Our nation's population is becoming increasingly diverse. People are living longer, family patterns are changing and ethnic minorities are growing. Yet there are still conflicts between cultures and discrimination against people with disabilities and differences.
Changing society is no easy task, but it is something that Herefordshire College of Technology is taking a look at in its Diploma in Childcare and Education (DCE) course.
When Amanda Clarke became the team leader of health and social care and childcare at the college, she found herself interested in some research carried out by Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council. He argues against the importance placed on teaching young children the '3Rs' and says that instead, they should be supported to develop their social skills.
Amanda explains, 'He claims that the brains of children aged two to five are not set up for formal learning, but they are already picking up attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.'
As a result, she decided to introduce persona dolls to the DCE course.
'I think there is often a lack of understanding of the needs of others,'
she says. 'But the dolls are about anti-discrimination. They are used to counter attitudes and behaviours that might spring from feelings of superiority.'
Persona dolls are exactly what they sound like - they are dolls with their own personas. Practitioners create a whole life history for the doll, from a name and family to likes, dislikes and hobbies. They also create an issue for the doll - something they will be able to discuss with the children to encourage them to empathise with others.
According to Amanda, the dolls and their stories are a powerful tool for exploring and dealing with prejudices that children may have already picked up. The dolls help children to understand how negative words or actions can hurt other people, and then help them to feel an empathy with people who are being discriminated against.
Making the doll
The DCE students make their own dolls. A seamstress at the college created a pattern for students to follow. When finished, each doll stands 12 inches tall, but otherwise they are all very different.
Students clothe the dolls themselves. If they are introducing a Hindu doll to children, they will perhaps dress the doll in traditional clothes. If they want to discuss the issue of red hair or glasses, they will ensure this is a feature of their doll. Some dolls are black or Asian. Others have a disability and sit in a wheelchair. Some do not appear to have any special features, but students give them an unseen difference.
'Some students have introduced their dolls as having gay or lesbian parents, as this is something that is becoming more common in society,'
explains Amanda. 'We also have many dolls from travelling families, because this is the ethnic minority we have in our area.'
The students use their dolls when they are on placements. They introduce the doll to the children by name and talk about its family and background.
Children can ask questions about the doll, and they quickly become friends.
Then the student will introduce the particular issue.
'Students may tell children that the doll is being teased at school, that children are calling her names,' says Amanda. 'They will then ask the children how they might feel if this had happened to them and will prompt the children to empathise - something that may be a new idea to many.'
This gives young children the chance to feel empathy for others from a safe place. As a result, experts believe, children will grow up more inclined to be tolerant and respectful of other people's beliefs, backgrounds and individuality.
'The dolls are usually aimed at the Foundation Stage, but they are still relevant in Key Stage 1 or even 2 when dealing with issues such as bullying,' says Amanda.
She is very keen to promote the use of persona dolls, because 'I believe it is so important these days if we are to improve society.' NW
* For more information on persona dolls, training on how to use them or obtaining resources contact Persona Doll Training at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.persona-doll-training.org)