Learning social justice with puppets

The Persona Doll method supports educators in addressing social injustice among young children

UNICEF
Persona Doll used to teach kindergarten children about social justice
IHozmec/UNICEF
24 January 2022

Prejudices and stereotypes begin to develop between the ages of three and four, the Persona Doll method was created to address this topic for young children in an understandable and acceptable way. This method uses the puppet as a mediator between educators and children and presents them with various anti-discrimination scenarios.

The Persona Doll method is part of an education for social justice approach. Education programs are organized for educators, teachers, pedagogues, psychologists, social pedagogues, and all those who are engaged in the education of children of preschool and early primary school age.

Trainings on this well-known method are organized by the Open Academy ‘Step by Step’ as a part of the pilot-program Phase III: Testing the Child Guarantee, funded by the European Union and implemented by UNICEF Croatia in Medjimurje County.

Kindergarten educators learn about the Persona Doll teaching method
IHozmec/UNICEF

“The method is specific because the puppet, who we treat as a puppet person called ‘Persona Doll’, is used as a mediator in the conversation between educators and children. Puppet is a friend to children and occasionally visits the kindergarten group, once a month. To half of her visits, she brings anti-discrimination scenarios that serve to help children recognize injustice, discuss it, and suggest possible solutions. The second half of the visits takes place in a happy and cheerful manner to conclude the gathering in a positive atmosphere”, explains Bojana Gotlin, one of the educators of this method at Open Academy ‘Step by Step’, and also kindergarten teacher.

“It is a method whose main goal, in addition to emotional literacy, is to teach children to recognize injustice in society, especially injustice that happens among them to other children and how to react to it”, explains educator Bojana Gotlin.

For the success of the Persona Doll education, it is crucial to explain to the participants how to create a doll identity that is specifically designed for each group.

Persona Doll teaching method is used as a mediator in the conversation between educators and children
IHozmec/UNICEF
Persona Doll teaching method is used as a mediator in the conversation between educators and children

“Simple everyday topics can be covered, but educators need to carefully design scenarios in which children will be able to give their suggestions or solve some problem situations, such as various types of discrimination that occur in both kindergartens and society – omission, ignorance, ridicule, and even more difficult situations. We prepare situations so that the doll presents them to children, she presents a certain problem of harassment, bullying…”, she continues.

The puppet simulates certain life situations s/he experienced somewhere outside the kindergarten and comes to tell the children about it. The preschool age, or the early years, is the most important time to start working with children on social justice, especially between the ages of three and four because that is when prejudices and stereotypes begin to develop. Even then, children think in a way that what is similar to me is good, and what is not similar to me is not good!”

“Although the age of three or four seems ‘too young‘ to understand the concept of social justice, experience has shown that this is not a problem if the educator regularly starts to develop a culture of dialogue, or a culture of conversation with children. In fact, we are not talking to children about social justice, but about the injustice that is around us because children recognize injustice and have the capacity to solve it”, Gotlin points out.

Her experience from the field shows that children love it when a doll “visits” them in kindergarten.

Teachers learn about a Persona Dolla teaching method for kindergarteners
IHozmec/UNICEF

“They are more focused on the conversation when the doll brings a problem situation rather than when the educator gives a speech because they have a greater need to help her, since the doll has become their friend. They are more engaged."

Dubravka Grgošić Dragić, her fellow educator and kindergarten teacher, adds that she has extremely positive experiences with this method. “Apart from having a personal identity onto itself, the puppet takes on  the identity of the children in the group so that children can easily identify with it and in turn with the problems that the puppet brings up, such as situations which are discriminatory, which become much clearer to children”, she explains.

“Children have the opportunity to get to know more of the doll's identities and events from her life. Very often they remember what they talked about when the doll was with them in the group and often, they remember which suggestion they gave to the doll to help her solve the problem she had. They also recognize the solution for situations in which they have a problem, it is clearer to them how to seek help or solve a discriminatory or other problematic situation”, explains Dubravka Grgošić Dragić, adding that many adults would be surprised how children at that age can respond maturely to problems.

Kindergarten teachers learn about Persona Doll method
IHozmec/UNICEF

Kindergarten teachers, the main participants in the education program we visited in Čakovec, are delighted with the method and they plan to use it immediately and apply it in their work.

“We have one child in the group who is teased by other children and excluded from the group because he does not speak Croatian well. I think we will be able to address this problematic situation and I believe it will be very interesting for children. Through the presentation of the doll, we can solve problem situations which will be occurring within the group”, said Ivana Huzjak from Čakovec Kindergarten Cipelica.

Lana Kovačević, kindergarten teacher at the Kindergarten Maslačak in Mursko Središće, has a similar challenge in her group.

“We have an integrated program for the Roma national minority in our kindergarten, so we have a group in which we notice are a lot of language barriers. We will use the puppet to improve current challenges in the group. Knowing my group of children I think they will respond very well. They are already familiar with puppets and dramaturgy, but this is not really animation, but more of a presentation. The events are not invented or animated, so the identity must be developed in accordance with the problems of the group we have observed”, said Lana Kovačević.

Ivona Udovčić Goričanec, kindergarten teacher at the Kindergarten Cvrčak, also expects good experiences with the application of this method in her group.

“I expect children to be curious and enthusiastic. They are otherwise creative in questions and solutions, so I really can’t wait to see what they think of it. It is very interesting to me that the doll brings up some problems we all tend to be silent about. Those differences are big and people are different in many ways, so we already see a lot of challenges in children and face difficulties while solving them, so this doll will help us a lot with that”, Ivona Udovčić Goričanec concludes optimistically.

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©UNICEF, 2022. “The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Open Academy 'Step by Step' is the implementation partner of the UNICEF Office in Croatia for the implementation of the pilot programme “Phase III: Testing the Child Guarantee in Croatia”, funded by the European Union.