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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.
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 produced lovely rich hues. They were also the easiest to paint on, soaking in quickly and leaving even tones no matter how they were applied.
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.
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.*
- 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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!).
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!
- 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…
- Discuss the science of skin color. Read the book All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color (grab some discussion points from Social Justice Books to talk through it), or watch this animated video from educator Angela Koine Flynn for TedEx.
- Combine with other hands-on learning activities. The folks over at Sesame Workshop have put together pages of great resources you can watch/read/print as part of their ABCs of Racial Literacy series. Pair your peg doll-making with the lovely free printable activity book Raising Little Allies to Be from Wander+Wonder Studio, make a multicultural family portrait wall (from Happy Toddler Playtime), or download a set of multicultural paper dolls you can embellish with fun art supplies (from educator John Lavelle for hello, Wonderful).
- 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.
- Read some inclusive picture books together. The Diverse Book Finder, Pragmatic Mom, and Welcoming Schools have all put together wonderful collections of picture books that explore and celebrate skin color and our unique identities.
- 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!
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.
*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 Woodpecker 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!