First Grade: Hospital Dolls

A project for first graders was the next consideration for a K–12 service learning sequence. The main criteria were curriculum and genuine community need. Teachers suggested a project with hospitals, since first graders already visit with hospital staff as part of a health unit of study.

I had a number of service projects in my database collection under the topic of hospitals; however, when I contacted our hospital, emergency room nurses requested “hospital dolls.” Unsure of what these were, I searched online and found the “hospital dolls” that Kiwanis of Burnside, Australia, had created. With a match between curriculum and community need, we also discovered that our first graders were the perfect age to understand this need.

We found hospitals in Maryland, Tennessee, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California that used such dolls. With instructions from Kiwanis and additional information from the hospitals, we created a service learning project for first graders. Our emergency room nurses were enthusiastic about our taking on this project.

The premise for the dolls is that a hospital experience can be an overwhelming experience for a child. Any injury that sends a child to the emergency room is aggravated by bright lights, strange noises, unfamiliar equipment, and strangers who take away clothes and poke and prod; a child hurts and has no sense of control, but a hospital doll can comfort them. The dolls are blank—they have no facial features. The children get a pen or a nontoxic permanent marker to draw faces on their dolls, which allows them to express their feelings and personalize the dolls—a pleasant and distracting activity.

The purpose of the dolls, however, is more far-reaching. The doll is less threatening as a form of communication for young children who may be fearful of or resistant to treatment. Children who may initially be uncooperative or uncommunicative start relaxing and engaging with hospital staff when they have one of these dolls. The child can mark the area of injury and the pain they feel and can more easily share feelings and concerns through the doll, which helps staff make assessments. As staff develop rapport with a child, they can use the doll to explain procedures and help prepare the child for a treatment or test. Staff can use the doll to show where they will be giving injections or a posture or a desired body position they want the child to assume. Children become more cooperative and cope more effectively with the doll as a source of comfort. After treatment, children can dress the dolls and take them home.


  • Muslin or cotton with no sheen so markers can be used on the fabric
  • Light, middle, and dark skin shades
  • One yard of 45″ fabric will yield three dolls
  • Stuffing

Retail cost (in 2007) for fifty dolls:

  • 12 yards for 36 cream-colored dolls @ .99 per yard = $12
  • 5 yards for 15 darker-colored dolls @ $1.99 per yard = $10
  • 50-pound box of stuffing: $14
  • Total $36

Service Learning Outline:


First graders visit with hospital staff to learn about health, routine examinations, and equipment used. They also learn how staffers use the dolls and the value of this contribution.

Sewing Component

First graders were old enough to understand the purpose of the dolls and to stuff them, but they were not old enough to sew them. The construction of the dolls involves simple cutting and sewing around edges with curves. The opening for stuffing needs to allow for first graders to stuff the doll with ease, and it is important to stay on the pattern, as misshapen dolls are hard to use at the hospital. After first graders stuff the dolls, the openings need to be sewn up. Hospital gowns with arms and Velcro at the neck can also be made from donated scraps.

Our high school Family Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) students took on this sewing task with this response: “We are looking forward to direct involvement with the first graders and definitely want to be involved with the first graders when it is time to stuff the dolls.” These high school students were excited to have a reason to work with first graders on a community service project, and the first graders were excited to have the high school students come to their class with the dolls for them to stuff and dress. Creating partnerships and working together was clearly enriching for both groups. In the absence of such a connection, another possibility for this support task could be community members who sew. An after-school program could serve as an alternate location for sewing the dolls.


First graders stuff the dolls, starting with the head, then arms and legs, chest last. Dolls should be plump but not stiff so the dolls can bend although not flop. Original instructions included chopsticks to stuff the dolls, but our first graders were able to stuff the dolls better with just their fingers. When the dolls were completed, first graders dressed the dolls.

Monthly communications with the hospital keep first graders updated on the need for more dolls, mirroring the sustained relationship first graders had with the animal shelter in kindergarten.


This is typically a written activity after discussion about the purpose and significance of the contribution.


At a school-wide assembly, a representative from the hospital shares project outcomes and first graders share reflection excerpts. Newspaper articles and radio station spots inform the community of the event.

Disciplines incorporated

  • Health
  • Language Arts

Responses from our hospital

  • “The dolls have been awesome! The nurses love them and use them all the time.”
  •  “A two-year-old girl came into the emergency room the other day needing stitches. She was scared and weepy. As soon as she got the doll, she settled right down. She loved the doll and put Band-Aids all over it. She even put a Band-Aid on the spot where her own blood had dripped.”

In less than a month, the first delivery of dolls to the hospital from one class was almost gone. Our hospital provided us with the number of children who would benefit from the dolls annually. In our community, 450 children between the ages of one and eight go through the emergency room each year. This kind of information allows for planning that spans the entire year, with monthly updates from the hospital.


A national checklist of projects from many communities nationwide would provide a wide variety of support for local hospital staff to consider. Older students or community members could generate these support projects. The following are some project possibilities from my database collection:

  • Holiday placemats
  • Activity bags
  • DVDs and books
  • Murals and artwork
  • Cards for children with serious illnesses
  • Visitations
  • Personalized T-shirts for ventilator patients
  • Pillows for heart patients to buffer the pain of coughing
  • Hats for cancer patients
  • Handmade clothing, hats, and blankets for premature babies

In addition to providing hospital dolls as their signature project, first graders also serve as the liaison between monthly requests from the hospital and donations from the community. Hospitals gain a reliable community contact, duplication of more well-known needs is reduced, and the variety of support increases. Over time, community members come to know that first graders manage this connection, honoring the work of these young but capable youth, and contributing to hospitals and also to the education of our youth.

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