Dr. Tamar Jacobson, chair of the Department of Teacher Education and Director of the Early Childhood Program, keeps a collection of dolls in her Memorial Hall office. One has a pouting face, another has a toothy grin. No one doll is the same, but all the dolls are part of a family and serve the same purpose.

Last month, Jacobson presented the concept “Dolls as a Window to the Curriculum” at the Early Childhood Education Summit, held at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel in State College, Pa. There, she suggested that a family of dolls can be used in early education classrooms in order to introduce key ideas, such as health and safety or seasons, to young children.

Jacobson adopted the idea from her mentor, who supervised her when she was a teacher with the Israeli Ministry of Education some 30 years ago. Recently, Jacobson decided to reintroduce the concept in response to the pressures of state standards. Classrooms have become too structured, and there is less play and creativity, she explained.

“Children learn through play,” said Jacobson, who teaches classes in the Graduate Level Teacher Program, as well as early childhood classes in the Department of Teacher Education at Rider. “They need to develop their imaginations, so they think more abstractly.”

Through the concept, experiences such as scraping a knee, feeling anxiety when separated from parents or wearing a hat because it’s cold outside, are seen through the eyes of the doll and described by the teacher. Students identify with the family of dolls.

“The students see themselves in the situations. It’s almost like a support group,” Jacobson said. In some cases, children behave almost as if the dolls are actual students in the class.

Towanda (Pa.) Area School District representatives who attended the summit have already started using the dolls in two of their pre-kindergarten classrooms. There has been interest from a couple of the kindergarten teachers to incorporate the dolls into their rooms.

Sarah Burlingame, a pre-kindergarten teacher at J.A. Morrow Primary School of the Towanda Area School District, said she used to use a bear puppet to introduce themes and other key concepts. She was amazed by how quickly the children identified with “Nina and her mommy.”
“They truly see her as one of the members of the classroom, even insisting she get turns at everything they do during our circle time,” said Burlingame, who uses the dolls to discuss families and weather. “They never reacted that way with the bear puppet.”

Nina has also helped with classroom management issues. For example, Burlingame found a book that had obviously been drawn on by a child. So, she called an emergency meeting and had Nina explain how sad she was about finding the damaged book. Since then, the children have been reminding each other that they should only be drawing on paper provided by the teacher.

Aside from her work with the family of dolls, Jacobson also focuses her energies on teachers’ emotional development and how it affects their behaviors in the classroom. There has been little research about how teachers feel about children’s challenging behaviors, explained Jacobson. Her dream is to organize support-supervision groups for teachers to confront their emotions or biases head-on.

In her latest book, Don’t Get So Upset! Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own, published by Redleaf Press in August 2008, Jacobson shows caregivers how to get in tune with their emotions, so they can help children with theirs. The book provides practical information on emotional development, early childhood behavior management strategies and self reflection.

“I’m very excited about the book’s release. I’ve been thinking about writing it for many years,” said Jacobson, who used the book in one of her classes this semester.