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Guatemalan Worry Dolls

If you haven't already heard all the chatter on social media about the huge online event planned in celebration of Dr. Montessori's 150th Birthday, head over to the event website at Montessori Everywhere to see what all the excitement is about. It's a free, day long event where Montessorians from all over the world will gather, chat, discuss, share and generally celebrate all things Montessori. I will be demonstrating how to make Guatemalan Worry Dolls (don't worry the video will be available afterwards if you can't make it live) to give you something fun to do with your hands whilst you enjoy the event and also something to share with your children that may help alleviate some of the intense stress we are all feeling at the moment.

The tradition of these tiny dolls tells us that children can share their worries with them before going to sleep at night. The child slips the dolls under their pillow and they will take over the duty of worrying so that the child can peacefully sleep. The children in my class have LOVED making Worry Dolls. It one of those works that had just taken off and we have had to make emergency trips to the shop for more pipe-cleaners and beads just to keep up with demand. Check out this little collection:

I have found several stories of the origins of these little dolls. As is the case with so many traditions that formed before mass communication and even written language, there is often more than one origin. Even when tales share the same origin, the nature of oral retelling means that the ‘truth’ very much lies in the hands of the story teller, who holds both great power and great responsibility to pass on the treasured knowledge of the past in a way that honours its origin and tradition.

One story says that the tradition originates from a Mayan princess who had the power to solve any problem. Another tells us that these dolls derive from a sacred object used by the Mayan ruler, the Rilaj Mam - the wise elder or Maximón, dating back to precolonial times, during the Mayan Classic Period (250-900 d.C.) The new ruler would receive a sacred object, usually made of jade (the symbol of eternal life due to its colour and durability) or obsidian, wrapped in precious textiles, probably woven by the ruler’s mother as a symbol of his power - much like a crown for European monarchies. (Thank you Florencia!)

After much research and consultation with community elders, I have chosen to introduce the Worry Dolls using the story of two very special children who created the dolls in response to a great need. I like this version as children are the heroes – they do the making and they solve the problem; everything a second-plane child is inspired by.

Of course with older children there are some great conversations to be had around cultural traditions, authenticity and respect for the culture, migration and how traditions evolve as people travel and share their stories, etc. Oh, and we have charts to help with that!

The version below is my retelling, though of course the story is not original.

A Story of Guatemalan Worry Dolls

This is a long ago story. It is set in a small village in Guatemala and is about two children, their mother and their grandfather. In the village that year, disaster had struck. The rains had not come for a very long time so the crops had not grown and the family was often hungry. To try to make up for it, mother had been working extra hard on her weaving to make beautiful cloth that she could sell at the market. Each night, after a long day of work and school, the family would gather to listen to grandfather’s stories. Mother would weave as she listened to his tales, and the children would lie in in their hammocks, listening until they drifted off to sleep.

The night before market day, mother had laid out all of her beautifully woven cloth, full of bright colours and intricate patterns, ready to take to the market to sell. But during the night a thief crept into the house and stole the whole lot. The family awoke as they heard the thief leaving, but were unable to catch him. This was a true catastrophe! The family had nothing left to eat and nothing left to sell.

Mother’s despair became so deep that she fell ill and could not get out of bed and grandfather was too old to take on work. And so, the two children, an older girl and a younger boy, realised they must find a way to solve the problem. They went to mother’s weaving basket to see what they could find but all that was left was a few scraps of fabric and some bright threads.

The quick-thinking girl sent her little brother out into the yard to fetch twigs, and between them they worked late into the night, turning the scraps and twigs into teeny tiny little dolls.

When all the scraps and twigs had been used up, the girl picked up her favourite doll and whispered into its tiny ear. She told it all about the drought and the stolen weaving and mother being ill. She told it how worried she was about her family and wished that the little doll could help her. Then she settled the doll beside her as she finally fell asleep.

The next day was market day. Mother was still sick in bed, so the boy and the girl packed all the tiny dolls into their sack and made their way to market. They had been to market before with mother, but never by themselves and were worried that they would not know what to do. But they were brave and strong and they knew they had to find a way.

When they reached the market, they chose a shady spot next to the shoe seller and carefully laid their dolls out in groups of six. People came and went but nobody stopped to look at their tiny dolls. The children began to despair.

But as the day drew to a close and the market sellers began to pack up, a tall man in a hat approached the children’s stall. He asked what the children were selling and the girl told him they were dolls.

“Magic dolls!” the little boy cried.

“Magic dolls?” the man replied, “Well in that case, I must buy them all!”

The children were so shocked and excited they forgot even to haggle over the price. They simply accepted what the man handed them as he took the dolls and disappeared.

When the girl opened her hand to see what the man had given her, she realised it was enough money for the family to live on for the entire year!

As the children skipped home, chatting and laughing together, they felt something prickle their skin. Gently at first, then more heavily, rain began fall, splashing onto the dusty road as they ran. The children burst into the house to tell mother what had happened and found her quite well, as if cured by magic!

When the girl settled down to sleep that night, she felt something in her pocket and discovered her favourite worry doll - somehow it had not been sold with the others! She whispered her thanks to it for working its magic and slipped it under her pillow, so it would be there to listen to her worries always.

Worry Dolls are still made by children in Guatemala and all over the world to this day. They use scraps of fabric, yarn, wire and twigs, or whatever else they can find to breath their own special magic into their dolls. Maybe you would like to make some Worry Dolls too.

You can find more pictures of the Worry Dolls my students have been making on my Instagram feed and Facebook page. If you do make they with your students (or by yourself) I would love to hear how you get on. Come and join the conversation in the Facebook Group: Montessori Handwork Threads.

Stay safe friends!

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1 Comment

Jun 10, 2021

what a magical story and such a inspiring way for children to use their hands and little fingers.Thank you for sharing your wisdom on the depth of hand work. A subject that's given so little prominence, due to the lack of seeing it's power to engross a child's learning.

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