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Dolls and doll play: A new look at a familiar prop

Dolls in other learning centers
While essential to the dramatic play center, dolls can support learning in other centers.
Water table. Children enjoy “giving baby a bath.” In addition to vinyl baby dolls, children will need materials such as mild soap and shampoo, towels, and lotion.
Blocks. Small people figures are common in block centers, but ordinary dolls can enhance the fantasy of play. A doll can become a giant child among Lilliputians, or ride as a passenger in a child-sized block train.
Science/discovery. Dolls offer a model for teaching about body parts. “When you say, ‘Point to the eye,’ children can poke the doll’s eye instead of another child’s,” says Leach.
Manipulatives. A doll and an assortment of clothing with snaps, hook-and-loop fasteners, and buttons can help children practice fine-motor skills.
Library/language. Children can “read” to dolls and repeat flannel board stories to them.
Outdoors. Children play with dolls in the sand, stroll with them in carriages, or pull them in wagons. Some teachers designate older, worn dolls as “outside only.”

Choosing dolls for the classroom
In choosing dolls, as with any toys or learning materials, teachers need to consider the child’s development as well as how the doll will be used:
Is the doll safe? For infants and toddlers, make sure dolls have no small objects (button eyes, pacifiers) that pose a choking hazard. Eliminate cords that can get wrapped around a child’s neck.
If you buy from a source other than a reputable educational supplier, make sure the doll has no protruding wires or sharp edges that can pinch or cut fingers. Question whether the body material, stuffing, and paint are non-toxic.
Will the doll withstand heavy laundering? Cloth dolls for infants need to be machine washed and dried every day or two, especially after an infant puts a doll in her mouth. Vinyl dolls will undergo frequent baths by children.
Will the doll withstand heavy use? Infants and toddlers will drag dolls around, drop them, and sometimes bang them. Look for flexible materials and sturdy construction.
Is the doll suited to the children’s developmental level? Age ranges stated on the label can be misleading. Be realistic about the children’s skills and interests.
How much does the doll require children to use their imagination? Educators criticize battery-operated and computerized dolls as little machines that distract children from real play. By contrast, simple dolls let children take the lead and use their own imaginations.
Does the doll help reflect diversity? Aim for a true reflection of culture, ethnicity, gender, and ability. Avoid tokenism. One black or one Hispanic doll is not enough in an ethnically diverse community.
How much does the doll cost? Dolls in educational supply catalogs range in price from $10 to $50. In tight budget times, “put your money in a quality doll, not the accessories,” says Leach. “You can use boxes for cradles and empty food cartons for play food.”

Buying tips
See and touch the doll for yourself, if possible, says Ard. Instead of relying on pictures in catalogs or on the Internet, visit doll vendors at conferences. Or visit other centers that have the dolls you’re considering.
Be cautious about heavy advertising. It could mean the doll is this year’s fad and tomorrow’s junk.
Check garage sales and thrift shops for doll and baby clothes. Parents may also be willing to donate baby clothes they no longer need.
Remember that children will get into doll beds and other accessories. Look for large size and sturdiness.
Ask parents if they or grandparents are willing to make doll clothes, doll houses, and play furniture for you.

Make a cloth doll
Cloth dolls make ideal grasping and comfort toys for infants and toddlers. They can be made easily from small pieces of fabric and synthetic stuffing. A parent or volunteer can make several for you overnight or during a weekend.
Infants and toddlers put everything into their mouths, so make one for each child in your care and wash the dolls after use. Use a simple, one-piece body (see PDF for pattern). For safety, sew the doll’s clothing to the body (no detachable parts). Embroider features on the doll’s face, making the eyes large and brightly colored (no buttons).

Here’s what you need:
tissue paper
1/3 yard colorfast, non-shrink fabric in a desired skin color (brown, beige, black)
scraps of brightly colored or patterned fabric for shirt
synthetic, washable stuffing
embroidery thread for facial features
sewing machine and matching thread

