Cath Mattison, a speech and language therapist at New Barn School, explains how she took her regular children’s puppet show online during lockdown.

Cath stands in a sunny garden holding her Sam and Sally puppets, with Mr Crocodile puppet sitting on her shoulder.

As a speech and language therapist based in a specialist school for children with autism, lockdown created a huge problem – how on earth would I be able to effectively deliver therapy via a screen?

Luckily, I had a brainwave and ‘Sam and Sally’s lockdown adventures’ was born!

The daily puppet show, delivered over Zoom, is open to all pupils of New Barn School in Horsham, West Sussex, and siblings, parents, carers and extended family are welcome to join in too. Every episode starts and ends with a theme tune and participants have an opportunity to ask questions at the end. Although everyone is muted on entry, the shows are always interactive – children can communicate using thumbs up or down and with facial expressions.

I had used the Sam and Sally puppets before lockdown to model social communication skills, so the children were already familiar with the characters. The new show extends Sam and Sally’s stories and includes a supporting cast of several other puppets who all have their own personalities, likes, dislikes, quirks and superpowers. Mr Crocodile, for example, pounces on anyone who says the word ‘cookies’ (think Rod Hull and Emu). He also has a baby son called Coronasaurus who nips anyone who doesn’t have freshly washed hands!

The slapstick comedy is important to keep the audience engaged but the shows do have a serious side too. The topics covered in the 59 episodes so far fall into five main categories:

  • The current pandemic situation and change of routine
  • Social communication skills and whole body listening
  • Non-literal language
  • The zones of regulation
  • Social thinking

I also incorporate current news such as teaching the latest lockdown rules, social distancing and handwashing. Boris Johnson’s daily briefings have been replicated several times by one of the puppets wearing a ‘Boris’ wig (an old mullet-style blonde wig my husband wore to a 1980s music festival a few years ago!) and using simple, literal language. I have even brushed up on long-forgotten acting skills to take on the role of Boris Johnson myself a few times, as well as HRH Queen Elizabeth II to re-enact her speech at the beginning of lockdown.

Fictional characters who feature as guest presenters include Rockin’ Roy (the ageing rock star), Divina the Diva (the self-obsessed drama queen), Fifi the Festival Raver (the party animal), Mrs McDonald the Farmer’s Wife, Batman and Snow White. They all speak in slang and non-literal language for the puppets to ponder, query and misinterpret with hilarious
consequences. My favourite guest presenter is Autistica – an autistic superhero dressed in a Superman outfit who talks about all the amazing qualities of people with high-functioning

Running the puppet show has been a great way of connecting with parents and carers. I always invite parental feedback and welcome ideas of what they would like the shows to cover. The message of what I’m doing is really getting out there and the feedback has been fantastic. I have found that having this project has not only been a successful way of delivering therapy during lockdown but has also been hugely beneficial to my own mental health. I have taken great pleasure in thinking up new story lines, creating characters, researching puppetry skills and throwing myself into amateur dramatics.

Thanks to Sam and Sally’s adventures, I will always remember the lockdown period as being a highly productive and effective time for delivering therapy.