Persona Dolls were first developed in the U.S. in the 1950s by a preschool teacher called Kay Taus. She created cardboard dolls with different personalities, features and cultural backgrounds to encourage respect and understanding among the children she worked with. In 2000, Babette Brown founded Persona Doll Training, an organisation that supports and educates practitioners in the use of Persona Dolls in the UK. Both women have worked tirelessly against discrimination and bias, and for social justice to be approached with young children. The early years setting is the first social group a child meets outside the family, one in which they begin to flex the social and cultural judgements they may have already adopted and a group in which they will want to feel involved (Richard Etienne et.al). Persona Dolls are designed to be a safe platform for young children to discuss fairness and unfairness and to explore differences in gender, race, culture, lifestyle, sexuality and disability.
About the Dolls
Persona Dolls have a special place in the life of an early years setting. They are looked after by the practitioners, and therefore have a different presence about them than the dolls that are available for play all the time. The Dolls are designed to represent a variety of children from many different lifestyles, cultures and ethnic origins. This can be demonstrated in the appearance of the Doll, for example, a Doll wearing glasses, or a Sikh boy wearing a patka head covering, or a European girl Doll. But just as importantly the Dolls have their own backgrounds and personalities that are particular to them, relevant to the children in the setting and that reflect different aspects of society:
‘...practitioners include important facts such as where the Dolls live and sleep, the language(s) they speak, their likes and dislikes, the things they are good at and the ones they find difficult, the things that make them happy and those that upset, frighten or worry them, the length of time the family has been in this country if relevant, and its refugee or Traveller experiences’ (persona-doll-training.org).
There may be a Doll who has two mummies, or one that is afraid of going swimming, or another that loves the samosas made by his Grandma. It is important that the personalities developed for the dolls are realistic but that they do not promote harmful stereotypes (respectme.org.uk). The Doll’s persona must be carefully and consistently constructed. Facts can be added to the persona, just as life experiences add to a child’s understanding of the world, but there must be continuity. One way of making sure the Doll’s back story is consistent is to keep a diary of each Doll’s ‘life’ (Babette Brown).
Specially made Dolls can be purchased, but it is also possible for a setting to make their own. Practitioners can learn about how a Doll should look and the backgrounds that can be created for them by talking to each other, to parents and to community groups. Brown explains that ‘selecting Dolls should be a team effort. The Dolls we choose need to be appealing not only to the children but to us too’ (Brown, p. 16).
The stories that practitioners choose to tell with and about the Dolls will be influenced by various things: whether this is a new Doll or one the children are familiar with; whether the Doll shares lots of things in common with the children, or is introducing something unfamiliar to them; and whether the story is in response to observations made by staff in the early years setting. It can be a good idea to introduce a new Doll with a happy story that includes some facts about the Doll’s background (Brown). More challenging stories can be told once the children have bonded with the character of the Doll. When telling the Doll’s story, the children need time to interact, developing a vocabulary of feelings: ‘The children’s first task is to name the Doll’s feelings, empathise with it and help advise it’ (Brown, p.70). If the story relates to an incident or a pattern of events that has been carefully observed in the setting, it is important to make sure that the Doll’s story reflects this but cannot be traced directly back to the child or children concerned. Each story should have a beginning and a middle, but the ending will be supported interactively by the children as they help to find a solution or solve a problem with the Doll: ‘Persona Doll stories – like all stories – have a plot; but do not have a familiar ending’ (Etienne et.al.).
Here are two examples of Persona Doll stories, reprinted with kind permission from Babette Brown:
Would you like to meet Hatice? She is four years old. She lives with her Mum and Dad and her three brothers in a flat. She’s very clever because she can speak Turkish and English. Hatice has got a Grandma and a Grandpa. They talk to her in Turkish.
Hatice wants to know if you’ve got a Grandma and a Grandpa?
She calls her Grandma and Grandpa ‘Babaanne’.
She wants to know if you’ve got a special name for your Grandma and Grandpa?
Babaanne live in a house near to Hatice’s flat. Hatice loves going to visit them.
They always have her favourite chocolate waiting for her.
Can you guess what it is?
If it’s not raining or too freezing cold Hatice plays in the garden because she hasn’t got a garden at her flat. But she also likes watching T.V. with her Babaanne. They let her choose any programme she wants to watch. Then they all eat little cakes called Baklava. Hatice loves them because they’ve got nuts and honey inside them! Babaanne drinks coffee in little cups and Hatice has milk in her own special cup.
Hatice has some exciting news to tell you. She’s got another Grandpa and he’s coming to visit Hatice. He lives far away in a country called Turkey. Hatice has never seen him. But she knows what he looks like because she has a photo of him on a table in her bedroom. She’s spoken to him on the phone so she knows what his voice sounds like. She calls him ‘Annenanne’.
Hatice needs your advice. She is going to the airport to meet Annenanne and she would like to give him a present but she can’t think what to make. Can you help her?
I wonder if you remember who this is? That’s right, it is Abigail. Last time she came to visit us she was very happy. Who can remember what made her so happy? You have got good memories. She went on a train for the first time in her life. But today Abigail is not at all happy. The problem is that the children at her nursery school have started calling her dozy Abigail and silly Abigail.
