Michelle Botha: Shaping Social-Emotional Learning through Puppetry

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In the creative haven of South Africa, there exists a story spinner, a creator of joy, and a dealer in dreams. Michelle Botha, the beating heart behind the Bizzy Hands Puppet Company, weaves tales of whimsy and wisdom that are much more than simple child’s play. Since 2012, she has been crafting a theatrical symphony that resonates with laughter and learning, reaching out to the tender souls of children.

In the world of Michelle, the stage is set, not for star-crossed lovers or mighty heroes, but for puppets. These are not just any puppets. They are charming creatures who take on the mighty challenge of addressing social-emotional issues that children confront daily. And they do so with a delightful earnestness that tugs at one’s heartstrings.

Michelle has moulded this powerful art form into a medium that assists in social-emotional learning, with the aim to transform not just childhood, but the journey into adulthood as well. She believes that addressing these issues early on can prevent the child from becoming socially anxious, awkward, or isolated.

Guided by the insights of Psychologist Gloria Marsay, Michelle’s puppet theatre seeks to imbue children with the tools for self-management, self-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. And she does it in a way that is as captivating as it is compassionate.

In this creative sphere where little monsters stumble into the human world, each performance is a lesson wrapped in mirth and mystique. The children who watch are gently guided to face difficult situations, understand their own behaviours, and feel empowered in their unique ways. It’s a world where children realise they are not alone, that being different is not being deficient, and that every challenge comes with the potential for growth.

Now that you’ve had a sneak peek into the enchanting world of Bizzy Hands Puppet Company, let’s delve deeper into the mind of the extraordinary puppeteer herself, Michelle Botha. Join us as we unravel the strings behind this magical puppet show.

Interview:

Michelle, it’s an absolute delight to chat with you today! Seeing your team bring so much joy to the kids at the Johannesburg School of Autism, your amazing talents were clearly on display. You’ve been a shining star in the entertainment world for a while now, and we’re curious about your journey. What were some of the pivotal experiences that led you to puppeteering and ultimately inspired the creation of the Bizzy Hands Puppet Company?

Hi Shaun, thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. I started my puppeteering journey first at Takalani Sesame, first as a translator, then voice-over artist, (I’m the Afrikaans voices for Kami, Moshe and various other characters) and they then finally, asked me to puppeteer for them. The puppet bug bit me and that’s what led me to start my own puppet company, making our own stories and puppets.

There’s no denying your passion for social-emotional learning – it’s like a beacon of light in everything you do. In your own words, could you paint a picture of what social-emotional learning is all about? Why does it hold such importance in your heart, and how do you use your puppet shows as a platform to convey this concept?

Social-emotional skills are skills that we take for granted but is vitally important. It’s the ability to self-manage, be self-aware, have good relationship skills, be socially aware and master responsible decision-making. Social-emotional skills are at the centre of a child’s well-being. If a child does not have these skills or struggles with these skills, research and experience have shown that these kids do not do well at school- this translates directly to the unemployment issue we have not only in South Africa but all developing countries across the world. It holds importance for me because kids deserve better, and we need to teach our children these skills so that we can have well-adjusted people one day contributing in a positive way to society and the economy of our country, making our society and country strong. Our shows are created around a specific social-emotional theme. The story is constructed to showcase the theme and also give children and teachers tools on how to deal with the issue we feature. We also use songs and games in our shows to strengthen the theme and practice the specific skill set we feature in the show. We use puppets in our shows because, through research and experience, we see that foundation phase learners respond very well to them. Puppets are not threatening or judgemental therefore it’s easier for little ones to interact or re-act to a puppet. The schools we visit get to keep the song, game equipment or printed materials so that the teachers can refer back to the skill set and keep practising the skills with the learners.

The magic of your puppet shows is that they truly connect with children, almost like a friendship that blooms in real time. I’m sure there have been countless special moments. Could you share one that tugged at your heartstrings and continues to inspire your puppetry work?

Every time we get kids up on stage to take part in the games, I’m always stunned by how they interact with the puppets. The puppets get hugged and talked to without looking at the puppeteer, they believe that it is the puppet talking and the absolute joy and innocence you see gives me a lot of joy and fulfilment.

With a colourful tapestry of experiences in the entertainment world, from musicals to TV shows, there must be so many exciting elements that you bring to your puppet shows. Can you shed some light on how these past adventures influence the puppet shows you create?

I think all the theatre I’ve done in my career ultimately teaches you what works on stage and what doesn’t. I did children’s touring theatre for the first 8 years of my career and that really honed and sharpened the skills that have brought me to this point, which I’m really grateful for.

One thing that stands out about Bizzy Hands Puppet Company is the fantastic puppet-making experience you offer for children’s parties, and the kids just can’t get enough of it! What’s your secret? Why do you think puppet-making is such an irresistible activity for children?

Kids love to create, we’ve been at parties/events where we’ve seen boys and girls who would, at the start of the puppet-making event, be uninterested but as soon as they see the other kids making something with their hands and how it takes shape, even the toughest of dudes or dudettes jump in and start creating a character. We also take a lot of accessories so they can really explore and create whatever they like. Most importantly, we do not tell them or show them how they must do it, we find that it actually halters the experience. The kids must create what they want to, that is where the real fun lies and the kids love it. Most of the time the adults also end up making puppets.

Word is out that you’re brewing up a TV show that focuses on Social/Emotional skills, and I’m already excited for it! Could you give us a sneak peek of what’s in store for the viewers?

Our show features Matty, Mondo and Mong, 3 little monsters in Jo’s convenience store. Our little monsters meet and interact with the people of Moville and through their experiences they learn more about themselves and how to be the best monster they can be. However, Mister Mkhizi is always lurking in the shadows ready to make trouble for poor Jo and our 3 furry friends. Ultimately their new skills will help our furry friends deal with Mister Mkhizi and get back to their home planet one day.

Puppetry is such a unique medium, and you’ve been able to use it to address anxiety and social awkwardness in children, issues that have become more prevalent due to the pandemic. How does puppetry serve as a tool to combat these challenges?

Each of the puppet characters we’ve created embodies a specific lack of social-emotional skills. They show little ones and parents what this lack of social-emotional skill looks like and with the help of Jo, who with love and care, guides our monsters and gives them tools to help them master their specific skill set. The kids can identify with the puppets and through Jo ‘help’ the puppet, ultimately helping themselves.

Michelle, your team at Bizzy Hands is clearly filled with super-talented individuals who truly know how to bring puppets to life. What do you look for in a puppeteer, and what does it take to join your amazing crew?

I look for young, formally trained actors who are good voice-over artists but ultimately they must have a feel for puppeteering. Puppeteering is a skill, or nack that not everyone has and it is very challenging because ultimately you are acting with your hand and voice.

The Bizzy Hands Puppet Company is doing something truly phenomenal – using entertainment to teach children important life skills. Can you tell us more about how you came up with this concept and how you implement it?

I can’t really claim the idea as my own, there are a lot of ‘edutainment’ companies in South Africa. But to use entertainment to deal with specific issues for kids is the better way to go about it. Kids respond well to storytelling and ultimately that is what we do. We tell stories, our stories just happen to have an educational them and is age appropriate. It is really important to keep a good balance between entertainment and education in our stories, however, that is very, very hard to do. Luckily the more you do it the better you become. And being part of educational kids shows and pantos have taught me a lot in terms of what and how kids respond, which again, I’m very grateful for.

You’ve previously mentioned that your puppet shows are designed to be interactive. How do you maintain this level of engagement during the shows, especially when dealing with diverse and large audiences?

There are several techniques when it comes to writing an interactive show. We mainly use participation when we do the educational part and want to gage what the children know and think of the specific theme we are dealing with. We create the show in such a way that there are individual participation but also participation for the whole audience throughout the story.

Your work impacts not just children, but also parents and educators. What feedback or comments have you received that left you feeling proud of the difference you’re making?

The feedback from parents and educators have been incredible. They can’t believe the positive response from the kids towards the puppets. The best feedback from teachers are that the kids keep talking about our show long after we’ve been to the school. This tells me that we’ve made a good and positive impact on the children. I’ve always said if we can change one child’s outlook or teach one child something about being human that they can use in their life then we’ve done our job and this seems to be the case, which warms my heart and gives meaning to what we do.

Lastly, as the creative force behind Bizzy Hands, what’s next on your horizon? Are there any exciting projects or ideas you are currently exploring that you can share with us?

We are currently working hard to get into schools and empower learners and teachers. I am also working on our new pre-primary and primary school shows for next year. And I can’t wait for our pilot episode to be finished to share that on our Youtube channel. We’re also waiting to hear if we got funding from the NFVF to shoot our short social-emotional skills web series for our Youtube channel, featuring of course Matty, Mondo and Mong.

As I wrap up this exciting journey into the world of puppetry, I feel a sense of respect and gratitude. A big thank you to Michelle Botha, the brilliant mind behind the Bizzy Hands Puppet Company, for sharing her time and her story with me. Her passion for helping children through the magic of puppets is truly inspiring. So, thank you, Michelle, for dreaming big, for telling stories that make a difference, and for showing us how we can make the world a better place for children, one puppet show at a time. Cannot wait to see your journey unfold, grow, and make a difference.

You can follow Michelle and her wonderful teams’ journey via social media on the below links:

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | INSTAGRAM | YOUTUBE

Shaun Zietsman https://www.thesomethingguy.co.za

Blogger and Content Creator from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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