Study Finds Playing with Dolls Helps Kids Talk About How Others Feel

Boys and girls can learn empathy when playing with dolls

By: Amanda Mushro

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Cute little girl holding a doll.


Cute little girl holding a doll.

Photo by: Catherine Falls Commercial

Catherine Falls Commercial

Kids learn through play, and often as parents, we seek out educational toys that can help our kids learn their numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. However, a new study suggests that some of the best educational toys that we can offer up to our kids are dolls. Boys and girls who pick up and play with dolls are learning important life skills that will help them throughout their lifetime. While it can be easy to grab the toys with lots of bells and whistles, skip the high-tech toys and make playing with dolls a playtime priority.

According to a new study, researchers observed 33 children aged four to eight as they played with dolls and other toys such as a tablet that was loaded with kid-friendly games. Researchers used state-of-the-art technology that allowed them to observe the children's brain activity while they played.

They found that the children had increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus, the region that is heavily involved in the development of social and emotional processing, when children’s dolls talked about their thoughts and feelings. Researchers also noted that this increase in brain activity was stronger when children played with dolls without any adult or playmate as opposed to playing alone on a tablet.

"When children create imaginary worlds and role play with dolls, they communicate at first out loud and then internalize the message about others' thoughts, emotions and feelings," says Dr. Sarah Gerson, lead researcher on the study.

When we see our kids playing alone or we join in on the imaginary play, there’s a lot happening inside our children’s minds as they process the "conversations" their dolls are having. From happiness, sadness, fear, and even jealousy, there are ranges of emotions the dolls are going through in our children’s imaginary world and all of these emotions help our kids better understand these feelings in themselves and in others.

Researchers found that the children in the study talked more about others' thoughts and emotions, a concept known as internal-state language, when playing with the dolls. However, they did not find the same brain activity when the kids played creative games, a hairdressing game, or a city-building game, on a tablet.

"This can have positive long-lasting effects on children, such as driving higher rates of social and emotional processing and building social skills like empathy that can become internalized to build and form lifelong habits," Gerson adds.

Also, both boys and girls also had conversations with the dolls, using second person. However, when they played with the tablet, they talked about the game in third person. Researchers say this is significant because playing with dolls helps kids develop social skills and shows they are thinking about other people's feelings.

While there are plenty of educational toys we can offer kids, and technology has many learning benefits for kids of all ages, this study is a great reminder to parents playing with dolls is beneficial for both boys and girls. So if your kids are looking for something to play with, hand them a doll and join in on the imaginary play.

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