Cardiff University partners with Barbie to show importance of doll playing

barbie doll
Doll playing may be an important part of development for children. Source: Alexas_Fotos (via Pixabay)
New research by Cardiff University and Barbie show doll playing is important in activating regions of the brain associated with empathy and social skills.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor 

Playing with dolls is a fond childhood memory for many and it is often accompanied by those well known pink letters, Barbie. Barbie dolls are the most popular doll ever produced and it is estimated that more than one hundred dolls are sold each minute, equating to over 58 million dolls annually. However, the reign of Barbie may now be threatened by increasing technology and researchers worry what children will miss out on key skills developed through doll playing.

In collaboration with Matel, the company behind Barbie, researchers at Cardiff University have completed an 18-month study looking at the brain activity of children as they played with dolls in comparison to playing creative computer games.

The study showed that playing with dolls activated parts of the brain involved with empathy and social information processing skills. This was through activation of the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) which is the area involved in processing social cues: “We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings” explained Lead Author, Dr Sarah Gerson. 

Another finding of note is that these benefits of doll play were seen even when the children were playing alone. During the study children played with dolls alone, then with a researcher before playing computer games alone and together. This allowed a clear contrast to be seen; results showed that when children play with dolls they show the same activation levels in the pSTS when they are alone as when they are with others. When the children played tablet games there was far less activation of the pSTS observed both when playing alone and together.

“Dolls encourage [children] 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”

explained Dr Gerson.

This is an important finding when looking at the trend of children’s toys, which are showing an increased preference for technology games over traditional options like dolls and trains. The research done in this study represents the first step in understanding the importance of doll play for children. When reflecting on the impact of the findings, Dr Gerson said:

This is a completely new finding. The fact that we saw the posterior superior temporal sulcus (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.”

Barbie have also supported these findings through an independent global survey looking at the attitudes of parents towards Barbie dolls. They receive responses from over 15,000 parents and found that 91% of parents ranked empathy as a key social skill they wanted their children to develop, but only 26% thought playing with dolls could support this.

Additionally, during lockdown they found 70% of parents were concerned about how the isolation would affect their children so knowing that doll play alone activates the same regions as playing together is an important finding. 

After knowing this information 74% of parents said they were more likely to encourage their children to play with dolls meaning the finding could help Barbie hold onto her crown for longer. The research shows doll playing is an important tool in child development and one we are yet to find a technological replacement for; It looks like Barbie and Ken are here to stay!


Science and Technology Holly Giles

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