It is a wonderful thing for every child, boy or girl, to have a doll. As a sleeping companion, confidante and general companion, the doll should be soft and warm. Most "Waldorf dolls" are stuffed with real wool because wool retains AND, most importantly, engenders, warmth. Such a doll should barely have any features at all so that dolly can be sad or happy, angry or joyful as the child sees fit.
The doll can have the same or similar skin color as the child and can be the same gender or not. These considerations, however, have more to do with adult sensibilities than the reality of a young child's consciousness: no child under about 4 or 5, unless awakened to the fact, knows about racial identity and a "white" or "black" (or green or purple) doll has potentially the same resonance with any child of any racial background as long as adults have not brought attention to this issue. Having said that, for an older child (of about 6 and up) having a doll with similar racial features/skin color can be extremely important for that child as he is beginning to develop his own relationship to the world and to who is he.
Regarding the gender of the doll, it is best to leave this ambiguous so that the doll can reflect the child's changing relationship to gender, depending upon, for instance, what role the doll is taking in play. Some children are quite definite about whether dolly is a girl or a boy but for many, dolly having a gender is simply not part of the picture. This should be respected and thus it is best if adults take care in how they speak to a child about his doll. Asking "what's your doll's name" is thus a better strategy than "what's she (or he) called?"
A primary role for the doll is its part in the imitative life of the child. Many little boys whose mothers breastfeed will also 'breastfeed' their babies. It is best if no comment is made on this, either positively or negatively. Such play is what it is - a child imitating an important adult activity. The fact that only women produce milk is of no relevance or importance to the child. By remarking on it either with concern or approval (depending on how the adult views this activity) one is missing the point - a child's need for imitation is activity-based, not thought-based. This is of vital importance for young children and really should be allowed free scope without adult feedback.
Many adults find it incredibly difficult to speak with young children without projecting their own positive or negative responses to what the child is doing or refraining from pulling the child out of her quite appropriate sphere of consciousness into another kind of consciousness. By simply affirming what a child is doing ("Ah, I see dolly is coming to lunch, too") one leaves the child free. If instead the adult say something like "do you think dolly needs to have lunch?" then the adult is bringing her own agenda into the situation. Whether dolly should or shouldn't be at lunch or whether he is going to eat or not may never have occurred to the child - now suddenly there is a question. To answer a question one must draw back from the situation, reflect and think forward. Before age about 6, it is best if this kind of thinking, this orientation to the world, is emphasized as little as possible.
Of course, I am at risk of sounding like a complete nut, making such a big deal out of this. So what if when granny comes she spends the whole time grilling Junior about everything he does - surely the fact that granny adores Junior and he adores her is more important? Of course. But I make a point about this because it is opposite to how most people behave with young children, due to the incredibly narrow picture of childhood - and the development of human beings - that we are surrounded with in our culture. People's fears about their child 'being behind' prompts many to carry on a running dialogue with their child from day to night. This unfortunately often also includes the narrowing of the boundaries of how the child can play and thus how he develops as a human being.
If one is not considering and reflecting and stepping back from a situation or phenomena, then one is immersed in it. One is in a state of Oneness, of undifferentiatedness. This is the natural state of consciousness of young children. If dolls can be girls at one moment and boys at another, if a cardboard box can be a castle then a garage then a bear's cave - then the fluidity of imaginative play, which is the absolute bedrock of creativity, is being allowed free rein. As soon as a toy can only be played with one way, as soon as adults inform a child that this or that can only be played with like this, then the child takes a step away from the realm where, for a young child, freedom must be paramount. For a young child, freedom of choice in terms of, for instance, what jacket should he wear, makes little sense. The child's etheric (life energy) and physical bodies need support by clear and rhythmic forms. But in the realm of imaginative play, adult boundaries have no place.
If you'd like to know more about Waldorf (or more accurately, anthroposophical) ideas about the development of consciousness of the child and how this is reflected by the Waldorf curriculum, you might like to listen to my free audio download on this subject. I feel that this topic is so important that I made the talk free, so that more people could listen and see if these ideas resonate with them
We also sell an audio download about talking pictorially to young children which many people find very helpful as the usual advice one receives about talking to young children is based on the assumption that the consciousness of the child is not fundamentally different from that of older children or adults, that children are simply less experienced human beings. Close observation of children perhaps aided by anthroposophical insights (or by the work of people such as Piaget) prove otherwise.
I have also written a number of other blog posts on play which may be of interest.