Modeling Anti-Racism Through Play

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

You Bought The Diverse Dolls, Toys, And Books. But There's More.

Black Lives (Dreams, Fears, Ideas) Matter. As a country, we are in the midst of a movement. We are collectively reflecting and confronting our privilege. We know that we need to do the work to combat systemic racism, and as parents, we know that part of our work is raising the next generation differently.

There are many lists of diverse dolls, toys, and books circulating (we have them too!). A play space filled with diverse toys and books that are representative of the world is a step in the right direction. However, as an early childhood expert, a play expert, and a mom of biracial children, I want to say that purchasing from a list is not enough to raise anti-racist children.

So, let’s get on the floor and do the work! Yes, we mean literally get on the floor. Part of our work as parents means raising a generation of anti-racist allies, and for our kids, these lessons should start during playtime. Through play, you can model what it looks like and feels like to show empathy, to work for equity, to practice radical love, and to start the life-long teaching of anti-racism.

And we must start early. Children’s understanding of race begins at 6 months. There is research to suggest that a child’s mindset is determined by age 2. Their ideas about race and finally their understanding and racial bias forms between 2-4 years.

If you simply give children (especially those 3 years and up) Black and Brown dolls and diverse toys without first playing with them together, there are a couple of missed opportunities, even dangers here.

  1. The toys might not be played with. Children are already attached to their other toys, and your new playroom residents may not have a place in the community without your purposeful introduction.

  2. Get a window into their understanding of race. Children show the biases they’ve learned in their play. Watching and playing with them will give you a picture of their understanding that you otherwise would not have.

  3. The toys may reinforce racial bias that you need to address. Without guidance from you, your children may inadvertently play out and, in turn, practice a mistaken understanding of race in their play. For example, commonly, the new diverse characters in their playroom may become the ‘bad guy’ in their stories.

Every time you play with your children, you give them ideas for their next play time, their next play story. This is why you see children mimicking what you do during their play time. While children are wired to play, their play can always become richer, deeper, and more meaningful when we model play ideas for them.

Before you start, ask yourself: which doll and toy do you pick up when you play? The one that looks like you? Check yourself here because this is what we are modeling for our children. We must be conscious of the toys we gravitate toward because we assign value to those we play with more.

It is critically important to model equity by playing with a representation of toys during play time. You can act out scenes that model fairness, standing up for others, treating all with kindness and respect. This is one way you can instill anti-racism as a value.

First, watch your children and see how they play. You will learn so much about their understanding of the world.

Next, get on the floor and play with them. Here are some play ideas to try:

  1. Take care of your doll’s needs. Cook food for your dolls. Help your child serve, care for, and share food with each doll. If they don’t immediately share the food equally, model it by saying, “Oh, this doll would like some more too, but I see there is only one cookie left. What could they do to make sure everyone gets some?”

  2. Play out scenarios. The puppets are on a playdate. One puppet is upset because someone made fun of his/her (shoes*, clothes, eye color, hair, skin). Model how the other puppet can help, show empathy and be an advocate. *Starting with items of clothing is an easy way for adults and children to access and practice these tricky topics. It might sound something like this: “Everyone looks different, and that’s what makes us all special. Let’s go get our teacher’s help and talk to (insert name) about how her words made you feel.”

  3. Observe and talk about physical differences. Choose a favorite diverse book and create portraits of the characters. As you match the colors of the characters’ skin, hair, and eyes to your art materials, think out loud about the beautiful and uniqueness of each character and how they look. You might say, “This character’s skin is dark brown like hot cocoa. What a beautiful color! Did you know that his skin works really hard to make a lot of melanin in order to be that color?”

Three important things to note:

  1. Repeat your anti-racist and equity play stories over and over. Each of these and other play scenes like them should be repeated over and over again. Children learn through repetition; you will feel bored before they do, I promise.

  2. Race should not be the focal point of each equity play story. Rather, race is one aspect of equity and standing up for others that should come up in rotation. Each time, you can shift the play slightly. These scenarios are perfect for teaching anti-racism but also for teaching children to be good global citizens, to value and seek to understand others’ experiences no matter how they differ from our own: gender, socioeconomic, racial, country of origin, mother language, ability, etc.

  3. Playtime should never feel forced. You can offer materials and ideas, but it is your child’s prerogative to accept or reject your offer. As your child plays, inject a new idea or toy in their story. If they accept your idea into their play story, great! If not, play out your anti-racist play story next to them and see if they join in. If not, try again later. Things of great consequence are not completed in a day!

Reading books is an important way for children to observe diversity, but it is not enough to just read the words. Engage with the story and talk about the characters and the plot.

  1. Stop mid-page and observe how the characters look similar or different.

  2. Notice how the characters act and feel throughout the story.

  3. Look back through the story and see how the characters experiences might be similar or different.

  4. Validate and value the experiences and feelings of the characters in the story by empathizing.

Use your toys and art materials to explore the books you read. You can also use books to launch into deeper explorations of race and experience.

  1. Use toys or a storytelling felt or magnet board to retell the story.

  2. Use art to recreate pictures from the story.

  3. Use art to create puppets or portraits of the characters from the story. Spend some purposeful time talking about and crafting the character’s skin tones and features.

Toys are tools -- too many of us see them simply as vehicles for a child’s play time. I challenge us all to see toys as tools to teach. Think about it, a doll has the power to inspire world-changing conversations, allowing children to practice advocacy and love in a safe, supportive environment: the floor of your home. Through play, we can guide our children to become part of an anti-racist generation. How amazing is it that toys are beautiful, joyful, and hopeful tools that will help us create a more equitable and safe world for everyone -- all while spending quality time with our own children.

I hope you found this post helpful! If you have questions or want to chat, join the conversation in Instagram! or email us

Anne + Jodi

Want product suggestions?

See our lists:

Favorite Diverse Toys: featuring Black Characters and materials representative of Black and brown skin tones from 4 of our 8 categories of play

Favorite Diverse Books: featuring Black Characters and Heroes