Members of Middletown High School's five-year-old Puppetry in Education club learn to build their own puppets and write skits that teach valuable character lessons to elementary and kindergarten students.

Gris is new to the area and wants to make friends.

But Rojo and some of the other crayons in the box aren't too keen on welcoming anyone new to their circle.

Amarilla initially tells Gris to go away, but later rethinks her behavior, eventually encouraging the other crayons to give him a chance.

"Friend or bully, which one do you see," Middletown High teacher Michael Husni asked the students at Townsend Early Childhood Center.

"Friend," they shouted back in unison.

Husni repeated that call-and-response throughout "Los Colores," a 30-minute play that Middletown High School's Puppetry in Education club performed before a total of 600 kindergarteners at the three early childhood centers in the Appoquinimink School District earlier this month.

"The crayon puppets draw the kids in, but it's that interaction and repetition that, I think, really drives the message home for kindergartners," the Spanish and drama teacher said. "Students love the combination of storytelling, puppetry and humor; and teachers love the fact that we're reinforcing the anti-bullying message in a different and memorable way."

The "Los Colores" sketch was the first show developed by the five-year-old high school puppetry club and remains one of its most popular today, even though some of its original performers have graduated.

The sketch, however, is only a part of what the 15 to 20 members of the Puppetry in Education students learn by joining what might be the only school-based puppetry club in Delaware.

After performing the anti-bullying show in the fall, club members return in the spring to begin planning their own original performances. That includes designing and building their own puppets, developing their own characters, writing sketches and unveiling a finished product in six weeks or less.

"The program gives students an opportunity to get in touch with their community, while also teaching them how to sew together their own puppets and create a story from the ground up," said Husni, a 2003 Middletown High graduate who went on to earn a master's degree in theatrical performance from Queen Mary University in London. "In some ways, puppetry is a lost art form after elementary school, so it's incredible to see motivated young adults who can value it as a hybrid visual and performing art."

While not every show developed by the club gets road tested, all of the original shows are performed at least once in front of Lori Paderewski's third-grade class at nearby Brick Mill Elementary School.

"Most of Mr. Husni's puppetry students are former students of mine, so my current students get to see firsthand what it's like to grow up from third grade and be a part of something big," Paderewski said. "The shows are also entertaining and pertain to real-world issues that my students can relate to, such as bullying, self-esteem and fitting in."

Husni said he believes the program has benefits for both his students and their audience.

"Younger students understand puppetry as playful, so when we combine character building with puppets performed by high school students who all these children look up to, we are able to make a direct connection to their lives and create a meaningful, fun experience for everyone," he said.

For that reason, Husni says he's hoping to eventually expand the burgeoning puppetry club to other schools and performance opportunities, including the Puppeteers of America's National Festival in 2015.

"One of the cool things about this program is that the students create the characters, but the puppets and their pieces stay on even after they leave," he said. "And there are a couple of shows that have been written by students over the years that I think are definitely worthy of being taken in front of some professionals."