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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Michelle Luke

We all know reading aloud to kids is great for literacy. And inviting them to retell the stories in their own words afterwards can make it even better. Retelling helps deepen kids’ comprehension and support the oral language skills that underpin successful reading and writing. 

In this story time activity, we explore Chinese traditions for the Lunar New Year. In traditional celebrations, a mythical Chinese lion dances in the new year to bring good luck and scare away the bad. The lion dances to the beat of a powerful drum and tells stories with its movements, accompanying the grand dragon and serving as a protector of the people. We’ll follow a simple tutorial to craft our own storytelling lion puppet that kids can use to retell the story. 

Whether you grew up with these traditions, like me, or you want to learn about the Lunar New Year alongside your child, this project is a perfect way to mark the new year. And because it’s completely oral, this is a good early literacy activity for very young children, though it can be great fun with older kids, as well.

Materials: 

  • A picture book about the Lunar New Year 
  • Paper bag (lunch bag size is best, but any size could work)
  • Paper
  • Scissors
  • Glue or glue stick
  • Something to color with (colored pencils, crayons, markers)
  • Printer (optional)
  • Streamers, tissue paper, ribbons (optional)

Cost: Nothing if you have these simple materials on hand.

Kick off this activity by telling your child about the tradition of Lunar New Year and the lion dance (you can find lots more information online if you want more background; for example, the China Highlights company has a good write-up). 

Then follow our tutorial to make your puppet:

Step 1: Print out our lion head template, or draw your own! Tip: If you print it, you may need to scale the drawing to fit your paper bag. The head should cover the base of the bag.

Note: Because of its dragon-like look and the fact that a dragon also features in Chinese new year festivities, this lion is often mistaken for a dragon. But in fact it’s only the opening act for the dragon that dances at the culmination of events, on the 15th day of the celebrations, also known as the Lantern Festival.

Step 2: Color in the head, decorate it with whatever you like, and cut it out.

Step 3: Apply glue to the bag base and press the head gently over the glue to stick it onto the bag.

Step 4: Next you’ll add a beard and mouth to your lion puppet. Draw a white beard and cut it out. Make sure that it fits across the width of your bag. Then cut out a semi-circle to represent the lion’s mouth. 

See below for a way to draw a traditional mouth: three thick arches and one thin one, with lines in the third arch. These represent the lion’s mouth, tongue, and teeth. 

Step 5: Glue the mouth to the top center of the beard, then glue the beard onto the flat part of the paper bag just below the head flap. Make sure the upper edge of the beard is aligned with the bottom crease of the head flap by pressing it all the way up against the flap before gluing it down.

Your basic lion puppet is now complete! Feel free to stop here, or add some optional embellishments.

Step 6 (optional): Traditional Chinese lions are typically adorned with colorful wave patterns and long flowing tails. You can get as detailed as you like in decorating your puppet! For example: Draw waves or stripes on the lion’s body or embellish it with glitter, ribbons or feathers. Attach colorful streamers or strips of tissue paper to the back of the lion’s head, which will flow as it dances.

Once your puppet’s done, your child can use it as a storyteller. Read a book about the Lunar New Year together. Most public libraries will have a selection of options. (Two books I’ve enjoyed with my children are How to Catch a Dragon by Adam Wallace and Andy Elkerton or Lunar New Year by Hannah Eliot.)

Then invite your child to retell the story with the lion puppet acting out the key parts. You can even model reading part of the story using a funny “lion” voice. 

Adaptation: For children who are starting to read, you can also engage the child with the puppet as a partner by having them use their lion to read the first word or first sentence of each page.

Have fun!