The Profound, Long-Lasting Benefits of Playing With Barbie

How picking up a doll shapes your child’s future.

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This article was produced in partnership with our friends at Barbie.

When it comes to child development, playtime is a serious thing. Just because it’s natural for kids to ascribe personalities, needs, and narratives to their dolls doesn’t make it any less remarkable or developmentally important. Wrapping a doll in its “favorite” blanket or dressing a doll for work is both an act of imaginative play and a practice run at human kindness. Specifically, researchers have found that a bit of networking within the plastic community starts to set up young children for more successful careers and lives. This is true across cultures and is likely the ultimately reason why dolls are a global phenomenon.

The unlikely and beautiful truth is that young children help the people they project onto dolls and that those projections, in turn, help young children.

“As a child selects a doll and embarks on an adventure, he or she is crafting a narrative or story line, involving literacy skills, flexible thinking, self-expression, taking initiative, and more,” says Jody DeVos, Director of Child Development and Learning in the strategic technologies department of Mattel. “In addition, the open-ended nature of doll play can allow children to practice routines or social interactions that might be tricky—such as how to resolve a conflict with a friend from their real life.”

According to research, “pretend play,” the behavioral category social scientists assign interacting with dolls, builds safe environments in which children can experiment with seeing the world from other perspectives, learning empathy and interaction strategies in an environment where they can fail without consequence. Jerome Singer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Yale School of Medicine, explains that children have a fundamental need to shrink the large, loud world down to a manageable size so they can test their ideas in everyday situations. When children use toys to create realistic scenarios or fill in for friends, they have both sides of every conversation, learning about communication, problem solving, and empathy along the way.

Doll designs can be modernized and optimized and altered. And they should be to reflect the world that kids are growing up in and will live in the future. That said, dolls are a technology that needs no disruption. Dolls work because children don’t need instructions to understand how to use them.

“In a recent global survey, more than 350 CEOS stated that the most vital skills of employees and successful people in the next 50 years will be creativity, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence,” says Dr. Laura Jana, pediatrician and author of The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today that Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow, explains. “Creative play allows children start making up scenarios to build those skills without even realizing it.”

Jana refers to traditional learning skills—you know, reading, writing, and arithmetic—as IQ skills. Critical thinking, empathy, creativity, and cooperation—those are what she calls “QI” skills (sometimes these are referred to as EQ for emotional intelligence). “They’re overlooked in formal learning environments, but they are necessary,” she says. “Being able to read emotions is just as important as being able to read a book.” In other words, all Barbies, no matter what their ostensible jobs might be, are ultimately teacher Barbies.

The great news for parents is that facilitating doll play is basically a two step process: Provide a child with a Barbie Doll then get out of the way. That said, parents would do well to keep an eye on what happens – it’s a window into the emotional life of a child. But it’s best to let kids steer doll play as it is fundamentally a social exploration.

“These play opportunities seem way less formal than playing with puzzles or flash cards, but learning doesn’t have to be formal when your child is learning about life,” explains Jana.

DeVos and Jana agree that doll play is also helpful for boys, who need to develop the same emotional skills as girls and sometimes aren’t allowed to participate in that sort of emotional exploration. Specifically, boys can benefit from the degree to which doll play facilitates self-expression, which is a rare skill in pre-teen boys (and also teen boys if you want to get into it). It’s easier now to supply boys with boy dolls, if that is their preference. More diverse representation among dolls helps kids pick toys that they can both empathize with and feel embodied by. The key for parents looking for the right plastic companion is just to follow kids’ leads.  

“Subtle marketing images chips away at a child’s perspective of self and others. If doll play is shaping our children’s ability to interpret and communicate with themselves and the world around them right down to the connectivity of neurons in their brains, then we have to take into account whether the toys and tools we give them represent the world,” says Jana. “Racially diverse options existing in the mainstream is so important.”

How can parents make sure child see themselves in their dolls and create positive spaces in which to learn social lessons? By thinking of dolls as objects of affection and tools rather than as simple toys. They may be simple in form, but dolls create worlds in a profound and complicated way.

“For parents, it’s as important to recognize the inherent benefits of doll play as it is to use doll play as a teaching tool or opportunity for specific learning opportunities,” DeVos says. “We’re trying to help parents understand the values of doll play so that they begin to view this critical play as something that’s important for their child’s development.”

The Four Thing Parents Need to Know About Playing With Dolls

  • Playing with dolls is a creative activity that helps kids practice how to interact with other people while allowing them to make mistakes.
  • It’s important that children be able to identify with dolls so that they can imagine the world from their perspectives and build empathy. This is why representation is critical.
  • Boys gain valuable skills when they play with dolls.
  • Structured doll play isn’t necessarily bad, but it does somewhat defeat the point. It’s best to let children lead the way.

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