Worry dolls are a beautiful idea that originated in South America. The classic way of using them, is children putting them under their pillow at night, to take their worries away.
However, there are lots more ways of using them than that, and they are a fantastic tool for alleviating stress and anxiety in children.
So how can you use worry dolls?
You can make a large worry doll, and use it to discuss fears in a circle time. Children can also make their own, tell their worries to them, and then send them on a journey – maybe bury them outside, or sail them away on a toy boat.
The idea of a worry doll is that it is some kind of small figure that you tell your worries to. The doll then absorbs this worry.
This is not teaching children that worries and anxiety do not exist.
Quite the opposite!
This process helps children to manage their worries, and help them to vocalise them. In many ways, it works in the same way as psychotherapy. By talking about our worries, we learn how to process and manage them. There has been researched carried out that has concluded positive findings in linking a release of worry in children to talking through and accepting what we are worried about. (Source)
In twelve years of teaching young children, I have used worry dolls in all sorts of ways, and in this post I am going to look at the best 14 activities we have tried.
These games have had a big impact on lowering children’s stress and anxiety, and helped them to manage worry.
Let’s dive into the ideas…
1. Use A Big Worry Doll At Circle Time
This is my number one way to start with worry dolls.
You need some kind of big worry doll for this. You can easily make one out of stick, with multi-colored wool twisted around it.
A couple of googly eyes are optional!
In the following photo there is a large worry doll in the middle. It is flanked by some traditional worry doll figures on the left, and a smaller DIY worry doll on the right:
Once you have a larger worry doll, the children sit in a circle. Ask them first to think of something they are worried about. Say that they are going to tell their worry to the stick, and then pass it to the next person.
Pass the stick to the first person in the circle and start the process. When they have (hopefully) said something, they pass it to the next person.
Keep going around the circle.
If children choose not to speak in an activity like this, then I think that is find. Just go on to the next person.
This activity really helps children to understand what worries are.
It also helps them to begin processing and thinking about their own worries, and voicing them out loud.
Circle times are a great way of modelling lots of different skills effectively (for my ultimate 21 circle time games check this article that I wrote out).
2. Small Worry Dolls At Circle Time
You can do a similar activity with lots of smaller worry dolls.
The children sit in a circle, and hand out one worry doll per child.
Begin to pass around a basket. One at a time a child will say their worry, and then place the worry doll into the basket.
Keep going until all the dolls are in the basket.
This game works very much the same as the game with the big stick. Children get to speak aloud their worry, which helps them understand what they are concerned about, and also get to process it.
3. Make Worry Dolls Out Of Popsicle Sticks
Making worry dolls is a fantastic craft activity.
Also, when children have made their own worry doll, they will have a greater level of ownership with any activities they do with it.
You could make them in all sorts of ways, but a simple approach is get a popsicle stick, some glue, and some other odds and ends to stick onto the stick. Things like googly eyes, bits of material for clothes, wool for hair, and all that kind of thing.
Children could potentially give their worry doll a name, or think of a back story about them. This introduces an element of story telling into the worry doll activity.
4. Make Worry Dolls Out Of Sticks
Another beautiful activity is make worry dolls using found objects outside.
This is also great for fine motor skills, as well as being excellent as a mindfulness activity.
A simple way of doing this is to all find sticks outside, and then wind lots of multi-colored wool around the sticks. Some googly eyes, once again, are optional.
The twisting of the wool is very therapeutic for many children in its own right.
5. Hide Worry Dolls In A Box
Once children have made some kind of worry doll, there are different things they can do with them.
One idea is to place them somewhere like a box.
This could be done as a group, with the children first talking about their worries. Then put the worry dolls in box and close the lid.
They could get the worry dolls out again the next day, or in a few days time, and talk about if the worry they had before still concerns them.
6. Sail Them Away On Boats Or Large Leaves
There are lots of mindfulness meditations that involve our worries departing on some sort of journey.
The process of this is getting the children to visualize whatever worry they have, and then imagine that it is going on a journey away from there. For example, it is put in a box and going away on a plane or on a boat.
You can do the same thing in a physical sense with worry dolls.
Have something like a toy boat in a water tray.
