Problem Solving with Persona Dolls


Review the media segment attached:

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  • 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 (

) 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.

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.

Come up with:

A problem statement 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.”)

Visit the link below to assist with this assignment!

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.

Page 1

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.


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

Page 1

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

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.


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.

Page 2

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.


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

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.

Page 3

106 Young Children • November 2010


1, 2, 3

Jan Pierce: What are persona dolls?

Cheryl Lynn Johnson: Persona dolls
are dolls but not toys. These dolls
are made and dressed as real people
with a real-life history. Each one has
a name, gender, race, and personality.
A teacher introduces a persona
doll to the class by saying, for exam-
ple, “This is Mee Soo. She is from
Korea and lives with her adopted
American family. She is 4 years old
and loves playing with playdough
and eating ice cream.” Each doll’s life
story remains in place throughout
its use in the classroom, and the life
story grows and evolves, just like a
real-life character.

Problem Solving with
Young Children

Using Persona Dolls
Jan Pierce and Cheryl Lynn Johnson

Jan Pierce, MEd, is a retired teacher and author living in Vancouver, Washington.
She writes about education and family life. Jan travels annually to India, where she
teaches English to women and children. Follow her at and www.
Cheryl Lynn Johnson, MEd, is an early childhood specialist at the Child Development
Program of Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. For her graduate
research project she implemented the use of five persona dolls in her preschool class-
room and documented the results from her lessons.
Photos courtesy of the authors.

emotional skills. We use the dolls
intentionally, introducing them to the
children to teach a particular lesson.
It is a lot like introducing a new
student to the class, because each
doll comes with a complete identity,
including abilities and perhaps a
problem or challenge. As the chil-
dren get to know a doll, we share
more information. They learn about
the doll’s family members, home
language, religious affiliation, and rel-
evant family events, such as a move
or a new baby.

JP: What do young children like about
persona dolls?

CLJ: Persona dolls let grown-ups enter
into a young child’s make-believe

Early childhood Educators frequently look for new ways to help
children build social and emotional skills. Teachers want to use effective
tools and strategies whether they are redirecting aggressive behavior or
encouraging self-esteem and friendship.
Persona dolls are one approach to supporting children’s social-
emotional development. I spoke with Cheryl Johnson, an early child-
hood instructor at Washington State University in Vancouver, about her
research on this approach.

Persona dolls are not the same
as puppets, but they offer some
of the same benefits. Children are
extremely willing to talk with them,
and group discussions that include
the dolls are opportunities to reflect
on important social issues in a safe
and relaxed environment. Persona
doll discussions provide a time when
it is acceptable to express strong
feelings and explore options for solu-
tions to difficult questions.

JP: How are persona dolls used?

CLJ: Persona dolls are used by early
childhood teachers to solve prob-
lems and teach inclusive social-

Young Children • November 2010 107

world. Children enjoy meeting each
doll and hearing about its life. The
dolls have emotions and problems,
just like they do.
As I share with the children each
doll’s age, family structure, and likes
and dislikes, they make comments
such as, “I like that too!”, “He’s just
like me!”, or “I understand how she
feels.” Children enjoy the fact that

while the dolls are similar to their
toy dolls, they are special because
the teachers use them.

JP: Why do you think children respond
so positively to the problems of a
persona doll?

CLJ: Children are immediately cap-
tivated when a teacher or parent
holds the doll and relates to it as to
a real person. They want to partici-
pate in finding a solution to the doll’s
problem. The bond between child
and doll is cemented instantly. The
adult validates the emotions and
issues related to the character, and
the children receive the message
that this is important and that we
can help solve this problem together.

JP: How do persona dolls empower
children in their social-emotional

CLJ: In each lesson I introduce a spe-
cific doll, giving as much information
as possible about the doll’s back-
ground and personality. Then I tell
the children about the character’s
problem (which just happens to be a
problem we are having in our class-
room!). These are some examples of
issues we address:

• Billy is sad when his mom leaves 
him at school and he has to say

• Tanisha is new to our classroom and 
doesn’t know how to make friends.
She is feeling sad and left out.

