Problem Solving With Persona Dolls

As you explored this week, persona dolls provide a great basis for learning and can be used to help young children communicate about a wide range of complex issues and situations. With persona dolls, children are given opportunities to be creative and expressive, to work with others, and to develop a respect for and understanding of others’ values and ideas. They also help children learn how to navigate and solve “real” problems and examine feelings such as fear, frustration, anticipation, and vulnerability.

In the media segment you viewed this week, you saw an early childhood teacher introduce a persona doll to his preschool group. Review the media segment and carefully consider:

  • How might the children identify with Mickey?
  • In what ways did the teacher make the doll “real” to the children?
  • How did the teacher “set the stage” for future stories and problem-solving?

Now, reflect on the information presented in the Persona Doll Training website (http://www.persona-doll-training.org/ukhome.html) and the article, “Problem Solving with Young Children Using Persona Dolls.” As revealed in these resources, persona dolls work effectively because children make a connection, i.e., identify with the dolls and develop feelings of friendship and empathy. Based on this special connection, the dolls can also help children see the injustice of particular situations, consider ideas and actions from various perspectives, and inspire children to think of solutions to the problems that the dolls present to them.

In this Discussion, you will explore ways in which to use persona dolls to help children participate in the process of considering, understanding, and solving specific problems.

To begin, identify a problem related to an “–ism” (racism, classism, ableism, religionism, sexism, heterosexism, LGBT ism, ageism) that may come up as young children interact and express their feelings and emotions. For example, in the article “Problem Solving with Young Children Using Persona Dolls,” the teacher uses a persona doll, Tanisha, to address a problem related to racial prejudice that she is noticing in her classroom. The teacher explains that Tanisha’s feelings have been hurt because some children did not want to play with her because of the color of her skin.

By Day 3

Post:

A problem statement is written from the point of view of a persona doll (like the example with Tanisha: “No one will play with me because they don’t like the color of my skin. That hurts my feelings and makes me mad.”)

EDUC6358: Strategies for Working with Diverse Children “Persona Dolls”

Program Transcript

NARRATOR: Persona dolls come to life in situations children relate to. They become a part of classroom life and give children opportunities to think about, bring up, and discuss everyday interests, concerns, and anti-bias issues in concrete ways. Early childhood instructor and author Eric Hoffman shares his insights and experiences using persona dolls.

ERIC HOFFMAN: I want to talk about a little of the history of how I got involved in persona dolls. Because I didn’t just jump right into it and be successful and have it work. I really started out experimenting some with flannel board characters and puppets, using them in a more traditional way. And that really helped me get comfortable with the fact and I’m talking for a doll. I’m talking for a puppet, which many people are not comfortable with. It can be a little embarrassing.

It also helped me realize, I don’t need to use fancy voices. I don’t have to be a professional puppeteer to do all that. And I learned a lot from the children because they kept asking questions about my puppets and dolls, which I wasn’t expecting. So I had a couple of flannel board characters that the children started asking, are they brother and sister? How do they get to school? What did they eat for breakfast? What are they going to be for Halloween? And I was like, I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about these things. And they helped me answer the questions. And so that really helped me understand how to bring dolls and puppets to life, because that’s really one of the first goals.

I like using persona dolls with children, because it gives me an opportunity to bring children into the group and to use them for a lot of different kinds of curriculum, and to introduce lots of new ideas. So one of the keys here is that you have to take the persona dolls and bring them to life, so the children really think of them as alive and as part of the group. I know for example, in my classrooms, when it’s circle time and the children say, “Mickey has to come to circle too, right? Everybody comes to circle,” I know they’re thinking of that doll as a real person. And so I get to help decide what kind of person Mickey is, what the group needs. So I find it very useful in introducing all kinds of curriculum.

When I first introduce a persona doll, I might have a lot of ideas about what I want to cover with that doll. I’ll probably refer to him with that person, with Mickey, but what I try to do is introduce that child as a whole person, rather than saying, here’s a new member of our classroom and he’s from this ethnicity or has this issue. I try to pick three things that Mickey wants the children to know about him. And I base them on what I see that the children are interested in. So I’m trying to make connections between the doll and the children right away.

