Today the four-year-olds at Willowbrook Primary School in Leicester have a special visitor. They have met him once before, and when they see him coming, they shout: "It's Mohammed!" enthusiastically.
Mohammed is a dark-skinned Muslim boy, who wears loose-fitting white clothes and a topi. He comes to the front of the class, and the children clamour to be the first to hold him on their lap. Yes, Mohammed is a doll.
But not just any doll. Mohammed is one of a series of Persona dolls, which Marilyn Bowles, foundation teacher and RE co-ordinator at Willowbrook, believes can be very effective in introducing young children to the idea of other faiths and getting them talking. She has been working with her collection of Persona dolls for the past four years at Willowbrook, and is as accomplished - not to say, evangelical - a practitioner of the art as you could wish to see. Her theme for this morning is the idea of Ramadan.
"Mohammed has come to see us today to tell us about something really interesting that is happening in his family," she tells her class. "You won't believe this, but very early in the morning, when it's very, very dark, his mum and dad get up and have some breakfast. Then when Mohammed gets up, his mum and dad don't have anything to eat or drink all day."
The children talk about what it might feel like not to eat all day. "You'd feel poorly," says one. "You'd get grumpy," suggests another. Marilyn Bowles relates how Mohammed's parents told him that they were "trying to see what it was like, because poor people don't have any food. They are praying to their God and saying, help me be a kind person, help me share things."
An awed silence greets this explanation, but this is nothing to the expressions of horror when the children learn that Mohammed does not watch any television during this special time. They then comfortably digress into talking about their own favourite programmes.
By the end of this year, says Marilyn Bowles, these children will be holding more sophisticated and less egocentric, discussions on issues raised by the Persona dolls. They might, perhaps, be finding out what Geeta, the Hindu doll, enjoys about celebrating Diwali; what it is like for Phoebe, a white doll, living with her mum, but not her dad; or how Jezzie, a black doll, feels to be newly arrived from South Africa and one of the only black faces in the school.
These discussions will not only do wonders for children's speaking and listening skills, but will also help, Marilyn Bowles hopes, to develop in them vital powers of empathy. The dolls' personas are built up slowly, incorporating everyday details about their lives and families, as well as the particular issues they encounter. The dolls now form part of Willowbrook's PSHE programme for key stages 1 and 2, and there are many spin-offs for citizenship and RE.
"The idea is for the children to see the dolls as friends, as people who have many things in common with them, who feel happy about things, who get upset about things," says Marilyn Bowles. "I want the children to grow up as global human beings, who are not wary of other cultures."
She first encountered Persona dolls six years ago at a Leicester educational workshop, and was so taken with them that she contacted their founder, South African-born Babette Brown, to learn more. Marilyn Bowles began working with the dolls at a multicultural school in inner city Leicester, where parents were able to advise her on details of costume, family life and worship.
Bringing the dolls to Willowbrook, a school with an almost entirely white population drawn from what she describes as a "very insular" estate (with a British National Party presence), was a bigger challenge altogether. But with pupils from such homogeneous and non-religious backgrounds, the dolls, she argues, are even more valuable in attempting to broaden the children's spiritual and cultural outlook. Their parents are guarded in their reactions (some, for instance, kept their children at home on the day Willowbrook hosted a Diwali celebration), but Marilyn Bowles hopes to draw them in gradually, through Persona doll sessions for parents and children.
"I want the children to lead the parents," she says. "I want Willowbrook to be a multicultural beacon in the middle of this estate."
Four neighbouring schools are already using the dolls, and Marilyn Bowles has written a resource book (to be published in January), with ideas to help teachers get the best out of them. Purpose-made Persona dolls - large, soft and likeable - can be bought through Babette Brown (about pound;50 each), but Marilyn Bowles says other dolls will do almost as well, provided the children regard them as special. And wherever possible, she adds, the dolls' stories should be backed up by those of real people, invited into school.
Lat Blaylock, executive officer of the Professional Council for Religious Education, is a convert. "This is an excellent set of strategies for bringing complex religious material into a classroom for young children," he says. "It is often said that multi-faith RE creates confusion, but this method shows that it actually clarifies confusion and helps children see the significance of religions in a fun way."
For books, dolls, videos and details of training, contact Babette Brown, 51 Granville Gardens, London N12 OJH; or NES Arnold, Novara House, Excelsior Road, Ashby de la Zouche LE65 1NGwww.persona-doll-training.orgThe Little Book of Persona Dolls by Marilyn Bowles is published in January at pound;5.95 by Featherstone Education, 44-46 High Street, Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire LE17 6LP
TIPS FOR A 20-MINUTE LESSON WITH PERSONA DOLLS
Spend a few minutes introducing the Persona doll. If the children have met the doll before, recap on some of the things they talked about. Young children will enjoy taking turns to hold the doll.
Introduce a new event in the doll's life. It might be something positive like a religious festival, or it could be something the doll is finding difficult, such as coming to a new country, or school.
Ask the children to explain how they think the doll feels.
Give as many children as possible an opportunity to respond. Sometimes they will repeat what others have said, but often they have their own special insights.
Always finish on a positive note, before the children say goodbye to the doll.