Make: A DIY Diverse Peg Doll Set

My ever-growing library of small world play accessories received a huge upgrade this week in the form of a DIY’ed community of multicultural peg doll friends. Though the project was a quick one for me to make on my own, it was important that the process be an activity that kids of all ages could easily participate in and take over.

In addition to being wonderful small world play props, this lovely set of diverse, gender-neutral peg dolls was developed with kid participation in mind – to help promote open conversations about identity, inclusion, and empathy.

Make your own set of gender-neutral, multicultural peg dolls! An easy DIY for inclusive small world play.

I tested a few different methods of mixing and applying skin tones (acrylic paint, staining, liquid watercolors, etc.) but really wanted to find a low-mess process that kids of all ages could easily experiment with. I was ecstatic to find that simple watercolor cakes with a brush worked better than any other supply I tried! They’re so easy to mix, allowing for an endless range of skin colors, and produce lovely rich hues. They were also the easiest to paint on, soaking in quickly and leaving even tones no matter how they were applied.

Make your own set of gender-neutral, multicultural peg dolls! An easy DIY for inclusive small world play.

Short on peg dolls or looking for a way to use this idea in a classroom? You can print out a page of our Paper People Templates onto watercolor paper for a 2D variation on this activity. Or use this same technique to make a set of bundled clothespin dolls for simple winter-themed learning games.

To make your own set of diverse peg dolls you’ll need:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains a few Woodpeckers Crafts and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

BASIC SUPPLIES:

  • Unfinished wooden peg doll people like these
  • Watercolor cakes like these or this opaque set I used, and a soft paintbrush
  • Acrylic or tempera paint and a paintbrush
  • A small container for water
  • A color-mixing palette like this
  • Paper towels or an old washcloth

OPTIONAL SUPPLIES:

  • An eyedropper and a sponge
  • A natural wood wax like this to finish
  • Scrap fabric or other decorative art and craft supplies to add your own details and flair

DIY Multicultural Peg Doll Set Instructions:

  1. Mix a variety of skin-toned colors using watercolor cakes

    Color-mixing provides a great opportunity for discussion – keep reading for some resources you can use to help kick-off or navigate those conversations! Rather than guessing at skin tones, try to match your own skin tone, use photos for reference, and take some time to explore the wide range of skin colors that can be mixed.
    Mix a variety of skin-toned colors using watercolor cakes
    For younger kids, it may help to start with a palette that already includes a few different skin tone shades you can mix together (I’ve linked to a good high-quality/low-cost option in the supply list). Or you could premix a variety of colors on a palette and explore adding small amounts of red, yellow, blue, etc. to create different tones.

    Note: I used opaque watercolors for this because the pigment is incredibly saturated, making it easy to coat the wood with just one coat (it’s also easier to see the result when color-mixing). You can absolutely use a simple Crayola or Prang palette, just be aware it may take more coats of watercolor if you’re trying to get a solid, even finish.

  2. Use a soft brush to paint the watercolor skin tones onto the peg dolls

    A big soft brush makes it easy to paint color that soaks into all the nooks and crannies. You could also add color with eyedroppers (if you try this technique, you can lay the peg dolls on squares of cut sponge to help soak up excess watercolors.
    Use a soft brush to paint the watercolor skin tones onto the peg dolls
    For this set, I only painted the heads as I knew I was going to use colorful acrylics on the bodies, but there’s no reason why your kiddos can’t paint the whole peg doll.

  3. Let dry for approximately 15 minutes

    One of the great things about using watercolors on wood is they soak RIGHT up into the wood, so they’ll feel relatively dry to the touch very quickly. Much like a paint stain, you can build up and deepen the colors by adding another layer of watercolor, but I actually didn’t find it necessary.

    15 minutes gives them time to soak up the watercolors (you can wick away any excess with a sponge or paper towel) before you move on to the next step.

  4. Use acrylic paint or fabric and glue to add simple clothing

    While watercolors worked perfectly for skin tones, I wanted to use a thicker opaque paint for the clothing. There were some watercolor drips and splotches we wanted to cover up, and it only took 1 coat to finish the job with our brightly colored acrylics (tempera paints would work too!).
    Use acrylic paint or fabric and glue to add simple clothing
    This particular peg doll set is about as minimal as it gets, but there are tons of fun ways your kiddos could add some personal style and pizzaz to their peg dolls. Keep reading for some ideas and inspiration!

  5. Finish with wood wax or similar (optional)

    Once completed, I let this set “cure” for a full 24 hours. I love the way these look and, for our purposes, they don’t require any kind of special finish, but it you’d like to give your set a bit of extra protection or shine there are lots of options for kid-safe, VOC-free wood waxes, oils, sealers or shellacs.

More ways to use your DIY peg people for learning and play

When it comes to initiating and facilitating conversations about skin color, promoting inclusion at home and in the classroom, and anti-bias education, I defer to the experts who have put an absolute wealth of resources out there! Here are a few of my favorites that can help you make the most of this activity…

  • Talk about identity. Our peg doll set is intentionally minimal, in part to get away from limiting gender stereotypes. For some good activities you can use to discuss identity and foster gender-expansive learning, visit welcoming schools’ list of lesson plans here.
  • Add personality! I’ve explained why our peg dolls are minimal, but half the fun for kids is making these their own. For peg doll decoration and supply inspiration, visit ARTBAR‘s kid-made peg people. Our people are all the same size (just what I had on hand!) but peg dolls are available in a wide range of styles. You can get a set that comes in all different shapes and sizes – just like us real people!
Make your own set of gender-neutral, diverse peg dolls! An easy DIY for inclusive small world play.

Once finished, you can make your own homes for your peg people with our cardboard box city neighborhood, scrap wood beach dollhouse, or find a perfect mini abode in our collection of over 50 ideas for small world homes made from recycled supplies!

For more resources to help you start conversations about race, visit our ever-growing list of anti-racist learning links for kids, families, and educators here.

Make your own set of gender-neutral, multicultural peg dolls! An easy DIY for inclusive small world play.

*A note about affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Amazon or Woodpeckers Crafts. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click-through to make a purchase we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

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Amanda E.
With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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