In Waldorf early childhood, the doll is regarded as one of the most important companions a child can have.
By Kate Hammond, Roots & Shoots (Waldorf Early Childhood) Teacher
The busy work of looking after the dolls begins in Waldorf Early Childhood Education. It is serious work for the child, requiring the caring “parent” to be vigilant, empathetic and engaged. As a teacher, I feel that I am a witness to something sacred and precious. I tiptoe around this magical scene, knowing that growth and transformation is unfolding in front of my eyes.
The Waldorf doll is the representation of the human child, a mirror of our potential as human beings.
When the child plays with the doll they are exploring what it means to be a human being in relationship with others.
We are made up of four kingdoms—the mineral, physical substance; the plant world of growth and reproduction; the animal world of instinct, desire and feeling; and the human world of thinking, imagination, consciousness, and the possibility of self-recognition and self-identity.
A well-loved doll is a part of who they are— an extension of themselves. The children explore what it means to love and be loved, to care and to be cared for, and what it means to be in relationship. So how is playing with a doll different from playing with a well-loved stuffed animal?
In the early years, children learn through imitation.
The experience of separation, which leads to self-identity, is complete at the end of adolescence. The very young children feel at one with their surroundings. When they care for a doll, they care for themselves. When they see a stuffed dog/dinosaur/rabbit, they see what is “animal” in their own nature. This is not wrong, of course.
We want our children to care for animals respectfully and with empathy. But the gift of being human is that we have freedom to take stock of ourselves and use our powers to develop ourselves further. As teachers, we support this emerging identity, this “I”, as a human individuality by encouraging children to live into what it means to be human through the dolls we provide.
From the most simplest form to a more detailed body with clothes, the Waldorf doll is always handmade from natural materials.
The first doll in Waldorf early childhood is the most simple and is a basic representation of the human child—a head and two hands. The child completes the doll with their imagination—eyes, a mouth, fingers, etc. This requires the picture-forming processes to be awake and active in the brain. When we give a child a doll with realistic details, there is nothing for the child’s imaginative thinking to do—and therefore the brain is less active.
This year in our Early Childhood programs, Roots and Shoots, we have had various kinds of dolls. Some are the simple knotted dolls (pictured above): meet Sky, Sunbeam and Brinjal. Another style were those made by Ms. Catherine in Rosebuds (pictured below): still simple in form, but a little more individual.
Yet another form of doll we have in Roots and Shoots is known fondly as a “Heavy Baby” (pictured above). This is a doll that weighs around 5 lbs that is filled with millet. Millet has a warming quality and is moldable and has weight.
The play of the very young child mostly consists of carrying dolls around as they move. Gradually they will begin to feed the doll—but the first play is very physical and involves picking up the doll and moving it to another location. The weight of the doll increases the effort required to do this!
It speaks to the child of the physical world and helps the child experience their own body strength and effort. This reinforces a healthy sense of self without bringing self-consciousness to the child too early.
Self-consciousness is a process of thinking about yourself.
During adolescence the young person works to incorporate their consciousness of self into their identity. The maturation of the pre-frontal cortex supports this process at this time. When a child becomes self-conscious too young this can call on forces prematurely and can contribute to a gesture of precociousness.
In our kindergarten we also have the well-loved tradition of Little Ones (pictured above). During the last year of kindergarten at a Waldorf school, each child receives a “Little One”, a small handmade doll with a delightful name–part of the identity and personality. Over the years we have had ‘Hazelnut’, ‘Sunblossom’, ‘Tom Twinkle’, ‘Periwinkle’, and many more.
This is a special moment for the child—for, up until then, all the toys, dolls, and other play resources belong to all children in the class. Now they have their very own doll. The younger children watch and wait, wishing for their Little One to mysteriously arrive.
And what adventures the Little Ones have! Occasionally they go on a trip to their child’s house and sleep in the child’s bed! They will accompany the child when it is time to leave kindergarten and become a student in Grade One.
When we make dolls, we consider how we are representing the human being. Having different skin tones, hair texture, and clothing can help children identify themselves and others in the dolls. Representation is a play between specific identification (eg. African American or Asian etc.) and the universal picture (all human beings have a head, and a body).
We strive to be specific and at the same time to leave the child free to complete the doll with their own imaginative pictures. This is an opportunity to be inclusive and to represent others through diverse skin tones.
We hope to provide a picture that there are many different ways to be human, and yet there are aspects that unite us all.