Schoolchildren readily talk to Kids on the Block puppets about their fears of the war


Melody wants to go out and play, but her friend Brenda won't hear of it.

"How can you think about fun in a time like this?" Brenda demands angrily. "My sister's in Saudi Arabia, she's in the war, for heaven sakes. War is a terrible thing and this is a terrible time."

"My dad is in the war, too," Melody reminds Brenda, and the two pause for a moment to consider their unhappy circumstances.

A roomful of children pauses with them, some wondering what it would be like to have a father or sister in the war, others knowing. These children, students at Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia, connect with the troubles of Melody and Brenda -- even though Melody and Brenda are not flesh and blood but cloth and stuffing, puppets designed to teach a lesson.

Melody and Brenda are two members of the Kids on the Block, a troupe that began in 1977 when Barbara Aiello, then a Washington special education teacher, was seeking a way to explain physical handicaps to children. There are now 43 different characters, and the Columbia-based company -- which recently filed suit against the pop group New Kids on the Block, claiming trademark infringement on the name -- sends puppets and scripts to groups around the world to put on their own shows. Subjects range from cerebral palsy and blindness to AIDS and child abuse.

A play concerning the anxieties of children about the gulf war was a natural addition to the Kids' repertoire, Ms. Aiello said yesterday after the premiere performance at Thunder Hill. "We look for subjects that are important, that are difficult to talk about, that are timely and necessary to address," she explained. "We try to create an environment where the kids can relax enough to share their feelings."

There are 11 children at Thunder Hill with close relatives in the gulf, and they served as part of a consulting team for Ms. Aiello and her associates in writing the script. In putting together a program, Ms. Aiello has discovered, "the most important thing is that I keep my mouth shut and listen to what children have to say. They've never steered me wrong."

One of the primary messages of yesterday's play was summed up in a comment from Melody to Brenda: "It's real important to talk about your feelings, because if you don't, the fear inside will just get worse and worse because it can't come out."

In her years of putting on the shows -- in which the almost life-sized puppets are operated by black-clad puppeteers on stage -- Ms. Aiello has discovered, "puppetry is a powerful educational tool."

That was certainly apparent yesterday as Melody took questions from the audience and the children obviously related to this puppet with no thought of the human (Ms. Aiello) speaking for her. "Where is your dad?" one child wanted to know. (Melody couldn't be specific: "All I know's my daddy is where the war is," she answered.)

Other questions: "Do you know when your dad's coming back?" "Do you dream about the war?" "Do you know what kinds of weapons your dad uses?" "Do you know if your dad died?"

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