Why children – including boys – benefit from playing with dolls

A study done by neuroscience researchers from Cardiff University explored the impact that playing with dolls has on children.  Over a period of 18 months they monitored the brain activity of 33 children, aged between four and eight, as they played with dolls.

The study, conducted with Mattel, the makers of Barbie, is the first time neuroimaging data has been used to highlight how the brain is activated during natural doll play. As such, the researchers say it is a step forward in developmental science’s understanding of this type of play.

In the study the play was split into different sections so the Cardiff team could capture the brain activity relating to each kind of play separately – playing with the dolls on their own; playing with the dolls together with another person (a research assistant); playing with the tablet game on their own and playing with the tablet game along with another person (a research assistant).

They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Furthermore, they saw far less activation of this part of the brain when the children played with tablet computers on their own. The study included both genders and the results were the same for boys and girls.

The findings of the study have been published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Lead author Dr Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science, said: “This is a completely new finding. (It) shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic.”

“We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,” said Dr Gerson. “Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.”

They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Image is credited to Cardiff University.

The dolls used included a diverse range of Barbies and sets. Tablet play was carried out using games that allow children to engage with open and creative play (rather than a rule or goal-based games) to provide a similar play experience to doll play.

The study found that when children played alone with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the pSTS as they do when playing with others. When the children were left to play tablet games on their own there was far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games involved a considerable creative element.

The researchers say the study is the first step towards understanding the impact of doll play and further work is required to build on these initial findings. Dr Gerson and the Cardiff University team, along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.

 

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