Carol Smith

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 11:00-12:30 Room II

Speaker: Carol Smith (South Africa)




Persona Dolls

Human Rights, Inclusion and Diversity in Practice


Building on a universal story telling tradition



The Persona Doll approach has its origins in the United States and is presently used widely in the United Kingdom, Germany, Iceland, Australia and many other countries. Persona Doll Training (PDT) is a non-profit organisation based in Cape Town that has been operating nationally in South Africa since September 2003. We provide anti-bias, life skills, diversity and inclusion training for trainers, educators of all age groups, and children. The main focus is in Early Childhood Development (ECD: including parents, preschool and Foundation Phase teachers, community workers and children).

We support a rural skills development and income generation Doll-Making project based in Paarl, Western Cape. PDT works in partnership with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). We have been short listed for the Commonwealth Countries Education Good Practice Awards 2006.


Persona Dolls, or identity dolls engage young children in active learning about diversity through story and discussion. The life like, 70cm tall, Persona Dolls offer adults (counsellors, social workers, teachers, educators and parents/ carers, researchers, psychologists etc) an innovative, effective, enjoyable and non-threatening way to promote diversity, provide psycho-social support and address human rights issues such as:

• gender

• disability

• inclusion and diversity

• racism and xenophobia

• health and HIV/ AIDS

• culture and faith

• social class

Problem solving skills, empathy, language and emotional literacy are developed. At the same time the children’s and adult’s awareness of these issues is being developed, support given, self esteem built and negative attitudes challenged.


Adults or older children transform the inanimate, culturally appropriate, non sexist, 70 cm, cloth, girl and boy Dolls into being ‘real’ members of the group by giving them their own individual personalities, family and cultural backgrounds. Stories of what is happening in the Doll’s lives are developed.

The dolls visit, usually at a group time and the children quickly accept them as friends - they share their joys and sympathise with them when they are sad, through the stories and scenarios.

Learners are given opportunities to say what they think and feel about diversity issues. The stories build upon each other and encourage children to ‘unlearn’ discriminatory attitudes and behaviour while empowering them to stand up for themselves and for others. Young children are helped to understand the hurt that prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour cause and, crucially, to develop the skills they need to cope with teasing, name-calling, bullying and exclusion.

In the process they build on their understanding of fairness and unfairness, learn conflict management and problem solving skills and are encouraged to feel proud of their families and cultural backgrounds without feeling superior or inferior to others. Children feel ‘loved’ and get support to deal with difficult life situations related to exclusion, poverty, bullying, abuse etc.




Joey’s story:

‘Joey is seven. He lives with his mom and his granny and his little sister, Tami. Tami sleeps in the room with him. Where do you sleep?

His little sister cries a lot- but he was very happy last night cos his mother let him help to bath her. She splashes a lot and it was fun. The both got very wet – even his glasses. Joey has got new glasses…he has to be careful ‘cos last time he broke his old glasses when he was running outside. He helped to choose these. Do you like his new glasses?

Joey is in Grade 1 and he loves his new school. They do drawing and writing – he likes that a bit… but he loves the big blocks and when they can play outside. And the big ball…he loves soccer. And he loves stories and Takalani on TV.

Joey loves burgers and cucumber. Sometimes his mom takes him out for a burger, and he loves that. He also loves chocolate ice cream and oranges but not broccoli.

Joey has dark brown skin and speaks Xhosa at home, but at school they speak mostly English and Afrikaans. Sometimes the children laugh at him. He’s not sure but he thinks it‘s because of how he sounds when he speaks English – he has a Xhosa accent, or maybe because he has darker skin.

Joey doesn’t like it when the children laugh at him. How do you think he feels? If that happened to you, how would you feel? What would you say? What do you think Joey should do? Joey says you’ve given him good ideas. He’s feeling better now. He says thank you so much. He wants to know if you would you like him to tell you what happened when he comes to visit next time. Bye.’


Persona Doll training for is designed to provide a fun ‘hands-on’ experience, raise awareness and offer opportunities for reflection and discussion on issues of diversity. Extracts from the DVD/video, "Persona Dolls: Making a Difference" will be shown. Training includes demonstrations, video clips, how to create a Persona, and group work in developing and facilitating Persona Doll Story sessions, and discussion on how to integrate the approach into current work situations.

What people have said about the training: ‘completely non threatening way to talk about real issues’…’ Easy to open up and empathise ‘…’ Fun!’ …. Helped me to identify with other peoples’ experiences’… ‘Excellent way to discuss human rights issues’…’The Dolls are a powerful tool’…’Amazing how everyone worked with them, even the men!’….’Creative and stimulating’…’Effective and non-confrontational’


• For adults: Increased knowledge and understanding of diversity issues, confidence and skills to implement the Persona Doll approach to achieve the outcomes for Life Orientation and Languages Learning Areas, empathy with learners and colleagues, personal awareness and attitude shifts, expression of feelings and ideas, development of self esteem and facilitation skills.

• For children/ learners: Increased vocabulary and language development; development of empathy, emotional vocabulary and literacy; awareness of diversity issues; listening skills; problem facing skills; empowerment and increased self-esteem and confidence.

• For whole school/ community development: Issues such as abuse, racism, HIV/AIDS and disability are raised in a non-threatening and child-friendly way. Awareness, facilitation skills and empathy are developed. The Persona Dolls are powerful and motivate educators to share their experiences resulting in an informal cascade of the method to colleagues and families. Consultation with colleagues and parents/ carers is an important part of the process of building the personas and stories, leading to teamwork and team building.