How do you think that makes Abigail feel?
Her teacher told them that it wasn’t nice to say things like that and that they must play nicely with her.
So they let Abigail join in their game but it was not good. They said she didn’t play properly and they shouted at her and they called her Slowcoach, Slowcoach.
She didn’t like that! So she walked away. She stood all by herself and watched the children playing.
How do you think Abigail felt?
She wants to know what you would have done if you saw what happened?
Brown uses Hatice’s story as an example of how a Doll with a Turkish background could be introduced in a setting where there are no Turkish children. She explains that ‘cross cultural respect and understanding can be built by introducing Dolls that do not reflect the children in the group. This is particularly important where the children are all from the same ethnic or cultural group and speak the dominant language’ (Brown, p.87). However, this story still relates to real experiences the listening children may have had with their own grandparents. She uses Abigail’s story as an example of how to influence children’s behaviour by giving them an insight into their own attitudes and how they can make other children feel. Both stories show how children are invited into the narrative, to share their own experiences, to become emotionally involved and to help someone else.
The Practitioner’s role
As the voice for the Doll as well as facilitator and mediator for the children, the practitioner plays a vital and challenging role. Preparing the performance, active listening, the use of open questions, and observation of the children as the stories unfold are all important. Practitioners need to feel confident that they know the Doll’s background, they understand the issues the Doll’s stories may raise and that they can deal sensitively with any difficult questions or situations that may arise. Sue Sheppy suggests ‘it is a good idea to start with issues you feel comfortable with and then, as you become more confident, introduce more difficult ones’ (Nursery World, 2003). The introduction of Persona Dolls in a setting is an opportunity for staff to examine and understand their own opinions and prejudices. This kind of self-awareness is necessary because, as Brown suggests, their role is an influential one: ‘Children learn from us how to behave, what we think is important and what we value’ (p. 37).
Practitioners can help to prepare the children so that they become used to the conventions of the Persona Doll story sessions. Using circle time to discuss feelings and putting words to their emotions increases their vocabulary for interacting with the Dolls. It also gets them used to being in small groups and taking turns at talking and listening. Other story times are also useful, especially if they include told stories as well as ones read from a book. There may be children who will need additional support to help them gain as much as other children from the sessions, such as those with English as an additional language.
There are many reasons why it is a good idea to get parents involved with Persona Dolls. They are a constant source of information that can support the stories behind the Dolls as well as being influential in their children’s ideas and attitudes about the society in which we live. Talking with parents about the Dolls, perhaps at a coffee morning and through leaflets home, before using them in the setting, can be a good place to start. Be prepared for lots of questions and sensitive to different reactions. It is also important to consult with parents about the language and terms that will be used with the Dolls: ‘We need constantly to check with adults and children concerned to ask them how they like us to refer to the group(s) to which they belong and to any impairments they may have’ (Brown, p.62). Settings can ask parents to help find appropriate clothes for different Dolls or to share information about the festivals they celebrate. Brown also suggests that if a setting is happy to allow the Dolls to visit the children in their homes, a little overnight bag could be packed for the Doll, complete with a toothbrush and change of clothes and a diary for the family to record in any way the things the Doll and the child did together.
Parents may well have strong feelings about issues to do with equality. Having an up to date Equality Policy, and consulting with parents about it will help to support any work on anti-bias and discrimination within a setting (Brown).
The EYFS Practice for Guidance states that practitioners should ‘develop strategies to combat negative bias and, where necessary, support children and adults to unlearn discriminatory attitudes’ (PSED, Community, p.38). Children’s discriminatory attitudes will be influenced by the world around them – other adults, T.V., books. They will learn them long before they can understand them (Brown). The use of Persona Dolls can help children to unlearn any judgements they may make about another person’s way of life or about their own lifestyle. The children treat the Dolls as their friends, and through these friendships they build up self-esteem and develop empathy: ‘The next time Rukhsana [the Doll] came she had glasses on and the children told her she looked nice and gave her a hug’ (persona-doll-training.org). The stories help the children to see that they are not alone and that there are solutions to difficulties: ‘How the Dolls deal with their problems can help children learn coping skills’ (persona-doll-training.org). As well as the obvious links to pastoral care, using the Dolls also supports problem solving and reasoning and builds language and communication skills.
Introducing Persona Dolls in an early years setting requires the confidence and sensitivity to talk about difficult issues around discrimination. But they also bring a non-threatening, respectful medium for learning about our similarities and differences and how what we say and do can make a difference. As one workshop participant commented, the Persona Doll is ‘a silent citizen who gives children a voice’ (Etienne et. al).
Combating Discrimination: Persona Dolls in Action, Babette Brown, 2001, Trentham Books Ltd (Hatice and Abigail’s stories reprinted from this book with kind permission)
Sue Sheppy in Nursery World, 31st July 2003
Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage, DfES
Developing practice based research with Persona Dolls for social and emotional development in early childhood, Richard Etienne, Hugo Verkest, Ebru Aktan Kerem, Marcel Meciar, Children’s Identity and Citizenship in Europe, www.cice.londonmet.ac.uk
To arrange persona doll training email Meeta Johnson at email@example.com
For details about the Dolls email firstname.lastname@example.org