So when I first introduced Mickey, I already knew that they were studying skeletons. So I had this back story from Mickey that he’d already broken his arm. So I made a cast for him. And so that was something that they were very interested in. And I could say, you’re studying bones and I’m really interested in bones, because look what happened to my arm.

But the things that he was interested in– he was interested in pretending to be animals. So we did some of that with him. He really enjoys rain. Again that came from a conversation I heard with the children. I’ve got a group of children who are very much into magic right now, because of Harry Potter and the movies, so we did some things with making rain with magic. My goal is to say, these are the things that Mickey wants you to know about him. And sometimes I’ll use favorite colors, or I’ve had persona dolls who like to wear jewelry or wear particular kinds of clothes. It just depends on what I see.

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And I know that it’s worked when I say something like, Mickey really enjoys looking at worms, and the children say, I do too. That’s the kind of response that I’m looking for. What I’m trying to do is to set up things where I can say, oh, you’re the same as Mickey. You’re the same as Mickey. And then at some point, we’ll start talking about, and here’s how you’re different from Mickey and isn’t this great? It’s wonderful to have these similarities and these differences.

So it’s not really until later on that I start to bring up any kind of what I see as big issues with him. So in his case, I created this backstory for him. I already knew from past experience that he had a sister, that his mom and dad lived in separate houses, and that he had a dad and a grandma in one house and a mom and a stepdad in another. And that he has a cat named Marshmallow which we didn’t even talk about very much with the children. But I have that backstory already.

I like to bring in issues like the one I did today, with what Mickey’s family looked like. Rather than, today we’re going to have a lesson about different families, as part of the story who went with Mickey to the doctor’s office– he wanted his whole family to go with him, and so this is who it was. And I kind of build up, with little stories, those kinds of details, so that at some point, we are actually going to study and talk about families and the differences. And I get to know the children and know what their families are like.

Mickey’s here again today, and he’s very excited about something.

FEMALE SPEAKER: What?

ERIC HOFFMAN: Well, actually, first something happened to him. And at first he was a little bit scared. But then–

FEMALE SPEAKER: He went to the hospital.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Well, remember– can you see something different about him?

FEMALE SPEAKER: He had a cast on him.

ERIC HOFFMAN: He had a cast on his arm before. Remember, he had a broken arm? But he thought that it might be healed. And so they took the cast off. There it is. You want to take a look at it? Here, you can take a look and pass it around. That was Mickey’s cast, and they took it off. He was kind of scared when his dad said, we’re going to go to the doctors and he’s going to check to make sure your bone is healed, and he’s going to take off the cast. And Mickey was a little scared about that, because he’d never had a cast taken off.

So you know what he said? He said, I want everybody to come to the doctor’s office with me.

FEMALE SPEAKER: That’s not true.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Well, you know what happened.

FEMALE SPEAKER: I’m scared of the doctor.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Well, he was a little scared. He liked the doctor, but he was worried about the cast coming off. He wanted his sister Rosa to come, and he wanted his dad to come, and his grandma to come. Those are the people he lives with. He lives with his sister and his dad and his grandmother. So they all said, OK, we’ll all go to the doctor’s office with you. And they went in, and the doctor said, I’m going to take off your cast. And he said, I’m a little scared, will it hurt? And the doctor said, no, it won’t. I use a special kind of saw that cuts off the cast, but it won’t hurt

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you. And so the doctor went, zzzp, and you can see on the cast, there’s a place where he cut it. Do you see where he cut the cast?

And then he could take it off. And they took another picture, an x-ray picture, to see if his bone was healed. And his bone was healed and he was so excited. You know why? Remember, one of the things he loves to do is pretend to be different animals? And last time, remember, he was watching you play with worms? And he was making his arms pretend to be worms, but he could only do it with one arm. Now he can do it with two. So let’s try that. We’re going to make wiggly worms.

