When Copycat accidentally falls into the bath and gets covered in bubbles, three-year-old Jennifer doesn't have to be coerced into coming up to the front to help Heather Jenkins, who is telling the story, to wrap him in a towel and dry him. Like the other 12 children in the nursery group at Belle Vue Primary School at Wordsley near Stourbridge, she has been sitting listening to Copycat and the Bubble Bath, one of four new stories for nursery-age children designed to teach them simple health messages.
Jennifer and the other children are also watching the antics of Copycat himself, a life-size yellow puppet with black markings looking not unlike Garfield operated by Heather Jenkins while she tells the story. Heather is the advisory teacher for health education with Dudley local education authority, who came up with the original concept, then worked with staff at Belle Vue nursery to develop the stories further.
Since there is very little health education material for such young children, it was decided to use puppetry and stories together both familiar and successful ways of getting their interest.
After discussions with nursery staff to come up with ideas for the story content, Heather Jenkins went away and wrote them. She also devised follow-up activities, and designed Copycat himself and had a prototype made up.
When I saw her working with the Belle Vue nursery children, it was the first time they had seen Copycat and heard the stories. On the Monday they heard about Copycat getting lost at the shops. Next day it was Copycat Goes to the Vet, with messages about people who can help us as well as the importance of being careful with medicines. On Wednesday Copycat met a strange dog and the last story on Thursday was about keeping clean and generally being careful in the bathroom.
"Children of this age are stopping mimicking behaviours that they see and are beginning to be able to make simple decisions about what they do," says Heather Jenkins, and this is the basis of the Copycat stories. When the children see Copycat balancing on the edge of the bath to get nearer to the bubbles, which he thinks might be cream, they are asked to decide whether he should taste them.
Before they hear the stories, the children are introduced to Copycat by making stick puppets using paper plates with his face, one happy and one sad, on either side. During the stories, the children are asked several times to decide what Copycat should do and to show their stick-puppets with the appropriate face. The key to using the stories and puppet is interaction.
There is no doubt educational puppets can be very successful with young children. The continuing popularity of old favourites like Sesame Street, Sooty and even Punch and Judy, demonstrate the enduring fascination of puppets for young and old alike.
Empathising with a sympathetic and funny puppet character can be a safe way for a child to understand that other people have feelings too and that there are ways of expressing those feelings.
When children have got used to having Copycat in their classroom and have heard the stories and done the activities, he can be brought into lots of other personal and social education-related work. An incident involving bullying, for example, could mean Copycat telling the children what it felt like when he was bullied. Other stories about Copycat could be devised by the teacher or by the children themselves. Noreen Wetton's recent work on the use of children's literature to develop health education in schools has shown how much material there already is in primary classrooms.
"Why do you like Copycat?" I asked the Belle Vue three-year-olds. "Because he gets into trouble," was the answer, together with their obvious delight, judging by the laughter, when Copycat spat out the hair mousse that he'd mistaken for cream. Although the Copycat material is still in the prototype stage, and will undergo changes resulting from the pilot phase, it will be developed and then made available to schools in the Dudley area, after which it will hopefully be available commercially. Look out for it at next year's Education Show.
Information about Copycat from Heather Jenkins, Dudley Advisory Service, Saltwells EDC, Bowling Green Road, Netherton, Dudley, West Midlands. Tel: 01384 634155