Laura Cummins, tongue between her teeth, stabs, gouges and drills a five-inch styrofoam ball with a pink magic marker. Around the table where she works, two others bear down on styrofoam with an intensity that would do the United Mine Workers proud. The room is still, save for occasional grunts and the sound of falling styrofoam crumbs. This is the after-school session of a hand- puppet class given by the Vagabond Puppet People in Arlington. The girls' excavation work is the first step in the creation of puppet heads. Supported by a glued-in half of a toilet-paper tube, the holes will each hold two little fingers -- termed head controls in puppet-speak. In the preschool session for three- to five- year-olds held earlier in the day, the puppet heads are smaller -- and the attention spans shorter. There, between Indian whoops, laser pistols and Aquaman imitations, Gail Cummins, Vagabond's artistic director, leads the attack on styrofoam. The kids, predictably, love it. Then comes the hard part: painting the head. Using a combination of pinkish- orange and white paint, or brown, red and white for a black puppet, the children take paintbrush to styrofoam, covering the entire ball. For the afterschool session, it is a chance to sharpen their paint applique techniques. For the preschoolers, it is a chance to paint themselves."We could put a big bowl of paint out and just have them dip the heads in," Cummins says, doubtfully, "but it increases the chances of them spilling the paint. And even though it takes longer this way -- especially when they use the wrong end of the brush," she says, adjusting a child's hand, "they do get through it." This done, the heads are set aside to dry, while the children concentrate on making the puppets' costumes. For these, they need a pattern, drawn around their fingers while they hold them in hand-puppet formation -- a cross between the Girl Scout Salute and Mr. Spock's "Live Long and Prosper" sign. They can't do it. Great giggles break out, as the preschoolers notice how like a laser pistol their fingers look, while the afterschool crowd, embarrassed with ineptness, struggles to move the wayward digits into the right positions. Eventually, with fingers forming a V, the children's hands are laid on scrap cloth of their choice. Cummins draws around them, while her assistant, Henry Garrison, cuts a double layer. Garrison then hauls the layers back to his sewing machine to stitch the side seams, right sides together; and Cummins brings out the goodies. A puppet workshop is a storehouse of leftover lace, sequins, ribbons, yarn, buttons, pom-poms, felt and rickrack, and the kids' eyes widen as Cummins dumps three or four boxes' worth on the table. "Now," she says comfortably, "you can decorate your costumes." In the face of all this choice, the preschoolers become dead serious. One, whose costume imitates the British flag in vivid detail, decides on pom-pom buttons -- in orange, down the front. Another, overwhelmed by choice, uses his magic marker instead to make "laser hands." The afterschoolers, meanwhile, concentrate on the hands and eyes. Cummins cuts the hands from felt circles folded in half, while the kids rummage through felt and button drawers for elaborate eyes and eyelashes. "Wiggle eyes" are preferred by wiggly preschoolers; all types are put on with glue. Then, with a felt mouth, a nose made from pom-pom or styrofoam, and glued-on yarn hair or a tacked-on hat, the heads are ready for their costumes. Using a hot glue gun, Garrison attaches the top of the costume to the toilet-paper tube, and the puppe "we'll have them do a show using both puppets, one on each hand." Since the two puppets call for entirely different skills, it will literally be a matter of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. What it will probably be doing, if the first session is any indication, is attacking. Thus begins the Battle of the Styrofoam.