Ever wonder how to talk to children about the unfair way that some people are treated because of skin color, language, disability, gender, and so on? Do you find these topics hard to talk about? You’re not alone. Many of us hope that if we ignore these biases, they will not affect children. We pretend to be “color blind” but unfortunately, the rest of the world that children live in is not color blind. Nor are preschoolers and primary grade children too young to be biased. Recent research shows that even very young children notice differences in skin color and begin to pick up on social signals that lighter skin is more preferred. We might hear children in our preschool classroom chastising a boy for acting like a “girl” as a derogatory comment, or avoid children who are overweight or without good hygiene.
If you’d like to try a wonderful strategy to open up discussions that help children understand bias and work against it, consider Persona Dolls. These are dolls that have a “real” personality – with a name, birth date, personal likes and dislikes, ethnicity and physical characteristics – all of which stay constant. They are used by the teacher as a way of opening conversations. For example the doll “tells” the children about herself, and about a problem the doll is having – perhaps being teased, or that no one wants to play with her. The doll asks the children in the class to help her come up with ideas for solving the problem.
The best way to understand Personal Dolls is to see them in action. This video gives a quick overview of how they are used. This video shows a persona doll being used in London to help children express emotions about the bombings. Here and here are other videos.
The dolls are usually large so they look like a real child, although I’ve seen them effectively used as smaller dolls. Here’s a photo of smaller persona dolls that my college students made:
I’m including links for other books about persona dolls if you’d like to take this on as a new project. For those of you who have used persona dolls – please share your experiences in the comments!