Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dear Mr. Alligator, aka How to Get a Preschooler Interested in Writing

Ten years ago, I had a life-altering experience.

I was attending a national early childhood conference and chose to participate in a session on puppetry.  The presenter was clearly enchanted with puppets, and her enthusiasm sparked a fire in me.  What if I pulled out some puppets and did my own version of The Muppets? Or Sesame Street, or whatever puppet show struck my fancy?

The cons were obvious.  I would look like a fool, not only in front of a bunch of preschoolers, but even worse, in front of college students as well as the children's parents, who often watched through a one-way mirrored observation booth.

But what about the positive potential, a little voice whispered inside me.  These kids might really enjoy the puppet...and I might too.

Once I got back to school I perused the puppets we had.  Some were really nice.  Too nice, in fact, to be handled by children.  I put those aside.  Some were old and even unidentifiable.  There was one that I think might have been a bear, but it's possible it was something else.  I wasn't really sure.  So I cast him aside too.  I pulled out a rather rough-looking alligator puppet from the pile and, remembering one of the children's favorite songs involving an alligator and three monkeys, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

I just didn't realize how big the jackpot was.

Mr. Alligator has been my teaching companion for ten years.  Like any good puppet, he has a history that he shares with the children, involving his cousin Allie who lives in Mississippi.  He also has favorite foods (monkeys), songs (Three Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree), and people (pretty much any child he's with).  And he loves to travel to children's houses.  Over the last ten years, Mr. Alligator has had endless sleepovers that have been documented in notebooks bearing his name or his likeness that each child's family has added to.  The children have shared their stories of what they do with Mr. Alligator during their sleepovers.  He's quite rough around the edges these days, but as was recently proven during his last visit with kids, he still holds his magic.  The children love to talk with him, sing with him, and listen avidly to his stories and conversations.

Unfortunately, life is full of surprises, both good and bad, and I was forced to leave my last position quite suddenly.  Mr. Alligator and I said goodbye to our new friends together.  The children were far more interested in hugging him than me, but I learned my place long ago and was perfectly happy to let him have the moment of glory.

Flash forward three weeks and I ran into my previous supervisor, who informed me that the children I had been teaching have been writing letters to Mr. Alligator, and would it be possible for him to write back?

Possible?  Did I mention how good that reptile is with a pen?

The point of this whole story is that as adults, we often want children to write letters and words at early ages.  Even if children have the fine motor development to accomplish the task, writing needs to be meaningful.  After all, when's the last time any of us sat down and practiced writing our C's or Q's?

Writing a letter to Mr. Alligator is a meaningful activity for these children.  They are using words and language to communicate their thoughts to an old friend.  Children who aren't yet able to use what we call conventional print (writing so that we can read it) have received assistance from their teachers through a technique we refer to as modeling (the teacher writes the words so the child can see as the child dictates what he wants the message to say).

Mr. Alligator will be receiving his letters on Tuesday, and I'm quite excited to see what they say.  I'm sure we both will be busy answering letters next week.

Feel free to pass the blog on and please click the links!  Thanks for reading and for leaving your own ideas of getting kids to write!


  1. What a great story!

  2. And as a post script--I did get my letters today. Lots of pieces of paper with marks, a few with letter stickers, and some were blank but folded and put in the envelope. I believe Mr. Alligator will be posing for pictures this weekend so he can mail a letter back to his friends next week!