Diana Hinds sees how puppets bring children increased concentration and self-confidence.
Antony, seated in a wheelchair, is practising the scene when his three-foot high foam puppet "Mickey the teenager" meets his girlfriend, Sarah. "What does he do when he sees her? What does he say? Remember, we've got to make him come alive," prompts Will Geffin, the drama specialist leading the session.
With help, and a beaming smile on his face, Antony manoeuvres the soft limbs of the puppet, first to wave and then to hug (the imaginary) Sarah.
"Make him look as if he's holding someone in his arms," encourages Will. "Yes, make a kissing noise - that's great."
Antony is one of a group of 16 to 19-year-olds with severe learning difficulties at the John F Kennedy School in east London, who have been working on puppetry with specialists from The Little Angel Theatre in Islington. Well-known to north London parents of primary-age children for its exquisite and masterful puppet shows, the theatre has in the past year been developing education projects with special needs pupils at two east London schools.
With funding from London Borough Grants and the Charles Hayward Trust, The Little Angel Theatre is exploring ways of working in a more improvisatory, process-based way - a shift in direction which is also echoed in recent productions at the theatre itself, such as The Selkie Bride.
Staff at the John F Kennedy School were a little doubtful at first about a project involving puppets, says James Grant at The Little Angel. "They thought it might be too young: people tend to think of puppetry as being only for children - but in fact it's not."
According to class teacher Marion Vandome, however, the school quickly began to see the benefits of the weekly puppetry sessions in terms of the pupils' obvious enjoyment, their increased concentration and self-confidence. For one pupil, a refugee with very little English, the stimulation of the puppets has brought about a marked gain in language confidence. Another, who in the past could never sit still on a Monday morning, has become so absorbed in the new puppet he has made that his behaviour is much calmer.
"Puppetry is a wonderful metaphor for people shy about communicating," says James Grant. "With the puppets, they can do and say things that they would like to do but perhaps can't do themselves," adds Paul Lovett, a project volunteer experienced in advocacy for people with learning difficulties.
A number of pupils also have difficult emotions, says Marion Vandome. "The puppetry takes them out of that. It gives them the opportunity to think about something different."
Helping to make the puppets, and inventing characters, has been a big part of the pupils' work. They began with stick puppets, made from wooden spoons, and each chose someone they would like to be - resulting in a colourful cast including footballer, shopper, policeman, stunt-rider and African drummer.
"In the beginning they wouldn't express themselves - we didn't even realise that they could all verbally communicate," says Will Geffin. "Now we take it for granted that they will manipulate the puppets, but at first they wouldn't allow themselves to."
From stick, and then sock puppets, they moved on to the larger, hand-held foam puppets, more doll-like but more expressive, and quite easy to put together. Having explored their chosen characters - cat, grandfather, teenager, baby, mother - and discovered ways of moving the puppets, the group is now working towards a show for others in the school.
"They are starting to develop a real empathy with the puppets, and to develop their skills in the transfer of energy and emotion," says Rachel Riggs, puppeteer.
"We hope that gradually they will be able to express whatever they want to through the puppets," says Will Geffin. "But we are also enabling them to be artists. We are not therapists so much as puppeteers bringing them the wonders of the art form."
Further details from The Little Angel Theatre, tel: 0171 359 8581 Fax: 0171 359 7565