When I was little, I used to stay up late, talking to my Barbies, giving them names, personalities – and giving my dolls made up problems I’d relish trying to solve. What I was really doing, according to scientists at Cardiff University? Practicing empathy.
That’s because doll-play, say the experts, teaches children much more than how to choose cool costumes or decorate a Dreamhouse (though these things are creative, too). In fact, playing with dolls can help children practice the vital life skills of social information processing and relating to other people – and so lead kids on to greater emotional, social and academic success.
Dr Sarah Gerson, of Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science – who led the world’s first scientific study into doll-play with Mattel, makers of Barbie – said that ‘pretend play’ can have significant positive effects, even if the child is playing alone.
“Our child development research group found evidence that even when playing with dolls alone, children’s brains are active in similar ways as to when they interact with other people,” she said. “Playing with dolls can help children rehearse social interactions and allow them to develop empathy and social skills which are important for future success in our social world. This, we hope, should bring some comfort to parents concerned about their children’s social and academic development.”
I’ve seen this with my own kids – my son is only four, but will sit for hours, role-playing different dilemmas with his superhero dolls. My daughter is eight, and loves dressing up her dolls as pilots, as princesses – even wizards. The pair of them regularly gather their toys together to play ‘doctors and nurses’ or ‘teachers and pupils’, and sometimes I get dragged in, too – and end up having to play waitress to a whole host of plastic people, taking orders and delivering lunch. But I don’t mind – because it’s exactly these kinds of games that scientists now know helps children learn about the world.
“We looked at a part of the brain that’s used when people think about and interact with others,” said Dr Gerson. “We found that this brain area is similarly active when kids play with dolls by themselves and when they play with a playmate.”
What’s more, the results of the study – which tested 42 boys and girls, aged between four and eight, as they played with a range of Barbie dolls – were the same regardless of gender, or which country they were from.
How can parents encourage pretend play?
So, if pretend play is so vital to our children’s future social interactions – after all, empathy and social understanding are considered critical leadership skills, emphasised by business and medical schools alike – how can parents best encourage it?
According to educational psychologist Dr Michele Borba, empathy plays a key role in predicting kids’ wellbeing, happiness and relationship satisfaction, as well as academic success. It also promotes kindness and can counter issues such as racism, aggression and bullying. She called the results of the doll-play study “extraordinary”, and said that empathy is like a muscle: the more children practice it, the stronger it gets. And she gave HuffPost UK Parents 10 key tips for cultivating empathy in your child.
1. Encourage free play with dolls (and listen in)
“Doll play offers a unique window into children’ lives,” Dr Borba said. “Tune in and you may discover your child’s interests, worries and dislikes.”
2. Talk about feelings
Children must be able to read emotions, before they can empathise. Extend your child’s ‘feelings vocabulary’ by naming feelings. Girls tend to hear ‘feelings words’ more than boys, so ensue you talk about emotions with your sons.
3. Broaden their horizons
It’s important to expose your child to kids from a range of different backgrounds. One way of doing this is by providing dolls with different skin tones and disabilities. Look for what they have in common with others, not how they differ.
A simple way of broadening a child’s emotional vocabulary is through flashcards. Teaching children to ‘read’ feelings in a key step towards cultivating empathy and kindness. Make flashcards with ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘afraid’ and ‘excited’ words on them. Use the cards to play a family game where someone ‘acts out’ the emotion and kids guess what it is.
5. Use the ‘Two Kind Rule’
Encourage children to say or do two kind things to each other, every day – and make sure you point out kindness whenever you see it. The more kids practice kindness and we as parents acknowledge and celebrate it, the more their empathy will grow.
6. Take care of each other
Children learn to empathise by taking care of one another. Allow a child to feed the family pet, call an elderly relative or bake cookies – you could even ask them to use dolls to role-play being a doctor, nurse or vet. The more they practice kindness during play, the likelier children will be to use kindness in real life.
7. Praise with nouns
An experiment with kids aged three to six showed they respond more positively to being asked if they want to be a ‘helper’ (noun) than being asked if they will ‘help’ (verb). If you want your child to see themselves as a caring person, use nouns!
8. Start a kindness box
Cut a slit in an old shoebox and turn it into a ‘post box’ – then ask kids to look out for kind acts, to write them down, and ‘post’ them.
9. Role-play dilemmas
Use gentle prompts to ask your child how to ‘help’ a doll ‘in crisis’. Asking the right questions helps you discover what’s going on in your child’s mind. Try questions such as, ‘Daisy can’t find her guitar. How can Barbie help?’
10. Use props
Dr Borba also recommends using dolls, stuffed animals, puppies and babies to teach kids how to be empathetic. Give children responsibilities to take care of others. You can ‘model’ holding your baby, or show a child how to stroke a nervous dog. The more children practice kindness, the more likely they will be to internalise the value.
Find out more about how dolls play can support of the development of your child through the study results published in Frontiers in Psychology. Barbie and Cardiff University are committed to building on this study using neuroscience to explore the different ways that dolls play offers benefits to children.