And I’ve sometimes changed Mickey’s story from year to year, depending on who the children are and what their families are like. And I usually have several dolls going on at the same time. And I’ve often had Mickey and his sister at the same time. So I build in the details into the stories as we’re going along. And it may be about differences in family structure. His grandmother speaks primarily Spanish. We didn’t talk about that today, but in another story it would come out. And then at some point we’ll be talking about different languages. And children will just accept that that’s who Mickey is. He’s another person in the classroom that they like, and it just makes it easier for them to accept those differences.

My persona dolls are part emergent curriculum and part very intentional on my part about what kind of issues I want to bring in this year. So what happens with him depends on the curriculum and the children’s interest. I use my persona dolls not just to bring in what we think of as diversity and anti-bias issues. I use my dolls to introduce all kinds of curriculum, whether it’s science or art or the fact that Mickey’s very interested in books. He might bring in some new books that he wants people to look at. I do a lot of judging of that part of it, of what the children are interested in. It looked like the interest in skeletons, for example, was starting to disappear, so I chose to have him have his cast taken off and we’ll be done with that storyline.

But what I would be hoping to go to gradually, as the year progresses, is to really have some serious discussions about, oh, we have different kinds of families within here. Isn’t it great, the diversity of families? I often do different kinds of charts around that. I did a little introduction to skin color today. There’s a lot of different activities I do around that. I just touched on it today, and in coming weeks, if I really saw that children were interested in that, I’d be talking about differences in eye color, hair color, those kinds of differences in bodies. And again, doing some more focused activities that really zeroed in on those topics. And the curriculum for that would not just be at circle with Mickey, but it would spread throughout the time.

He says, you know what I like about not having a cast on, is that I can see my skin again. Because before it was hidden away underneath the cast. Yeah, look at that, Mickey. You know what? His skin is a little bit darker than mine.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Like mine.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. Is yours darker or lighter than his?

MALE SPEAKER: Look at mine.

FEMALE SPEAKER: You can hold your arm out and show Mickey.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Tell you what, he’ll come around and he’ll compare.

FEMALE SPEAKER: He’s going to match skin.

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ERIC HOFFMAN: Let’s see. What do you think? Close, hm? You want to do it? You don’t have to. What do you think? She’s got more freckles on her skin. Let’s see.

FEMALE SPEAKER: I’m starting to get freckles right here.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Are you?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Not on your arm though.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Hmm, it’s pretty close. You know, you have a different color on one side and not the other. Yours is very close to his skin color.

FEMALE SPEAKER: We have almost the same color skin.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Look at that. What do you think?

FEMALE SPEAKER: Well, my foot is.

ERIC HOFFMAN: Your foot? Oh, let’s try your foot. Yes, it is very close. There we go, Gus. What do you think? Pretty close color. And here’s Brody. I think your skin is just a little bit darker than is. Well, you know–

What I try to do is to take whatever curriculum is happening and build on that and take it into diversity issues. So we’re always talking about how people are the same, how are they different. And I find I can get there from practically anywhere. There’s definitely a role for persona dolls in helping bring out diversity and anti-bias issues. One of the things that I want to do is to be able to help children talk about them. They don’t even realize that they can ask questions and talk about them.

I’ll give you an example. I had brought in a new persona doll who was African-American. And I did my usual thing of, what are the three things I’m going to introduce about him? I’m not going to talk about his skin color. And I brought about and I introduced him, and an African-American girl in the group stood up and said, “You made Jimmy black like me. He’s black like me. You made him black like me.” And it was like, whoa. This issue had never come up. But it was clearly so important to this child. This child was really aware of that. She would not have talked about it, I think, if the persona doll hadn’t been there to help bring up that conversation.

So I see persona dolls as a way to bring up the conversation, help children be comfortable with it. Today, we learned a little bit about Mickey’s family. And in other stories, I would talk about the fact that today he’s at his dad’s house and next week he’s going to be at his mom’s house. And I know that there are children who have that situation here. So they’re going to say, oh, that’s what I do too. And hopefully that will allow people to talk about differences in families.

And of course, my goal is to make that all positive. Isn’t this great? Isn’t this great how many different ways that we have this? So persona dolls are really good at getting the conversation started, much better, I find, than if I just stood there and talked about it. Because for them, it’s coming from another child. A persona doll is a child in the classroom, much more effective than any little lecture or anything I could give them.

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