Play now, succeed later
10 July 2023

Recent neuroscientific research out of the UK commissioned by Mattel suggests that through doll play, children develop creativity and critical social skills. This might be a relief to the many parents and caregivers concerned about the interpersonal interactions their children may have missed out on during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s well known that empathy, creativity and information processing – important factors in children’s future emotional, academic and social success – are built and strengthened by face-to-face interactions.

In the 1960s, psychologist Jean Piaget put forward a theory that children’s ‘pretend play,’ including with dolls, ‘is inherently social in that it allows the rehearsal of social interactions and social perspective taking’.

In other words, children can hone their social and empathetic skills even if their only company is Barbie. However, without scientific proof of Piaget’s hypothesis, dolls have for decades been pushed aside in favour of puzzles, building blocks and toys with proven educational and developmental value.

As a company committed to creating products that inspire, entertain and develop children through play, Mattel wanted to know for sure what impact dolls like Barbie have on children’s brains.

To figure it out, the company partnered with Dr Sarah Gerson and senior researchers at Cardiff University to design and conduct a neuroscientific experiment that had both boys and girls play with dolls and tablets. Because the study was the first to use brain imaging to explore this question, the findings provide evidence that when children played with dolls by themselves, the activation levels in their posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) – a region of the brain associated with social information processing – were the same as when they played with others. The pSTS was significantly less active when children played with tablets. According to Dr Sarah Gerson:

‘This is a completely new finding. We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. 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. The fact that we saw the pSTS to be active in our study shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life.’

Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play through Neuroscience’ was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in October 2020. The study’s results justified the many hours kids and former kids have spent playing with dolls like Barbie and suggest that they are just as valuable to children’s development as traditional educational toys. More broadly, this pioneering neuroscientific study is a significant contribution to conversations around the importance of socialisation, especially following the lockdowns in Europe during the pandemic.

If playing with Barbie dolls can help children develop the crucial empathy and social information processing skills they need later in life, there’s no telling what they can grow up to do.

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Skills training, diversity, inclusion and equity (DEI)
Story contributor