Students at El Centro Elementary School spent part of their first week back in class talking to puppets and to each other to help them cope with what they went through during the wildfires.

Some kids at El Centro experienced the calamity firsthand and lost everything in the fires. Other children shared their homes with those who had to evacuate.

“We do have two students who lost their homes,” said Principal Pam Perkins.

In returning to school after two weeks of closures stemming from poor air quality, Perkins and her staff felt it was important to engage their students in a variety of ways to help them heal from what happened.

“Our lessons today and this whole week have been about selflessness, heroes, people who put themselves in harm’s way for us, and about our community—how do we come together as a community” during times like this, Perkins said on Oct. 26, which was First Responder Day at the school. Some students dressed up as police officers and firefighters.

El Centro received assistance from Michael and Valerie Nelson, who run Magical Moonshine Theatre, which they’ve been operating locally for nearly four decades.

The Nelsons often volunteer at the school, using puppets and plays to help kids learn about science, social studies and other subjects as part of the school’s Arts Magnet Program.

But in the wake of the recent fires, the Nelsons figured out a way to use puppets and drama to address what happened to everyone in their actual lives.

“Plays are a way children learn and deal with things,” said Michael Nelson. “It’s fun, and it’s also therapy.”

“The kids in our community now really need to find outlets—anything that can help them is a plus,” he said.

Michael and Valerie decided to put on a version of “The Three Little Pigs” using puppets for students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, first, second and third grades.

“It occurred to us the ‘Three Pigs’ story is very similar to things that have happened recently” during the fires, he said. “People have lost homes, and in the ‘Three Pigs’ story, they lose their homes.”

Students performed using the puppets — both the three little pigs and other barnyard animals — to help the pigs build their homes and overcome the disaster of losing them after the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed.

“The Big Bad Wolf in our case represents a natural force that comes in” to destroy everything, said Michael.

Valerie Nelson said they wanted to show the kids how to sympathize with others during a crisis and to provide assistance. “We’re teaching them how to be helpers,” she said.

The play didn’t include any reference to the actual fires. The Nelsons wanted the message to be implicit and allow the students to make the connection for themselves with the recent tragedies.

“I think they get it,” said Michael. “Folk tales teach by giving you information in a cloaked disguise.”

“But they still learn from it,” he said, “and if they’re ready to make that connection, they’ll make it. And if they’re not, we’re not saying this is about the fire and bad things.”

Perkins said her teachers did provide students with the chance to talk about the fires, and what they and their families went through for two weeks.

“We as a staff have done more explicit things,” she said. “When our kids came back, we all did community circle, we all did letters or notes or drawings about how they’re feeling.”

“Our intention is not to be a group therapy session,” Perkins explained. “But kids need to talk about their experiences. So we gave them that opportunity.”

The puppetry was “just another way to engage” around the subject of the fires.

Michael said he didn’t expect the puppets to be a cure-all for the kids.

“We weren’t thinking of this as a single thing that’s going to make everything better,” he said. “Healing is going to take months and maybe years. But everything little thing helps them with whatever they might pull from it.”

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