Social work tools for direct work with children: dolls

Direct work with children using dolls from Community Care on Vimeo

What is the technique?

Using dolls or animals to represent people in the child’s life, you begin a story and then ask the child to “show and tell” you what might happen next. This technique is based upon techniques such as the Story Stem Assessment Profile (SSAP). Expert training in the SSAP is at the Anna Freud Centre in London and to assess secure and insecure attachment in children, you would need to be fully trained in the technique. However, the use of any “story” or role-play involving low-levels of conflict, such as a short separation, an argument, or a minor accident, can still give insights into a “child’s world”. It is most useful with children aged, developmentally, between four and nine years.

What resources do I need?

Dolls (such as ‘Playmobile’ people) or toy animals that can represent various people in a child’s life.

What do I do?

Begin the story and ask the child to ‘show and tell’ you what happens next.

A simple example requiring only a mummy and daddy doll is:

Daddy doll: “Have you got the map”

Mummy doll: “No, I thought you had it”

Daddy doll: “Well I haven’t and now we’re lost”

Ask the child to show and tell you what happens next.

Use clear expression but do not use an overtly angry tone. Do not lead the child or ask probing questions. Clarification is often best achieved by occasionally repeating back what the child has said, especially when you are not sure what they mean (or if they are barely audible). Praise the child for telling the story but avoid praising the story itself, as this will give the child messages about what you want them to say, or think they should say.

What am I looking for?

The type of story the child tells can represent their understanding of family relationships. Stories that end up with signs of catastrophe (the father and mother end up dead in the story), good/bad switch (where mummy or daddy suddenly switch between being good then bad then good without any explanation as to why) and omnipotence in the child (magic, all-powerful, all knowing) are often worrying signs.


If the child plays out extreme violence, this does not mean it has literally happened to them. Find out if anything else may have intruded into the story telling i.e. did they watch something on television recently and then recount it using the dolls? Has someone in the family recently died?

Discuss your reflections with colleagues to avoid “confirmation bias” i.e. you will only take account of things which confirm what you thought early on. Construct two or three plausible and credible alternative explanations for what you are seeing.

Back to social work toolkit for direct work with children

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