• Patrick is angry because he worked 
very hard to set up the train set
and someone knocked it down.

In each of these scenarios, after
describing the problem, I ask the
children to help solve it. I record
their suggestions for solving the
problem on chart paper to validate
their thinking. After all of the ideas
are recorded, I revisit each one,
saying something like, “Patrick can
tell Billy how much he likes playing 
with the train set and how disap-
pointed he is when it gets knocked
down.” As a group, we decide which
suggestion might be the best one for
the persona doll to try the next time
the problem arises, and I post that
suggestion on the wall where we can
refer back to it easily.
When the issue comes up again, I
say something like, “Remember what
we decided was the best way to
handle this problem?” I am amazed by
how clearly the children remember

Group discussions that include the dolls are opportuni-
ties to reflect on important social issues in a safe and
relaxed environment.

108 Young Children • November 2010

• Introduce the persona doll and review his or
her real-life history

• Set up the situation and lay out the prob-
lem (make sure the doll speaks through the
teacher in a normal voice, not puppetlike)

• Identify the doll’s feelings through discussion
• Gather, restate, and record problem-solving

• Use the children’s ideas to solve the problem

and often implement the
solution without any inter-
vention from me. They
clearly get invested in the
process. The doll’s issues
become their own and the
children are serious about
being part of the solution.

JP: What was your most pow-
erful persona doll lesson?

CLJ: A lesson about our
African American doll,
Tanisha, impacted our
classroom the most. The
lesson was inspired when a
teacher overheard a child
say that she didn’t want to take their
pretend boat on a voyage to Africa
because she didn’t like black people.
After listening to this child play over
a period of time, it became apparent
that she had a strong racial preju-
dice that needed to be addressed.
This was a perfect opportunity to
use a persona doll for some impor-
tant diversity training.
I brought Tanisha to circle time
and stated that she had a problem
and needed the children’s help to
solve it. The children were all ears. I
shared that Tanisha had been play-
ing with some friends and that her
feelings had been hurt when several

of them said they didn’t want to play
with someone with black skin. I asked
what she could do about this. The
children immediately showed great
concern for Tanisha and began to
share ideas for ways to comfort her.
The second part of this lesson
dealt with our unique skin colors.
We did a painting project for which
each child matched his or her skin
color to a paint color. Some children
had to add red, some white, and
some grey to get the right shade. It
was amazing that no two skin tones
were exactly the same. This activity
gave us time to celebrate the beauty
of all skin tones and to sensitize the

children to words
that can hurt the
All of the chil-
dren wanted to
add their hand-
print to the circle
of prints around
Tanisha’s to show
her that she was
loved and part
of our class. The
little girl who had
made the nega-
tive comments
earlier asked if
she could hold
Tanisha and play
with her. She
took Tanisha to

Using Persona Dolls in the Classroom

a corner of the room and played
alone with her very nicely and
thoughtfully. That was a particularly
poignant moment for me as I saw
the potential power of persona doll


Persona dolls are creative, interac-
tive tools that allow children to produc-
tively express their emotions and solve
the problems that come up in everyday
life. Teachers can use persona dolls
to help a timid child speak up or to
explore diversity. Early interventions
such as the use of persona dolls may
bring about changes that will benefit
young learners for a lifetime.

Brown, B. 2005. Equality in action: A way forward

with persona dolls. Staffordshire, England:
Trentham Books.

Derman-Sparks, L., & J.O. Edwards. 2010. Anti-
bias education for young children and ourselves.
Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Jacobson, T., & D. Falcone. 2009/2010. Using 
dolls to support children’s social-emotional
development. Teaching Young Children 3 (2): 

Whitney, T. 1999. Kids like us: Using persona dolls
in the classroom. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Copyright © 2010 by the National Association for the
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