Last updated on Jun 11th, 2021 at 01:23 pm

Your kids might spend hours dressing and undressing their dolls, sorting and arranging them, even acting out little scenes in imaginative play. It’s so cute. But is there more to playing with dolls than we think? What if by playing with their dolls, they’re actually working on their social skills – and learning how to feel compassion and empathy for real people?

It can be easy to just brush off this kind of play – to think it’s just some innocent fun for your kids. In fact, when it comes to buying toys, you might well lean towards something more educational these days, like a tablet, puzzles or STEM games.

The benefits of playing with dolls

But according to new findings from a study by researchers at Cardiff University and Mattel, the company behind Barbie, playing with dolls can help your kids with important social development skills, like empathy. In other words, they can help them understand how people think and how they interact with each other.

In the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the researchers used neuro-imaging technology to monitor the brain activity of 42 girls and boys, aged between 4 and 8, as they played with Barbie dolls and playsets.

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What they found was that even when they played with the dolls on their own, kids’ brains are active in similar ways to when they interact with other people. And even more so than when they were playing on an electronic tablet.

Charlotte Whitehead, mom of 4-year-old Phoebe who took part in this study says she “hadn’t really considered whether there was any real value in doll play before” but that the results were “not surprising as children really care for dolls.”

“It’s interesting that social processing skills as well as empathy is developed,” she says. “Phoebe plays games on our tablet and plays with dolls and I wasn’t aware of the effects of each type of play on her development or brain activity. “

Empathy is a key skill

To highlight the relevance of these scientific findings, Barbie commissioned an independent poll with 15 000 parents across 22 countries, including South Africa. Like parents in other countries, it was clear that parents are increasingly worried about how social distancing and isolation is affecting their kids’ social development skills, but uncertain about what to do in the face of the pandemic.

ALSO SEE: Will lockdown affect my kids’ social skills development?

When 500 SA parents with kids between the ages of 3 and 10 were questioned, 79% indicated that empathy was a “key social skill” they’d like their kids to develop. However, only 24% were aware that simple doll-play could help to develop this important skill.

Many still believe that sporting activities (44%), outdoor play (41%) and puzzles (46%) help kids to build their social skills and empathy.

Of the respondents, 55% confirmed that they would be more likely to encourage their kids to play with a toy if it was proven it can help their kids develop social and emotional skills like empathy.

The bottom line

According to Lisa McKnight, SVP and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls, Mattel, the company always knew doll play has a positive impact on kids, but they never had the evidence.

“The findings of this research highlights that playing with dolls, such as Barbie, offers positive benefits in preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy,” she said in a press statement.

For more resources and support in encouraging social development skills, like empathy, through doll play click here.