Say your worry to the worry doll, place it on the boat, and then sail it away across the water tray.
You could do the same thing with large leaves on big puddle. Place the worry doll on the leaf and sail it across the puddle.
7. Feed A Worry Monster
Worry monsters are another fantastic activity that combine mindfulness and art. They help children deal with anxiety and stress.
The worry monsters are quite simply some kind of box, with a mouth cut out. You can decorate the box to look like a monster in any way you want – draw on the box, paint it, or stick things on.
Here is what a worry monster might look like:
The idea of a worry monster is that you feed your worries to it!
Older children could write their worries on paper, and then feed them into the mouth of the monster.
Younger children could say aloud their worry to an object, and feed the object to the monster.
It is good to do this in tandem with worry dolls. The worry dolls could potentially feed the worry monster with objects.
So, for example, sit in a circle. Give out to each child a worry doll, and something to feed the monster with – for example, a piece of pasta each.
Each child, in turn, vocalizes a worry to their worry doll, and then helps the worry doll feed the piece of pasta into the worry monster’s mouth.
8. Draw A Picture For The Worry Doll
It is great to communicate with your worry dolls in different ways, particularly if you have made them yourselves.
One nice way of doing this is to draw pictures for your worry doll.
For example, think of something you are worried about and draw a picture of it. Give this picture to the doll.
This works in the same kind of way as talking about our worries. Some children prefer to process their feelings through art than they do talk about them.
9. Write A Note To Them
This is for children that are able to write simple sentences, and is a good way to motivate children to write for a purpose.
Write down your worry on a piece of paper, and give it to the worry doll. The paper could be placed under the doll, or folded over it.
It is good to place these dolls in some kind of container with these worries, so that you can return to them in a few days.
A few days later, go back to the worries, and ask the children to read them. Are they still worried about the same things now that they were a few days earlier?
10. Classic Way – Worry Dolls Under Their Pillow
The historical way of using worry dolls in South America is to put them under the child’s pillow.
The idea is that a child takes a worry doll and tells their trouble to it. Then they put it under their pillow.
When they wake up, hopefully the worry doll has in some way absorbed the worry.
Once again, this process really is like psychotherapy. In talking about problems we make them real, and we also learn to process and manage them better.
11. Create A Home For The Worry Dolls
It’s nice to have the worry dolls as a permanent fixture in your classroom or home.
If they are at home, a handful of dolls can fit inside a little box, or even a small sack.
Then they are always on hand when they are required.
In the classroom, you could have any kind of box or container to keep them in. Something like an old hamper, or chest would be perfect.
Children could have access to this if required. They could interact with the dolls whenever they needed to.
Also, having them in a box means you can always access them quickly for circle times, and other group times when you might need to use them.
12. Tell A Story Including The Worry Dolls And A Child
A fantastic way to introduce worry dolls and how they work, is to include them in a story.
It could be about a child that has something that is worrying them. They tell their worry to the doll, and place it under their pillow.
The next day their worry is gone.
You could adapt the story based on how you are going to use the dolls yourself. If you are going to use the dolls in a circle game, then have the dolls in a circle game in the story.
Stories really help children to become emotionally invested in the process of using worry dolls.
13. Include Them In Play
Children may find they have a greater rapport with a worry doll, if they also use it in play.
So when children are engaged in small world play with figures, loose parts, and whatever else, they could also incorporate their worry doll. This can help give the doll a voice, a character, and a bit of a personality of their own.
14. Use A Poem
One of the classic ways to use worry dolls, is to chant a simple poem when introducing them.
The following poem is a beautiful example that I found on the the Elsa Support website:
I’m your little worry doll
Keep me by your side
When worries pop into your head
Don’t let the tears slide
I will always listen
I’m here right next to you
Tell me how your feeling
No need to feel so blue
Tell me all your secrets
And things you love to do
I’m your little worry friend
Let me comfort you
This simple and beautiful poem is a great introduction to the doll, and makes it a real ritual when you use them.
Worry dolls are a fantastic resource for mindfulness, and for helping children process their emotions and feelings.
There are so many children that are stressed or anxious the majority of the time, and any strategy like this that helps them feel more balanced and in control is definitely something worth trying.