How playing with dolls allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills

Dolls are some of the oldest toys that children have played with.

Apart from doll playing being just a fun activity, playing with dolls solidifies social skills that are gained in a child���s early developmental years, according to Child Adventure. “When children play house, they learn to communicate with one another kindly and cooperate. By taking care of a doll, they learn how to take care of one another,” the organisation explains.

To prove future benefits of playing doll, Barbie and neuroscientists from Cardiff University have collaborated on a new study which for the first time uses neuroimaging as evidence to explore the effects of doll play.

Evidence shows that doll play activates brain regions which are associated with social information processing and empathy, indicating that doll play enables children to rehearse, use and perform these skills even when playing on their own

Other findings show that doll play allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills more so than solo tablet play, even when playing by themselves.

To understand the relevancy of the study, Barbie independently commissioned a global survey in 22 different countries questioning 15 000 parents which showed 91 percent of parents rank empathy as a key social skill they would like their child to develop, but only 26 percent were aware that doll play could help their child develop these skills.

Social cognitive development researcher, Dr Sarah Gerson says, “In this research we were interested in what’s happening in the brain when children engage in different kinds of play.”

Speaking on the findings, Gerson says, “What we found is that a particular area of the brain that is known to be important for understanding other people and empathy, so understanding other people’s emotions,was active when children were playing with dolls, and it was active both when children played with dolls with another person,a playmate,and when they played with dolls on their own.”

“In contrast, when they played with a tablet,we saw that same social processing brain area active when they played with someone but not when they were playing alone,” says Gerson.

Writer and educational psychologist Dr Michele Borba adds that “empathy I think is one of the most crucial, crucial traits that we can cultivate in our children because if we know that it plays this key role in predicting our children’s well-being, their academic success, their authentic happiness, but it also helps them bounce back from adversity.”