I still remember the pure joy and delight that my daughter expressed when it was her turn to take care of Lavender Baby, a doll that my daughter’s kindy teachers made. Lavender Baby was intentionally created to be simple, uncomplicated and neutral, embodying the essence of the simple doll. She was open and ready to give and receive whatever any child needed, and each child engaged with this doll in a different way. When she came to our house Lavender Baby appeared to be more than happy to submit to some fairly intense mothering. She was immediately shown all around our house, attended all outings, buckled into the car seat, was hugged, sung to, tucked in, woken up and fed many times a day. She didn’t mind hours of trampoline bouncing and listened with enraptured silence to an endless stream of stories.
Every child needs at least one uncomplicated, neutral friend. We referred to Lavender as ‘she’, because that is how my daughter identified with her, however Lavender didn’t mind being a ‘he’ either. Lavender was made to be available to a child without making a statement about what that child’s feelings, activities, gender, fashion or preferences should be. That’s the beauty of the simple doll. They are so agreeable, so ready to be whoever you need them to be. She was just there as she was for whoever needed her, always there to be a mirror to your soul to help you experience your feelings from outside of you. How many toys these days are created to be a part of that flexible and responsive process of growth and learning?
Now, I’m not making a comment on whether or not it is right to have formed dolls with fashionable hair and clothes – my children have enjoyed those too and so did I as a child – however many commercial toys often come with backstories and while a child may then make take this doll and play with it as they like, this backstory will always be a part of that doll’s character and purpose. I know many a Barbie, Jedi or My Little Pony has been played with in a multitude of creative (and sometimes experimental!) ways, which allow children to create meaning and expression, however I am not yet convinced these toys are as readily open, flexible and available to the young child’s spirit in the same way as a simple doll.
Over the years, through explorations with children in nature, I have found other ways to enjoy simple dolls outside. Dolls can be made from cloths, hankies, wrapped sticks and grasses, stitched leaves and sawn branches. I made this wrapped doll while watching some children play on the field. I thought it could be a dancing elf, and had intended to take it home for the outdoor doll house but when I showed it to a child his eyes lit up with delight and he said, “A Green Ninja? For me?”
Well, of course it was a Green Ninja for him. We each immediately found our own meaning and relationship with this doll. I gave it to him and immediately he incorporated it into his play. It later disintegrated, but not before Green Ninja had served his purpose by completing many adventurous missions with his 4-year-old friend. Green Ninja will be a joyful memory.
Another simple doll can be made with a cloth. I recently told a story at playgroup about a giant with cold feet, and I made the giant by knotting a large cloth as I told the story. This story was passed to me by my mentor and I have been sharing it for years. I love the reminder contained within the story, that delight can be found in the simple things. Demonstrating to a child how a doll can be made opens possibilities for children to incorporate this into their play on their own. A doll is always around somewhere.
On a smaller scale, I have used knotted hankies to make simple dolls for children too – when a little one is sad and needs comfort, a pocket friend can be made from a hanky so that a loved one is always nearby. I have a story to share about this too.
And then, of course .. there are the dolls that nature provides us. Stones, seedpods, sticks, leaves and lumps of wood. Even Bird of Paradise flowers have made some excellent puppets for storytelling. There is an image of my daughter storytelling with these flowers in the slideshow below. Some of our nature toys have been decorated, and others have been used without.
Children have the imaginative ability to provide their own decorations, characteristics, voices and backstories. The simpler the toy, the more the child is required to develop flexibility with their imaginative, language and creative thinking processes. And the simple doll is always waiting there for you, to be whoever you need them to be in that moment. That is the essence of the simple doll.
Jennifer McCormack offers professional development for early childhood services to encourage critical thinking and skills for practical approaches to a variety of arts-based and playful topics. Jennifer if also available for conferences and special events. See the PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT page for details.