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Using Baby Doll Play To Promote Empathy In Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers

Do you sing little songs to your infants or do some finger play games like Itsy Bitsy Spider or Toe Knee Chestnut? If so, you rock because you're doing your part in promoting empathy in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and the entire world will be thanking you in about 10-15 years when the smart, empathetic, and action-oriented individuals you release on the adult world begin to make their mark.

But they should be thanking you now, shouldn't they?

What's up with that? The people who matter the most to the future of our society and the people who care for them are often put on one of the lowest rungs of the ladder when it comes to a few key categories in life. Respect, money, and power.

But when it comes to power, we actually have more than meets the public eye.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Rules The World-William Ross Wallace-

What if those hands came together in solidarity and all did their very best to support infants, toddlers, and preschoolers by doing our best to support each other.

In many places, this is actually happening. I have the luxury and privilege to live in Madison WI where, for a number of reasons, we have some of the best childcare options in the country.

But, still, the childcare community here and everywhere is hurting. Times are hard and no one has time. Providers are quitting in droves because they need health insurance and/or better pay in order to live. This has a devastating effect on those who choose to stay in the profession.

Parents are hurting also. It's hard to find good care and it's hard to afford care.

One thing I’ve observed during my 43+ years as an early childhood and family educator is that the higher quality the learning environment, the less time the adults spend complaining about each other. In short, the more support the adults receive, the more support the children receive.

By support I mean the kind of intentional support that allows them to make the connections they need to maneuver the difficult choices they'll have to make in the future.

These things matter and here's why:
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-

Over the years, I’ve used the very excellent program called Baby Doll Circle Time as a way of teaching empathy.

I actually own the book and video so I’ve learned some of the songs and viewed the process but I’m too much of a rebel to follow a scripted group time model.

In step two below, I give you my more casual and relaxed technique for doing baby doll circle time with very young children. You might want to "think of it as a "soft" group rather than a circle time.

When I was a Head Start Teacher, in 1987 and 88, we used “persona dolls” to teach the children about accepting individual differences in humans. We had a doll in a wheelchair, a doll with a walker, and dolls of different ethnicities.

But these persona dolls were an expensive and delicate set which isn’t a good combo for early childhood sensory learners. Childcare providers simply get used to naked and broken dolls.

We had to keep these dolls up on a high shelf and bring them down for special group times. I remember that the children didn’t care about the dolls much and felt little connection to them. They occasionally got to talk about them but they didn’t get to play with them. Remember, “Play is how young children learn.”

Today's version of persona dolls do look a lot more durable.

But not everyone can afford expensive dolls.

So here are my techniques for using the concepts of persona dolls and baby Doll Circle Time in daily life with young children, mixed-age groups. These techniques don't have to cost you anything if you have some dolls and a good imagination. Have fun!


Begin to develop personas for the dolls you have. If your dolls don’t display diversity, I’d suggest some good family-oriented garage sales or shop around if you like. Just remember that all clothing and or accessories not firmly attached to the dolls will be lost to a black hole in 3-4 months.

Give each doll a back-story that can include any topic of interest. Some subjects that children are naturally curious about are, Why do people have different color skin and features? Or why do they have walkers? Or who do they live with?

Don’t overwhelm the children all at once but bring out topics as they come up, like divorce, or meeting a child with autism. Also include things they may encounter someday, like a friend with an amputated limb, or someone who looks very different from themselves in any way. Or a friend with 2 moms.

I’d suggest creating basic doll personas with names and writing them down on a clipboard, notebook, or app. Keep them where all adults involved will be able to view them so they can easily use the same persona for the same dolls.

Remember that repetition works, so say and do the same things over and over again for optimal efficacy.

Also, remember that no doll can take the place of meeting a real person and getting to know them. When that happens any previously held bias can easily disappear as differences become matter of fact and unimportant to real friendship and trust.


Lay your babies out on the carpet or carpet squares. Or put them in a basket. Call the children over to pick a baby using a simple song. Be sure to incorporate the children's names to help them to feel welcome in the group. If a dispute arises about a doll, I'll offer to do the group again and again until everyone gets a turn with the object of their desire.

Once they all have a baby, ask them what their baby's doing and what they need. Together we act out diaper changes, songs, and fingerplays. The children are allowed to get up to take care of their babies. Sometimes we read a story to our babies together or I ask the children to pick a story and read to their baby individually. Sometimes we teach our babies ABC’s or Twinkle Twinkle in English, Spanish or Japanese.

Sometimes we put our babies to bed, using stories, lullabies, and blankies.

I hope this gives you some ideas you can use today! Here’s a song to dance to and it's a blast for all ages and abilities. Have fun!


Bailey, Rebecca Anne, and Elizabeth Montero-Cefalo. Baby Doll Circle Time. Loving Guidance, 2012.

“Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 4 Dec. 2017,

Derman-Sparks, Louise, et al. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children & Ourselves. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2020.


The hand the rocks the cradle will rock the world! -Nanci J Bradley-

It's proven that promoting empathy can reduce violence.

And you are part of it! You matter! Join us!!! You'll get 22 of my best behavior ideas for free when you do.

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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