Learning & Development: Chinese New Year - On a plate

Tessa Fenoughty
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Nativity play led on naturally to puppet making and a puppet show for Chinese New Year. Tessa Fenoughty describes how.

Returning to work after the Christmas break, we found the children keen to revisit the Nativity play. Within the first week they had turned the classroom into a puppet theatre and created an impromptu puppet show telling the Nativity story, complete with singing, narration and actions. Puppets were fashioned from donated Christmas cards, cut up and stuck on the end of art straws.

During our next planning meeting we discussed these developments and decided to capitalise on the children's interest in storytelling and puppetry by introducing the story of the Willow Pattern Plate (see box). Chinese New Year is one of the themes on our long-term planning, so we decided to use this story as an introduction to Chinese culture and the traditional celebrations of Chinese New Year (which this year falls on 3 February).


Learning from the drama experiences of the Nativity play (Nursery World, 9 December 2010), we told the story up to the point where the lovers, Koong Se and Chang, cross the bridge in their escape from the emperor. We wanted the story to act as the initial stimulus and then encourage the children to imagine what might happen next.

The story was new to the children and so their imagination was not limited by a known ending. They generated wonderful ideas, with some of them initiating ideas and others building on them. Other children looked more closely at the picture on the plate, which we had projected on the whiteboard, for further clues.

Poppy: 'They get catched, they escape, they get the keys and escape.'

Lily: 'They break the palace, get away into the boat and get away.'

Henry: 'Yes ... look, there's a boat and another palace - they escape to there.'

Jessica 'They have a baby boy and live happily ever after.'

All ideas were valued and recorded on a flipchart. The next day we took these ideas and a collection of props into the hall. During the drama session we re-enacted the story several times, including the various endings, as imagined by the children previously.

Back in the unit we created a topic table with artefacts about the Willow Pattern Plate story, images of modern day Chinese children and drawings of traditional Chinese characters such as emperors, warriors and princesses.

The props in our drama session were made available afterwards for the children to continue creating their own stories. We also enhanced provision in the home corner by making laminate place mats of the willow pattern plate image for the table.


Having told the story in various different ways and provided images around the setting, we decided to see if the children were still motivated to make puppets and perform a puppet show of the story.

In the 'making area' we provided additional resources to our continuous provision. We downloaded images of traditional Chinese princesses, emperors and warriors to give children an idea of what the principal characters in the story might have looked like.

In addition, we stocked up the area with a wide selection of coloured felt squares, thin wooden dowelling, ribbon and colourful stickers. Staff were on hand to guide the children in the basic design and construction of hand puppets.

While Lily and Carys made their Koong Se princess puppets (see image 4), Lily had very definite ideas about what she wanted her puppet to look like, and her ideas were highly valued and respected. She asked me to help make some hands.

Tessa: 'What colour of felt do you want to use?'

Lily: 'Yellow - because our hands are yellow.'


Once the puppets had been made, the children were keen to put them into action. With minimum support from staff, a screen was constructed from a row of chairs with fabric draped over them; one of the group nominated herself as narrator and many willing volunteers took up position behind the screen with puppets in hand.



The whole experience, from the initial interest generated by the children, through to the puppet show, has been an exciting project. The children displayed much higher levels of involvement and engagement in the creative process, and the lessons learned from our last venture into drama paid off. Reflecting on the learning outcomes over the three weeks, it is clear that several children achieved learning outcomes at the highest level.

Our theme continues with the introduction to the events and celebrations associated with Chinese New Year, which commences at the new moon on 3 February and ends with the arrival of the full moon. This coincides with the end of half-term, and we are planning to build one enormous dragon puppet for a dragon parade through school on the last day!


Being creative

  • - Capturing experiences and responses with role-play, storytelling and craft making
  • - Developing preferences for forms of expression. Some children clearly preferred role play or storytelling, while others expressed their ideas through the puppet-making opportunities.

Exploring media and materials

  • - Exploring and experimenting with a range of media using the whole body. When we re-enacted the story in the drama session in the hall, many of the younger members of the group (the three-year-olds) participated most when they took part in whole-body movements, such as being the high fence built around the palace, or being the emperor's soldiers chasing Koong Se and Chang over the bridge.
  • - Creating constructions, collages, painting and drawings. Children combined many different textures, colours and fixing together to create their puppets.

Creating music and dance

  • - So far in this project we have not incorporated music and dance, but we aim to make dragon puppets and use Chinese music and percussion instruments to accompany our Chinese New Year parade.
  • Developing imagination and imaginative play
  • - Make-believe by pretending was integral to the role play, puppet making and puppet show.
  • - Using available resources to create props to support role play. Staff had initially observed how the children created their own puppet show using chairs and a blanket. Appropriate resources were then added to enhance the experiences.
  • - Playing co-operatively as part of a group to act out the narrative of the Willow Pattern Plate story occurred on numerous occasions, initiated by adults and by children themselves.


  • We use the fabulous free resource 'Sing Up Song Bank' found at www.singup.org. Simply type 'Chinese' into the search engine and it will take you to a lovely Chinese song 'Mo li hua' (Jasmine Flower). The full performance track and backing track, complete with authentic Chinese instruments, provides a great resource. I often use the backing tracks for dance and drama.
  • 'A Child's Eye View of Festivals', DVD Plus (£29.99) is an award-winning DVD with digital booklet designed to introduce young children to the festivals of Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hanukkah and Chinese New Year. See www.childseyemedia.com


Background research revealed a number of variations to the story, but in essence it centres on the emperor's daughter Koong Se and her lover Chang.

In the story, the emperor disapproves of his daughter's love for Chang and has her betrothed to another. To prevent his daughter from meeting Chang, he orders a high fence to be built around the palace. But the lovers escape together over the bridge.

The emperor pursues the lovers over the bridge. Although Koong Se and Chang escape to an island far away, the emperor tracks them down and burns down their wooden house, killing the lovers. The gods looking on turn the lovers into turtle doves who soar high in the sky, together forever.

Various versions of the story are available in print and on the internet, including:

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