CATCO's puppet program teaches children to embrace each other's differences.

The Muppet-like puppets are similar in size to the elementary school students in the audience. Some have obvious differences, such as leg braces or a wheelchair. But these characters deliver a powerful message: I'm not so different from you.

That's the point of the Kids on the Block puppet theater program, said Andrew Protopapas, artist educator for CATCO: “to help students without disabilities understand and accept the students with disabilities.”

The Central Ohio professional equity theater company introduced elementary school students to Kids on the Block during the 2015-16 school year through its CATCO is Kids affiliate. With Ohio Arts Council funding, CATCO trained four Columbus-based actors to perform two Kids on the Block programs about living with physical disabilities. They visited six elementary schools during the pilot year, Protopapas said.

Thanks to corporate sponsorship from Buckeye Health Plan, Kids on the Block expanded in 2016-17 to 24 elementary schools, and a third program, focused on bullying and school safety, was added. “We are touring all over Ohio,” Protopapas said. “We are doing a lot of performances here around Columbus. It's really, really exciting.”

Kids on the Block is a national program that started in 1977 as a means to enhance understanding of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA essentially requires public schools to provide special needs children the same classroom educational opportunities as their nondisabled peers.

The effort has spread across the United States, with troupes in every state and more than 30 countries. The plays draw from 40 programs about medical differences, disabilities and social issues such as bullying. “It's cool because the heart of the program, apart from the idea of providing education, is that there's an emphasis on being different. And that's OK,” said Protopapas.

Through role playing, the vignettes help children learn how to handle bullying and be more sensitive to their peers' feelings. One program focuses on being the sibling of a child with a disability. Puppets portray a boy with cerebral palsy and his brother to convey what family life is like with a special needs child.

The other special needs program teaches about spina bifida, a congenital disability in which a baby's spinal cord doesn't form properly. A puppet portraying a 14-year-old girl who uses braces and crutches to walk wants her friends to know her condition is just one part of who she is.

The dialogue between puppets with and without disabilities helps foster an understanding of the challenges special needs students face—and why those factors don't solely define them. “One character may say, ‘You can't play basketball because you wear braces or you're in a wheelchair.' And the character with a disability may respond, ‘Well, I can still do it. I just have to do it differently than you,' ” Protopapas said.

When West Broad Elementary School teacher Liz Reilly's third-graders watched the spina bifida play last school year, they had just finished reading a book about a boy with special needs. The lesson taught, she said, was to choose kindness toward the boy. Seeing the Kids on the Block play “really helped us reinforce that thought,” she said. “The kids were really engaged with the performance. They were just making all these wonderful connections.”

The plays are instantly relatable to young audiences, Protopapas said, because kids feel reassured by the puppets, who seem similar to them. “I think the thing that really captures the impact is what happens after each vignette, when the puppet characters look at the students and ask if they have any questions or comments. You see a bunch of hands shoot up in the air. They have comments and want to ask questions. They tell the puppets things like, ‘I know somebody who's being bullied,' or ‘I'm being bullied. What should I do?' ”

The full-body, hand-and-rod puppets are based on the traditional Japanese Bunraku style. “The puppeteers wear black so they appear as a silhouette or shadow behind the puppets,” Protopapas explained.

Though the audience can see the puppeteers, he said, children get so caught up in the play “that pretty soon they forget the puppeteer is even there.”

Reilly said the plays offer another means for her students to learn about special needs and being kind. “I think it's good for the kids to hear about it in a variety of ways. You never know what's going to turn on the light bulb.”

Buckeye Health Plan's sponsorship has helped provide children's books and parent and teacher guides that are used in ongoing conversations about acceptance. The program's themes such as anti-bullying mesh with the company's desire to encourage children to make good choices, said Christopher Beers, manager of community relations. “It seemed like a perfect fit, and we were glad to sponsor it. We're very, very happy with how it's turned out.”