Head over heels in glove

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Kumquats. Large hand puppets. Pounds 98 each. World Of Puppets. 9 Fernside, London Road, East Grinstead West Sussex RH19 1QS. Tel: 01342 326416 Age range: various

Stand 211

Tom Deveson finds that a large, squashy hand puppet proves to be an irresistable asset in class

Freddy and Mathilde arrived in Peckham, wide-eyed and eager, first thing on Wednesday morning. By tea-time they had been out on two school visits; bike riding in Bermondsey; watched a rehearsal of a scene from Julius Caesar; taken part in a performance of a class composition for brass, recorders, voices (they sang) and assorted percussion; practised French verbs with an adviser and some primary class teachers; and even found time to tell a headteacher a scurrilous joke about Chris Woodhead.

They were greeted with oohs and aahs and insistent cries of "let me have them first!" And after the adults had been indulged and allowed their go, some of the children were able to play with them too. An 11-year-old Milwall supporter stroked their hair, sat them on his knee and made them try out many actions, of which picking noses was probably the rudest. Five-year-olds queued up to make them talk and dance. Half a secondary school orchestra got them to play instruments and improvise a quick vocalisation on the theme from Neighbours.

In other words, they became instantly popular. But who are they? Freddy and Mathilde are hand puppets. They originate from Germany and are obtainable here through World Of Puppets. They have lots of friends available from the catalogue, called by such names as Waldemar, Fritz and Troll Jonas (although I'm sure they would not mind being rechristened).

Characteristically they have large, friendly, squashy heads, warmly-coloured velveteen tops, an equally kaleidoscopic array of other clothes and satisfying chunky shoes. Their hands have five hollow fingers, reachable through holes in their arms. Another hole in the back of their heads allows access to their faces.

These have roomy, flexible mouths, set in a roguish grin just. The lips can be shaped in a variety of ways and the tongue moved separately. They can therefore speak or sing in a reasonable approximation of human articulation, and clearly show whether the vowel sound is the same aah or ooh that they heard on their first appearance, or some near analogue. The moveable fingers mean that they can sign, communicate through Makaton, or wave, signal and perform indelicate gestures. They can also play simple tunes on the piano and indeed one of them is currently helping to type this article.

Clearly they will make an instant mark in classrooms and staff rooms. Their friend Molly was a joint winner of the TESBESA educational equipment award earlier this year. The judges then commended her capacity for addressing children's tactile, visual and emotional needs, her ability to survive a soaking, and her resourcefulness in areas from language development to drama. Freddy, Mathilde and Co clearly have the same inventive aptitudes, limited only by the imaginations of the humans who temporarily inhabit their bodies.

Early years practitioners will be able to use them in a great variety of ways, from asking questions about environmental sounds to investigating a grazed knee, and from helping count out plastic sweets to diverting attention from tearful altercations over Spice Girl stickers. Headteachers can keep one in the office for talking to shy children; then bring them triumphantly out to make administrative announcements in assembly, initiate presentations on behaviour initiatives or play a leading role in the newly-obligatory moral training. Pastor, the puppet with a wild shock of professorial white hair and a gracious, absent-minded smile, could be particularly good at this.

Other colleagues are confident that the puppets could play useful roles in GCSE or even A-level discussion groups in such varied curricular fields as the sound of the German umlaut or the nature of economic development. A special needs adviser has already booked them to work with her on courses and in classrooms. Their unthreatening benevolence and their adaptable willingness to be most things to most people gives them a particular potential here.

It's possible to fret briefly over the fact that you seem to need three arms to operate both their hands and their faces simultaneously, but that need not cause problems. Rather, it's an obvious opportunity for collaborative play. Of the 18 characters currently available, eight are children (two with black faces), three are adults, two are clowns, two animals, and three from the world of Grimm; it would be good to see more ethnic and cultural variety as the series expands.

Kumquats may not be cheap but they offer a wealth of possibilities. Most significantly, all the children and all but one of the teachers who met them, were instantly drawn to them.

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