Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Persona Dolls: Anti-Bias Teaching

     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.

Here's an article that gives more specific directions on how to use persona dolls, and here is an excellent PowerPoint presentation to teach staff members how to use the dolls.

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!


  1. Looking back at that picture of the persona dolls, I saw mine and my heart began smiling. i reflect on how much i have enjoyed making mine. It really was a reflection of myself. Since we are already working in a bias education system we have to acknowledge each individual and the doll helps them to identify who they are and help them to open up their identity. In my classroom we made persona dolls, the children had an equal opportunity to share their culture. Each child named their doll and give it a personality trait. For example, language household, favorite likes and dislikes and how the doll is feeling emotionally. This was fun in our classroom and the staff were able to teach the children more efficiently based on their needs.

  2. Alicia,
    Thanks for reminding me of the fun we had making the dolls in the photos! I hope you will continue to use persona dolls and find them helpful for talking about anti-bias principles with young children :-)

  3. Thanks for providing me with a new way of looking at advocating for anti-bias teaching in the classroom! I think persona dolls offer a world of difference as a teaching tool. I am amazed at this concept and will consider it for my future teaching efforts!

    On this blog post, I really liked your statement, "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." I noticed the implications of this research when I was doing observations in a local daycare where I live. I actually witnessed some of the preschool children fighting over the same lighter-skinned doll, even when another (ethnically/racially-diverse) doll was available to play with.

    When I suggested that a darker skinned doll was available for play, one of the children walked away and played with something else, and another child played with the doll only for a minute or so, went on to doing a different activity, and then when the light-skinned doll was available, the child then played with it for a longer period of time. It's amazing how society's projection of a preferred skin color has made it's way into the little minds of our children,and since I saw instances of this firsthand, it is very disheartening.

    Even though children live what they learn and are not at fault for cultural-biased actions such as those, only shows that being teachers also means being models for every positive aspect of social existence. If we don't show them a way past ignorance, we fail as educators in a world here America's classrooms are so much more diverse than ever. Really, ignorance is not bliss-what we know can help make us and children to make better choices in the long run. The earlier children begin small steps of social problem-solving, the more they can develop an awareness for behaviors against bullying, teasing, and other rejecting behaviors for prejudicial reasons, and so on. Loving and belongingness belongs to everyone and we should all show that the teacher-student relationship is one that can make diverse specialness a haven and a home.

    Thanks for the book references on persona dolls-this is such an interesting, unique way to increase active engagement in positive social skills like appreciation of humanness, which is at the heart of every human interaction. This is great! Hopefully one day I will be able to make one and share and spread the word about this wonderful concept in cultural diversity.

    -Renee P.

    1. Thanks for sharing your anecdote about the classroom, Renee. You are clearly a very thoughtful observer. Too often teachers don't notice this type of behavior because they are not attuned to the deeper issues of bias and the subtle messages that children learn from their environment. This classroom example would offer the perfect opportunity for having a persona doll talk about her own skin color and how she feels about the children playing with the light-colored dolls.

  4. Hi Dr.Rand,

    I love when you mention in class and on your blogs regarding research you read on whatever subject you are talking about. Research most of time gives proof about how something is so true. The dolls you mentioned on this blog, I like them a lot because they are all different. The message it is sending out is that children are unique and they are special for there, "blonde or curly hair, brown skin or peach skin color. Teaching children about being bias begins at an early age. I think the dolls are great to present to children to teach them about diversity. If children are not exposed to cultural backgrounds, it can be difficult for them when they are older to connect to others that come from many backgrounds. So for that "principal," he or she should have thought about on how he approached this situation. What he was basically doing was, stopping children from learning something that they need in order to celebrate and understand many diverse communities, and bond with others.

    1. Thanks, Clara. I think persona dolls can be so effective because it is often hard for us as teachers to bring up issues of skin color or bias - we've internalized the taboo that we don't talk about these issues (especially if we are white). Having the doll "talk" about the issue makes it easier to open up the dialogue and then it is easier for the children to share how they are thinking. Once the dialogue begins, I think most teachers will see how rewarding it is to talk about the issues.

    2. Hi Dr.Rand,

      Yesterday a student in my class stated he did not like the colors "black or brown," to another teacher. I was not in the class when he said, but the teacher he said it to informed me. I do not know how he came about saying this, but the teacher also stated that he said, " he is not sure if he likes people who have brown or black skin." It slipped my mind about this persona dolls as I was talking to the other teacher, but on Monday I am going to let read the blog and come up with a plan to have a lesson in the class with including the persona dolls. Thanks a bunch!:)

      Clara M.

    3. The dolls above we made by simply sewing felt together with a simple running stitch and gluing yarn and fabric details with a hot-glue gun. Have fun making one!

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