s not a one of a kind event.
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Remember when we used to say to kids – “use your imagination”…
Children’s toys today give me the impression that imagination is no longer required. This past Christmas, I witnessed what I think is a dramatic change in children’s toys. My younger cousin, Neve, aged 5, received many new toys that had me thinking back to the very toys I once played with and how much it’s all changed. One toy in particular really struck me.
For young girls the choices are different than the usual Barbie and kitchen set. The newest dolls on the market are “Ever After High” dolls. These dolls are teenagers, and parents happen to be well-known fairy tale characters like Snow White and Cinderella. These dolls also have a TV show as well as other multimedia/multiplatform exposure with Mattel.
I started becoming serious about art when I was around 9 or 10. My parents put me into an art class at the plaza near my home, and I never looked back.
Something I didn’t realize until I attended the Fine Arts program at Centennial is that I found my niche very early on. It astounded me that some of my friends still hadn’t found their “thing” when it came to art. I think my resolve and direction was due partly to the things I was exposed to as a child. Like that early art class, for instance.
In that class, I was introduced to Robert Bateman. For those of you who haven’t heard of him, he is a very well-known Canadian Wildlife Artist. I was amazed the first time I saw his work, and I quickly knew that was what I wanted to draw and that was who I wanted to be. In class, I would use his books as references and inspiration for my own work. He became my idol. I thought of Bateman as the “be-all-and-end-all” of art. He personified my end goal, both in terms of technique and international recognition. His style was aspirational and I wanted to reach that level of realism. So I strived to get there.
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