Playing with dolls keeps house in order

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Henry Hepburn meets Lucy, Niamh and Attik, who are helping pupils understand sectarianism

The parents were confused. Their children were talking about three new classmates, yet nobody knew of any families arriving in the neighbourhood. The teacher, Clare McEwan, knew immediately when they asked who they were.

Lucy, Niamh and Attik are dolls used in Bridge Street Bairns, an anti-sectarianism project for P1s at Catholic St Joseph's Primary and non-denominational Antonine Primary, in Bonnybridge, near Falkirk. "The children have bonded with these dolls and never mentioned that they weren't real," says Miss McEwan of St Joseph's.

The six-week project, which ran as a trial last May and June but will continue with the current P1s, started with a premise as intriguing as a Disney trailer. The children walked into class one day and saw a big mural of three neighbouring houses, says Miss McEwan, who led the project simultaneously with Antonine Primary's P1 teacher, Carrol Pollock.

She feigned ignorance as questions rained down about who lived there. A week later, a picture of a girl appeared at a window, to great excitement. The pupils learned that "Lucy" did gymnastics, liked Balamory and went to Sunday school, and talked about similarities and differences between her and themselves. They discovered she was having a sixth birthday party. The anticipation spilled over at circle time days later when, with-out warning, Lucy was brought into the room.

The children met Niamh next, and were equally excited about her arrival. They were surprised when they found out that Lucy's brother didn't want Niamh at the party, because she went to another school. Later it emerged it was because she was Catholic. The children were shocked and concerned for both Lucy and Niamh; one boy said Lucy was crying and wiped away her tears.

Finally, the class met Attik. They ignored his dark skin and were far more concerned with the gender balance on Bridge Street, yelling "It's a boy! It's a boy!" and running to hug him. Attik, too, was getting a hard time. He had been crying because someone had called him "Paki", which upset and angered the children.

Parents initially had concerns about the project, as they did not feel sectarianism was a problem in Bonnybridge. They became more comfortable when given a central role: eight parents made the dolls, and gave them stories and appearances they thought their children would respond to.

Miss McEwan was not initially convinced it was necessary to raise sectarianism with children at an age when they usually get along regardless. But she became convinced of the merits of the project - devised by Elaine Watts, Falkirk Council's curriculum support officer, and funded by the Scottish Government - as she observed the surprising reactions it sometimes prompted.

The predominantly Catholic children at St Joseph's, for example, "had more of an idea of what a Muslim was than a Catholic", as some pupils had heard the word on the news. There is a danger, says Miss McEwan, that if television is the only place where they hear about Muslims, a negative image could start to form.

P7 pupils at St Joseph's and Antonine primaries sometimes had a "slightly unhealthy rivalry", she said, although not for sectarian reasons. Pupils from the two schools shared a bus and the Bridge Street Bairns gave P1s something in common to talk about, perhaps offsetting future tension in the area and beyond.

As pupils learned about the secular and religious lives of Lucy, Niamh and Attiq, they showed they could form sophisticated theological arguments (see panel). The close bond between the children and the dolls ensured that, as situations involving sectarianism and racism were introduced, pupils' understanding was far better than it would have been in isolation.

"I had my concerns," recalls Miss McEwan. "But I definitely think by educating them and showing there's no difference between people, it will hopefully stop any kind of negative attitude to each other as they get older."

The project ended last June with Lucy's party, attended by St Joseph's and Antonine pupils, and the memories remain vivid.

"They still talk about the injustices they heard about through the project, says Miss McEwan. "If they've had a wee falling out, I'll ask what they should have said or done. They'll refer back and say: 'That's like when Niamh couldn't go to the party.'"


Teacher: Why do Muslims say their prayers a different way?

Pupil: That's easy, it's because hundreds of years ago there were no aeroplanes, so when God got born the people in Pakistan couldn't fly over here and ask us how we were going to say our prayers and we couldn't fly over there and ask them, so we all just made up our own way, but it doesn't matter, it all means the same thing.

Teacher: Are some churches right and some churches wrong?

Pupil: All churches are right, they just don't say the same words.

Teacher: James said 'Catholics can't come to Lucy's party'. What should Lucy do?

Pupil: Tell James he will have no friends if he's always unkind like that.

Teacher: What's different about Attik (a Muslim boy)?

Pupil: He lives in a different house, he lives at number 8 and Lucy and Niamh live at number 4 and 6.

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