Experiential learning: Persona Dolls giving children a voice

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Lindiwe in Himmeville

Persona Dolls – giving children a voice

Persona Dolls are a powerful learning tool for all Primary teachers. Curriculum requirements, government and OFSTED pressures on teachers to attain required standards all fight against the well-researched and well known facts about learning: Children do not perform well under pressure, with emotional insecurities and need space to explore their feelings, develop their own voice, tell their own stories and learn to live confidently amongst their peers. The Persona Doll is a valuable tool for powerful PHSE learning and I advocate its use in all schools. Read the following article and visit the Persona Doll website for further information.

I sit down on a child’s plastic chair with Lindiwe, my Persona Doll on my lap. Having explained to all the staff and trainee Early Years teachers of this lovely Early Years Centre, Felicity, the manager, now brings the children to sit in front of me. There are ninety of them. The staff led the children onto the verandah to sit in front of me, the oldest in the front.

I am calm and confident that Lindiwe will speak to the children, but the audience is rather large and not ideal for this encounter.

“Good morning, everyone. My name is Jane, a visitor from England. I would like to introduce my friend, Lindiwe to you. She is from South Africa but she now lives in England where her mother is a nurse.”
I gently tilt Lindiwe’s head towards my ear and allow her to ‘speak’ to me. I tell the children that Lindiwe says she is really excited to be here and meet all the children. She speaks of various things she enjoys in South Africa.

The children’s attention is fixed on the Doll and I begin to wonder how I can really bring her alive to them on her first visit and with so many children present. This is not how it works, I am thinking, but the children are so engaged.
Lindiwe inclines towards me some more and I begin to tell the children a little more about herself; how she has a daddy who drives a bus around the city and how her mummy is a nurse. Lindiwe pauses a little, her head bowed, then whispers in my ear. I tell the children,
“Sometimes her mummy works at night and if she wakes up in the night she is afraid because her mummy is not there.”

Some of the older children in the front stand up and move towards me. One child touches the Doll gently and pulls her head towards his own ear.
“Is Lindiwe speaking to you?”   I say after a pause.

The child looks up and tells me that he misses his daddy and he loves his daddy best. One after another, quietly taking it in turns, several children follow, tilting the Doll’s head to their ear and when prompted tell me about a parent or someone they love and are missing. Some of the children sitting behind are still watching, eyes wide, others stand and move towards the front. There begins to be a lot of movement but the children are talking quietly.

I was moved by the children’s response. This is not a time for sharing or responding en-masse. For a start it is a whole school, not a group or a class and it is obvious so many very personal issues have been touched. The teachers watch their children carefully, aware of the impact of this encounter.

After the session, Felicity tells me how moved she is by the children’s response. These children are all either orphans or abused young children. Some of them have not spoken about their families before.

The Persona Doll is a powerful tool for teachers and support workers.

After training, the teacher will learn to present the doll to a group of children, speaking for the doll and prompting the children’s response. The doll child will represent a child of similar age, with similar likes and dislikes to those of their peer group. The ‘Persona’ is the doll’s story and circumstances which remains unchanged through all the meetings with the group or class and becomes a friend who the children confide in. Dolls of different culture, skin colour, ability or family structure represent diversity and children learn to empathise and explore their feelings about difference. The teacher lets them explore in their thinking and discussion, their response to the doll child’s experience when they present examples of racism, bullying etc. They are particularly useful to highlight issues without making an example of an individual child.

The session in South Africa happened when I was visiting a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal to provide teachers there with their own training in the use of Persona Dolls. In this area where every child has been affected by the devastation of HIV/AIDs, the dolls are a powerful tool for the children to voice their feelings and anxieties.

Jane Habermehl is an Early years specialist and a trainer for Devon Development Education in Exeter.


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