1. Use a photocopier to enlarge the pattern so it’s 8 to 10 inches long. Place tissue paper over the doll pattern and trace around the entire body. Place another piece of tissue paper over the pattern and trace only around the shirt.
2. Fold the body fabric so you can cut two pieces at once. Lay the body pattern on top, pin, and cut. Remove the pattern.
3. Do the same with the shirt fabric and pattern.
4. Place one piece of the shirt, right side up, on the body front, and the other piece on the body back. Baste in place. Turn under and machine stitch along the neckline, sleeve ends, and bottom edge.
5. Embroider eyes, nose, and mouth on the face.
6. Keeping right sides together, pin the body front to the body back. Machine stitch about 1/2 inch from the edge, leaving the seam open about 1 inch at the head for stuffing.
7. Trim the seam to 1/4 inch. Clip at the neck, under the arms, and between the legs. Turn the body right side out.
8. Stuff the doll, using a pencil to push the stuffing into the arms and legs.
9. At the opening, turn in the seam allowance and stitch closed, either by hand or machine.
Variations: Before stitching the body, embroider several straight lines of stitching, close together, on the head for hair and on the feet for shoes. Or stitch fabric to the back of the doll’s head for a cap and to the doll’s feet for shoes.

Resources: A sampling
Early Childhood Direct
PO Box 3239
Lancaster, PA 17604
The 2004 infant-to-kindergarten catalog offers two baby dolls with either white or black skin: an 11-inch doll in a dress and a 20-inch vinyl doll in shirt and diapers. Child dolls are available in several ethnicities. The 16-inch has realistic hair, facial features, and play clothes. In the 13-inch version, only the girls have rooted hair (the boys’ is molded), and the clothing reflects reflects international styles. Cloth dolls (14-inch) can help children learn dressing skills (button, snap, zip, buckle, lace, and tie); these dolls come in various skin and hair color.

Constructive Playthings®
13201 Arrington Rd.
Grandview, MO 64030-2886
The 2003-2004 catalog offers a 13-inch, washable cloth doll for toddlers and an 18-inch rag doll with yarn hair and denim or khaki clothing for preschoolers. A wheelchair is available for the rag doll. Of baby dolls, a 12-inch, batheable type comes dressed in panties with a blanket. Two other baby dolls (16-inch and 17-inch) are anatomically correct newborns clad in diapers. The 17-inch doll comes with a blanket. The catalog features two child dolls: 13-inch and 16-inch. All doll types are available in several ethnicities.

Environments, Inc.
PO Box 1348
Beaufort, SC 29901-1348
The 2004 catalog offers a 91/2-inch, machine-washable cloth doll for toddlers and a 20-inch printed fabric doll (Earthchild®) that represents global diversity. Baby dolls include a 17-inch realistic vinyl doll that is anatomically correct, and a 14-inch realistic vinyl doll, both of which come with a diaper. All doll types are available in several ethnicities.

PO Box 609
1310 Lewisville-Clemmons Road
Lewisville, NC 27023-0609
The 2004 catalog offers a realistic baby doll in 10- and 14-inch sizes and four ethnicities. Child-like dolls include 13-inch, 16-inch, and 19-inch globally diverse versions, each of which is available in 10 different hair styles. Adaptive equipment (walker, leg braces, wheelchair, and cane with seeing-eye dog) is available that fits the 16-inch doll. The catalog also features a 14-inch cloth doll (varied ethnicities) designed for teaching dressing skills (buckle, button, zip, snap, lace and hook-and-loop tape).

Lakeshore Learning Materials.
2695 E. Dominguez St.
Carson, CA 90810
The 2004 catalog offers an 11-inch, machine-washable cloth doll for toddlers, as well as an 18-inch rag doll with yarn hair and child-like clothing. Plastic baby dolls include 10- and 18-inch types in simple outfits as well as 10- and 14-inch realistic newborns clad only in diapers. A child-like doll, 16 inches tall, is made of vinyl with nylon hair and varied child-like clothing. All doll types are available in several ethnicities. Adaptive equipment (wheelchair, leg braces, walker, eyeglasses, hearing aid, protective helmet, cane and seeing-eye dog) is available for the 16-inch doll.

Autism Society of America, Early Intervention, accessed at PageServer?pagename=Interve-ntion.
Bronson, Martha. 1995. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Goldstein, Jeffrey H. 1994. Sex differences in toy play, in Jeffrey H. Goldstein, ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Rogers, Cosby S. and Janet K. Sawyers. 1988. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Singer, Jerome. 1994. Imaginative Play, in Jeffrey H. Goldstein, ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, Geri, Ethical dilemmas: Dolls and guns. Canadian Child Care Federation.
TRUCE, Toys and trends to avoid, Toy Action Guide,