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The Medium is the Message: Puppets Show Kids How To Eat Healthy

There they were. Ten boys, five girls, all between the ages of 3 and 5, chomping at the bit for some fun and entertainment during their morning sojourn at A Mother’s Touch Daycare on North Pulaski Road in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood.

La Casa Norte's puppet show about good nutrition has been a hit at Humboldt Park day care centers.

Photos by Gordon Walek

Whether the glee was because they’d been primed for a puppet show (about healthy eating, of all things), or whether they’re just generally good-spirited was anyone’s guess. For the record, all the kids looked remarkably fit.


So when Sarah Finkel and her band of La Casa Norte merry pranksters arrived to set up a small makeshift stage, they received a reception that seasoned performers would envy. Finkel, the food security project coordinator at La Casa Norte, is herself an artist and takes seriously the performance art she and her colleagues have been doing at day care centers throughout Humboldt Park for the last several months.

The point of the brief shows, featuring puppeteers crouched behind a curtain, holding hand puppets above their heads, is to give kids a sense of what “healthy” means. Anyone who’s spent time with Humboldt Park community organizations in the last couple of years knows that health and fitness are major subjects, and Finkel’s efforts are the latest manifestation of how those groups are trying to get the word out that basically you are what you eat.

“Our main themes are growing vegetables, good hydration, the ABCs of vitamins, and differentiating between what’s a healthy snack and what isn’t,” said Finkel. Shakespeare it ain’t, but for this audience that’s probably just as well. And for puppets, such messaging is, well, a mouthful. One wonders, do the kids really get these skits about, say, good hydration, or are they just tickled by the notion of puppets?

“We do this as a way to reach the parents,” said Finkel, who also distributes brochures with healthy eating tips that she hopes the youngsters take home.

Sarah Finkel, La Casa Norte's food security projects coordinator, directs the puppet nutrition show.

The plot

In the last year, La Casa Norte has performed 40 of the puppet shows - dubbed Aveggies! A Nutrition Puppet Show - at 27 child care centers, using varying storylines that reinforce the concepts of good nutrition and participating in healthy activities. Each performance is structured with a puppet skit praising some aspect of good nutrition such as eating fresh fruit, eating vegetables, not eating bad snacks, etc. A follow-up coloring page is distributed along with other child-friendly pages that can be completed after the puppet show or done as a classroom assignment. That’s typically followed by a group activity such as running in place, stretching, jumping jacks, bending down, etc to reinforce physical activity.

Pre and post-measurements of students are taken before and after each puppet show to determine if they can identify healthy food versus unhealthy food. It’s expected the project will serve more than 150 kids at 10 child care facilities in Humboldt Park.

But the audience – and their families – isn’t the only group benefiting from the puppet shows, which have been supported by a $20,000 grant from LISC Chicago. Finkel and her colleagues have recruited a handful of Humboldt Park young people to be the puppeteers.

“Before doing a show, they attend workshops and rehearsals,” said Finkel. “It teaches them job skills and how to be role models to younger people. And they develop the scripts with nutrition experts and other youth. We’ve worked with nine puppeteers and seven have stayed with the program.”

The puppet shows are popular with the kids, who are expected to communicate the nutritional information to their parents.

Changing eating habits, as anyone who’s tried knows, requires way more than puppet-delivered messages. But the La Casa Norte presentations are a piece of a much larger effort to inform residents about the value of good nutrition, diet and exercise. La Casa Norte's Northwest Food Partners Network (NFPN), for example, is an alliance of organizations within Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Hermosa, Avondale, West Town and Belmont Cragin working on food security, nutrition and ending hunger.

LISC Chicago, meanwhile, is working with five of its NCP partners to create neighborhood plans (funded by the MacArthur Foundation) that are informed by data and track the effectiveness of various community development interventions. Building on already established health and wellness efforts in Humboldt Park, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation (LISC's NCP lead agency) and its community partners have developed the Healthy, Active Humboldt Park plan to reduce obesity and support healthy lifestyles. The plan envisions a three-year effort to build on existing programs that address diabetes, asthma and other illnesses through outreach, education, fitness, nutrition and preventive health.

Posted in Education, Health, Humboldt Park


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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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