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Puppets teach youth about conservation

Slideshow: Water Rocks steps up artistic elements with new video series teaching environmental lessons.

The latest outreach innovation from Water Rocks is the Harmony Brook Watershed video series. It opens a new avenue of teaching and connecting with young learners. These videos provide environmental and natural resource lessons through use of both puppets and live actors. Staged on a custom-designed set, the videos provide science-based information in fun and fantastic ways, leveraging multiple levels of visual artistry provided by independent contributors collaborating with the Water Rocks team.

“Water Rocks has successfully used music and creative graphics to enhance program appeal and help make learning fun and more effective for young learners,” says Ann Staudt, Water Rocks director. “We’ve stepped up the visual elements with this new video series, employing artists with expertise and perspectives that expand how the lessons are perceived and delivered. We know young people learn through all their senses, and pairing the science with fun characters, interesting scenery and video effects, and fast-paced dialogue, should attract and hold their attention and help them retain presented material.”

Puppet stage

The puppet stage, scenic elements and backdrops were designed and created at Artworks Studio in Carroll, Iowa. Leading the effort was Laura Comito, artist, owner and CEO of Artworks Studio, and a longtime contributor of visual arts to Water Rocks projects. Comito is an independent artist specializing in mixed-media and jewelry design and production.

“Art is a powerful teaching tool, which helps reinforce messages and content in a beautiful way that engages the imagination and elicits enhanced audience interactions,” she says. “Art is especially important to children because it is one thing that is truly theirs. They can express everything they are and think through art, and likewise they can better understand related spoken words when combined with attractive and relevant images.”

In creating the backdrops and set pieces for Harmony Brook Watershed, Comito employed technology together with traditional methods. The three scenic backdrops were painted on canvas but include three-dimensional pieces, which were produced using a laser cutter, then custom-assembled and painted by hand.

“With the laser cutter, I was able to make tiny, fully dimensional and proportional objects. These pieces are small enough to fit the stage yet still cast shadows, providing visual depth for the viewer,” she says.

Featuring native flowers, trees and shrubs, the backdrops reflect different parts of the watershed as they extend outward from the banks of the brook. Other scenic elements created for the stage are Frog’s rock, which is his favorite sunning spot. It has bits of driftwood and a variety of native Iowa flowers and plants.

Small scene for small screen

With the stage and characters ready to go, Water Rocks brought in Hannah Jo Anderson, an independent visual and video producer and artist to help capture the segments on camera. A native of Boone, Iowa, she works in Spring Green, Wis. She has participated in Water Rocks projects since 2017, but this was her first large-scale production effort with the team.

“Working with the Water Rocks team has always been fun, and I expected nothing less with the Harmony Brook Watershed project,” Anderson says. “We had a goal of knocking out 21 videos in just two and a half days. I’ll admit I was skeptical, expecting we would at least get 10 recorded. But we were so well organized and the energy in the room was so high, we got through all 21 with time to spare.”

Anderson notes that when creating videos for youngsters, it is crucial to be fast paced, employ bright and colorful visuals, and use movement and high-energy presentation to maintain interest. In addition, making the images big and engaging, even on a small tablet or phone screen, is important.

Working with puppets and humans in the same shot presented some limitations in available camera angles and framing. However, since every episode takes place in a single location, staging the performers and working with the puppets to get extra footage for cutaways and editing was simple.

“Since the puppets don’t have functional mouths, it was easy to have them rerun lines to facilitate editing,” Anderson says.

The short video segments didn’t require significant editing, but Anderson did decide to digitally superimpose the content displayed on a tablet held by a human actor, rather than rely on capturing the tablet screen on camera. The result is a much clearer image for the viewing audience.

Telling the story

The original scripts for the series employ a classic storytelling approach that makes each story — and the lesson it conveys — interesting and educational for the audience. The segments run between three and five minutes in duration.

“Each episode is like a mini-sitcom,” Staudt says. “The creatures get into some crazy situations. Nate and I help them learn about the situation and resolve any problems. We come to a shared understanding. Then we all laugh at the end.”

Striving to maximize audience engagement and enjoyment, the Water Rocks puppet theater provides accurate and beautiful visual elements, creative scripts incorporating easily-grasped science and environmental educational content, and a high-energy cast.

The puppet characters are accurate depictions of specific species found in Iowa. Owl is a barn owl, which is common throughout Iowa, and not a generic caricature of an owl. Rounding out the cast are a green frog, swallowtail butterfly and red fox. The human characters are Water Rocks team members Ann Staudt and Nate Stevenson.

“The primary objective of the puppet theater project is to create memorable and effective learning situations that young learners can comprehend and enjoy,” Staudt says. “During the pandemic closures this year, we have had fewer opportunities to work with students in-person, directly interacting with and stimulating thoughts and ideas about the natural world in the minds of the youngest students. Not only did we all have a blast working on the Harmony Brook Watershed productions, we think we’ve hit on a viable new outreach vehicle that complements and strengthens our existing programs.”

For learners in and out of classroom

Both Comito and Anderson say they are grateful for the chance to contribute their artistic vision and skills to creating a new learning platform for children.

With new episodes rolling out through the end of 2020, the Water Rocks team and its collaborators are already working on additional segments. And word of the project has spread through the ISU and conservation communities, bringing requests from researchers and experts in multiple fields for guest appearance slots in future episodes.

Teachers and parents can find learning guides and the Harmony Brook Watershed videos at

Pierce is an ISU Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks


TAGS: Conservation
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