The Pilot , and subsequent training, has proved to be extremely successful in addressing educator, community and children’s needs. The training and support assisted educators in their awareness of human right’s issues, particularly HIV and AIDS, the importance of talking about feelings- their own and the children’s, and learning how to use a practical tool, in the Persona Doll, to address difficult issues.

The main ‘difficult’ issues addressed by teachers using Persona Dolls during the Pilot Project included: racism, (and ‘respect for another’) equality, abuse, bullying, name calling, alcohol abuse, challenging home environments, poverty, drugs, substance abuse, HIV and AIDS, violence and aggression, bullying, child molestation, hunger, neglect, safety, stealing, Illness and domestic violence.

Teachers reported more participation, interest and a more positive atmosphere. Learners displayed concentration, curiosity, involvement, problem solving, confidence and language development. Difficult issues, for example HIV and AIDS stigma, were addressed in a non-threatening and constructive way. Some participants had avoided talking about HIV before, and were now able to with the support of the Persona Doll.

Attitudes and skills were addressed for the adults, and the learners. The approach was used across the curriculum. It was clear that training, together with support visits and materials, are essential to ensure implementation of the approach.

Do Persona Dolls change the way children/learners behave?

‘Most definitely! The children relate to the doll’. They are eager to speak about their family, friends, what happened at home. They show empathy to the doll. ‘I gave them Zukie one by one. They were kissing her, smiling at her, hugging her and even talking to her. There is laughter and excitement when the Dolls arrive’. The children ask questions, want to hug and show affection for the doll. Their empathy and affection for their ‘new friend’ is evident.

Many educators reported a ‘softening’ of the children, that they were becoming ‘like children again’ and displaying less aggressive behaviour.

Learners were more eager, and calmer and less disruptive, ‘there is less fighting during intervals.

The learners find it easier to talk about their home circumstances. ‘One boy came to me to say that he didn’t eat for a few days’. The children are more eager to ask and answer questions and speak more openly and with more confidence and spontaneity. They have learnt that each one must have the opportunity to speak. The learners are more confident. ‘Children that usually never ask questions do, they are not so shy anymore.’

They are much calmer, show more empathy and sensitive to others feelings and situations. Less bullying. They show more respect or one another. The approach helped in developing awareness and skills in dealing with: bullying, teasing, name calling, sharing, solving problems, swearing,

‘Their language level is improving’. They pose their questions carefully and seem to also increase their vocabulary. The sessions are preferably presented in the learner’s home language. In some cases the Dolls were used as a tool for additional language learning.

Most educators find the children are ’listening better’. They are interested in what the Doll has to say and ask, so they listen and concentrate well. They are also more curious and interested in what is happening.

Feelings are expressed: children are naming and expressing their feelings and developing an ‘emotional vocabulary.’ They consider others feelings and in so doing name calling has stopped.’Children’s fears were addressed, and ‘It is ok to be scared of certain things.’ The Dolls were used to deal with having to go to the dentist etc. ‘You can see them thinking, even the quiet ones’. Learners want to help the Doll, educators report and it was evident during visits that the learners are empowered by this feeling that they are ‘helping their friend’ solve problems.

Do these changes make a difference to educators/ adults?

Educators report that they feel more sympathetic and show more compassion towards learners: ‘I am more sympathetic towards the learners about their feeling and emotions and (home) situations’. Through the Persona Doll approach they have gained greater insight and understanding into children’s’ lives and problems.

Educators are finding it easier to deal with difficult issues for example HIV and AIDS and racism. They are more relaxed and confident and able to deal with these issues.

‘Has using the doll changed the way you work with the children?

Yes, because the doll gives me opportunity to deal with issues, which were difficult to talk about to the children. Talking about HIV/AIDS was a problem for me, and now mentioning Lucia (the Doll) as HIV/AIDS infected, it is easy for me to tell them about the symptoms, to be careful about blood, to eat healthy food when they are sick and to play with infected and affected children. I will carry on with the dolls as they have changed the way I tell stories about the children experiences in the community’.

[This participant had avoided talking about HIV before; she was now able to with the support of the Persona Doll. When she felt anxious she made eye contact with the doll and this allowed her to continue.]

Family and home situations were addressed: Children are asking what is the Doll’s mom and dad’s name. Many children said they don’t have daddies, some said their dad was dead. Some were talking about their grandparents and how many sisters and brothers they have.’


The Persona Doll approach has proved to be extremely successful in raising and addressing educator, community and learner needs. The training and support assisted educators in their awareness of human right’s issues, the importance of talking about feelings- their own and children’s, and learning how to use a practical tool, in the Persona Doll, to address difficult issues in a creative, fun, practical and non-threatening way.


Brown, Babette (2001) Combating Discrimination: Persona Dolls in Action

Trentham Books, Stoke on Trent, UK.

Biersteker, L. and Ngwevela, B. (2002): What do Young Children Understand about Antibias in the Curriculum? Paper presented at the OMEP Conference Early Childhood Development Building Societies through Partnership, International Conference Centre, Durban South Africa.

Derman Sparks, L (1989): Antibias curriculum tools for empowering young children. Washington DC, NAEYC, US.

Early Learning Resource Unit, Shifting Paradigms. ELRU anti-bias unit (1997). Cape Town, South Africa.

Smith, C. (2006) Persona Dolls: Making a Difference. Trainer and Educator’s Manual and DVD. Persona Doll Training (PDT) South Africa.

Smith, C. (2005) Report on Persona Doll Valley Pilot Training Project. Cape Town, South Africa. PDT with Western Cape Education Department’s HIV and AIDS Life Skills Programme.


For more information please contact:

Carol Smith (PDT co-ordinator South Africa)

Tel: +27 21 788 4365 Cell/ mobile: +27 82 565 5552