Dolls are a common toy in early childhood settings. Children can often be found dressing, feeding, or reading to them in the dramatic play area. Dolls are universally recognized for their ability to support children’s developing social-emotional skills. It may come as no surprise that dolls also make great teaching tools, known as Persona Dolls.
Persona dolls are different than play dolls in that the teacher uses them to build relationships with children through storytelling and problem-solving. Persona dolls are often toddler-sized and represent a range of diversity. The teacher creates an identity or backstory for the doll that is then used to introduce the doll to and sustain relationships with the children. Persona dolls take up their own space in the classroom, but are not intended for the children’s use; they visit and talk with the children through the teacher, who will hold the doll close to her ear and then communicate the doll’s thoughts aloud. It is important to store the doll carefully and treat it is as a community member. The power of persona dolls is that they enable the teacher to help children reflect on their experience by responding to situations the doll encounters. Persona dolls can be used to introduce learning content, deal with challenges or fears, or respond spontaneously to an important event. Below you will find tips on how to introduce a persona doll to your group and a few resources to get you started.
Step 1: Develop The Doll’s Story
Before introducing a persona doll to children, it’s important to develop the doll’s backstory.
- Who is the doll?
- How old is s/he?
- Who is in the doll’s family?
- What is the doll’s cultural background?
- Where does the doll live?
- What are some of the doll’s favorite things?
- What are some of the doll’s challenges?
Early childhood experts Julie Bisson and Debbie LeeKeenan offer guidance for developing a persona doll’s backstory and sharing it with children. In both links you’ll find prompts for sharing the doll’s first three stories with children, including how to set up the story, how to validate feelings shared, and how to engage in problem-solving. Bisson and LeeKeenan recommend writing the doll’s story in a journal and continuing to add it to it as the doll’s identity evolves. Bisson explains, too, that the journal will support staff members in knowing and keeping the doll’s story consistent.
Step 2: Introduce the Doll
Once you’ve developed the doll’s backstory, you may want to practice how you will introduce the doll before sharing it with the children. When you are ready to share the doll, sit with the children and hold the doll on your lap. Introduce the doll as a classroom friend and share the doll’s name, age, where s/he lives, and some family details. Invite the children to greet the doll with a hug or handshake. When it is time for the doll to speak, lean down to listen to the doll or bring the doll’s head to your ear to speak. Act as if you are listening and then communicate for the doll using the third person (e.g., “Theo wants to share that all of you have made him feel welcome with your hugs and kind words.”) Once the children have met the doll, think about how you will gradually integrate the doll into the classroom experience. Will the doll have a similar experience that one, some, or all of the children are facing (e.g., an issue with sharing), or will the doll be used to address a larger challenge such as teasing or exclusion? You can also bring the doll back out to respond to an experience in a story or introduce a new theme. It is important to know the objective of using the doll with the children before each interaction.
There are several valuable resources for learning about and understanding how to use persona dolls with children. Listed here are just a handful to get you started: