When my husband and I were expecting our second son, we bought our toddler son a lifelike baby doll. He learned how to hold the baby and rock the baby and talk sweetly to the baby. When little brother finally arrived, he reached over to him, patted his head, and repeated the phrase he’d been hearing so often.
“Gentle! Gentle!” he said.
These days, you are more likely to see a child clutching a tablet or screen device than a doll. But recent studies show that doll play has a very important role in child development.
Social emotional learning: dolls vs. tablets
In a recent three-year study, the toy maker Mattel, Inc partnered with a team of neuroscientists from Cardiff University to employ neuroimaging to discover what happens to children’s brains while playing with dolls. The boys and girls, ages 4 to 8, engaged in group and solo doll play while brain mapping was being conducted. The study found that regions of the brain associated with social processing were activated, even during solo play. These areas of the brain relate to increased empathy, imagination, and the processing of thoughts and feelings.
While theories in education have posited that pretend play is an important part of social development, this was the first study to show actual evidence based on neurological science.
Scientists also observed that children who engaged in doll play showed increased language skills and were better able to articulate their own thoughts and feelings, as well as the thoughts and feelings of others. They also showed gains in Internal State Language (ISL), that is, the language that we use to speak to ourselves when thinking. These gains were equal in both boys and girls.
The scientists concluded that playing with dolls helps children to practice the social and emotional skills that are an important part of child development and beyond. In contrast, children who played with tablets showed far less activity in those regions of the brain. While tablets may help students in STEM education, they offer very little when it comes to social emotional learning.
Dolls encourage imagination
“Play allows a child to imagine what it feels like to be in another’s shoes, which is a key component of empathy and incredibly valuable in emotional development,” said Angela Gladstone, early childhood pedagogical coordinator at Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor. “Children then are acting empathetically towards their baby dolls as they feed, clothe, bathe and snuggle their baby.”
“In Waldorf education, we know how important play is. It is one of the strongest tools for children to learn and make sense of the world. We are also amazed at the innate capacity for imagination in childhood. There is nothing like it!” Gladstone said. “There seems to be an innate drive within children to have doll play. As we are lucky enough to serve as a witness to the play in our classrooms and windows into children’s imaginations, doll play can feel like some of the most sacred play.”
Gladstone noted that a wide variety of dolls are used in the classroom to showcase a representation of the child’s world that they will encounter on a daily basis.
“At our school, we also want to make sure that children see dolls that look like them, as well as dolls that don’t. We are one whole community, and caring for babies that have different skin colors, Down Syndrome, glasses, hearing aides or inhalers, is a reflection of what we want in our classroom: pure tenderness and care for every individual within our community.”
Benefits for the neurodivergent child
The team at Cardiff University recently published their findings regarding doll play and neurodivergent children. They found that doll play was also beneficial to those children who displayed high and low levels of traits associated with autism. Doll play was helpful in practicing social scenarios, which led to an increase in processing skills. Through doll play, children were able to rehearse and perform skills that would lead to social, emotional, and academic success.
Gladstone has also found that doll play can be also therapeutic for all children who are navigating difficult situations such as loss, illness or divorce.
“Doll play can be easily associated with developing emotional capabilities,” she said. “In play, there are often emotions that arise in the scenarios with baby dolls. During that time, children work to deepen their emotional responses and reactions, which is healthy for development. They are able to internalize other’s emotions and in return their emotional capacity expands.”
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