How do kids learn lifelong social skills like empathy, sharing, listening, and friendship? While interacting with others is vital, a new study shows that small children can learn to be social even while playing alone — as long as they have dolls.
The same study also found that although kids might be interacting with characters when playing video games, screen time doesn’t allow kids to develop interpersonal skills like time spent simply pretending with a doll.
In the first part of their study — which was commissioned by Barbie, but presumably applies to dolls of any kind — Cardiff University researchers examined children’s brain activity while playing with dolls and playing with tablets. They found that when children (ages 4 to 8) played with the dolls, whether alone or with someone else, it activated an area of their brains that is associated with empathy. When the children played on the tablet, this area of the brain was active when they were playing with someone else but not when playing alone.
Researchers then measured the children’s use of ‘internal state language,’ or what they said about their thoughts and feelings, while playing. They found that children used more of this kind of language when playing with dolls than when playing alone with the tablets.
“We found that children talk about other people’s emotions, thoughts, and beliefs when they’re playing with dolls even when they’re playing alone, and also when they play with other people,” explained Dr. Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer and neuroscientist as well as one of the study’s authors.
“However,” she continued, “when they were playing alone with tablets they didn’t use this internal state language as much.”
It comes as no surprise that children use empathy and social skills more when they are playing with other people, but it’s noteworthy that the children tapped into these same emotional skills when dolls were their only company.
“What this implies is that when they’re playing alone with dolls they’re kind of treating the doll like a social partner,” said Gerson.
While dolls are not considered an educational toy in the way that a math app, for example, might be, this study shows that children are practicing skills when they play with dolls — skills that they may not be developing so much when they’re playing on an electronic device.
“We think that the takeaway for parents is that playing with dolls can actually be beneficial for their children,” Gerson said.
It’s worth noting that these finding applied to both girls and boys — and all kids can benefit from imaginative play with dolls.