Why children (boys and girls!) should play traditional soft dolls

Being a mum myself doesn’t make me an expert in parenting all of a sudden, but from the day Alex was born, I realise parenthood is a lifelong learning process to me and there is always something to learn along the way. Internet provides great resources nowadays but the flow of information can be overwhelming, that’s why I will be sharing with you my summary and key learnings from blogs and articles published by industry specialists around parenthood. Since Alex turned 1, our Montessori teacher kept emphasising to the parents in the playgroup about getting a human soft doll for our child, it intrigued me to find out more. After reading through this topic, I would like to share with you about doll and child development today.  

Dolls are not just for girls. The skills one can learn through playing dolls are important to all.

Mum blogger Christie Kiley and doll manufacturer Madame Alexander both published about benefits of playing dolls. I have summarised and rearranged them as below in terms of 4 main areas of child development.  

1. Develops fine motor skills

Fine Motor Skill via PixelBayFine motor skill is the coordination of small muscles, that involves the synchronisation of hands and fingers—with the eyes. Between the ages of 2 and 5, children can normally grasp objects using their index, thumb, and middle finger, which allows them button their clothes and zip their jackets. By practising these activities with dolls, parents can help improve children’s fine motor skills that aid their later advancement.  

2. Develops cognitive skills

    Cognitive skill is a child’s ability to learn and solve problems, which requires attention, memory and thinking. These crucial skills enable children to process information and eventually learn to evaluate, analyse, remember, make comparisons and understand cause and effect. Between the ages of 2 and 7, children develop memory and imagination. Pretend play activities with dolls can help children tackle daily tasks like bathing, potty training, grooming, feeding, etc.  

    3. Develops speech and language skills
    This is a child's ability to both understand and use language. Playing dolls can help expand a child’s vocabulary and help them practice his/her speech and language skills. Here are some examples of vocabulary a child can practice while playing dolls:

    - Body Parts 
    - Type of Clothing
    - Types of Accessories
    - Concepts like prepositions (in the bed, under the blanket), colours, size, etc
    - Verbs/Feelings

      It is particularly useful in multilingual households when “one person, one language” approach is used. While one parent can pretend play one scene with the doll in one language, the other parent doing the same scene in another language helps the child understand the scenario in both languages.  

      4. Develops social and emotional skills

      This is the child's ability to interact with others and dealing with one’s emotions, including making friends, showing anger in a healthy way, dealing with conflicts peacefully, taking care of others, sharing, waiting patiently, taking turns, following rules, enjoying the company of others and more. All these skills help a child develop before he or she starts to learn reading or writing and go a long way in life. Here are some major aspects doll play can help in a child’s social and emotional development.
      • Caring and nurturing
      Pretend play activities, like changing a doll’s clothes, feeding, putting a doll to bed, lay the foundation for a careful and empathetic soul to grow in a little one’s mind. It can also be useful in preparing the arrival of a sibling. Having a baby doll can help the older child visualise the future with a younger sibling. Letting the older child model what parents do with the newborn can not only keep him/her occupied while parents are busy with the baby, but it can also help the older child get into the role as a caring older sibling.
      • Working through strong emotions
      Anger, jealousy, fear, being misunderstood, desire … , the strength of all these emotions can be overwhelming to children. Playing with dolls gives them an opportunity to release their tensions in a safe way. Parents can rehearse those situations with children on the doll so that they are able to handle those feelings better.
      • Providing a sense of power and control

      Doll play scales the world to a young children’s size, making it more relatable and manageable. It also helps children develop confidence to solve problems in their ability and interact with their environment.   Why children (boys and girls) should play traditional soft dolls? Why Traditional Soft Dolls?

      So far, we have covered the benefits for children to play with dolls, but does it have to be traditional soft dolls? There are so many options in the market, ranging from “authentic” baby dolls with attributes such as drinking, crying and wetting the nappy, to plastic fashion dolls and action figures, to dolls that connect to the Internet. How does a traditional soft doll compare to all these options?

      Connie Grawert commented on different types of dolls in “Dolls in Steiner/Waldorf kindergartens, preschools and playgroups” as follow. For plastic doll, it “… feels cold, hard, rigid, synthetic and unresponsive” where “touch is an important part of sensing and experiencing the world. … Some dolls follow fashionable images with make-up, clothes and body that emphasise sexuality. … Dolls intended for boys often emphasise violence and fighting with exaggerated muscular bodies.

      On the other hand, in a recent article published by Bob Sullivan on Time “Your Kid’s New Friend Cayla May Not Be As Innocent As She Looks”, exposed the potential privacy infringement and cyber security risk of two dolls – My Friend Cayla and i-Que – that connect to the Internet and respond real time like a toy version of Siri. Whether the toy manufacturers keep personal details of parents and children is in question, but even when all the information and connection are highly secured, will you want to let some computer programmes influence how your child thinks and communicates? I personally don’t, at least not for young children. Connie explained it better in her article, “The child must be able to use their own imagination to create the play, rather than the toy dictating the course of play because of the way it is constructed. Taking the example of the crying doll that cries whenever it is turned or pressed in a certain way, one can see how the play is pre-determined (not to mention that crying is experienced as a mechanical, entertaining feature of the doll). If the child has a soft, simple doll, the child can take the play in any direction. The child develops a relationship to the doll that he or she plays with.

      To conclude, each doll playing experience is important for children to develop their own sense of self. As Connie also suggested, "boys or girls can lead the play in a way that is meaningful and relevant for them, so the benefit of doll-play is universal and not limited to girls." Dolls have been great toys for children from centuries ago. However, I think you cannot expect children to get all the skills mentioned simply by giving them a doll, it is the interaction with adults and their little friends that make the development of children possible. (I don't know how the toy industry is going to be change with technological advancement, but this is what I believe so far.) I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog. Do you know more benefits of playing dolls? What is your experience of introducing and playing dolls to your children? I’d love to hear any feedback from you.  


      5 incredible ways doll play effects child development by Madame Alexander, doll manufacturer
      Why kids should play with baby dolls (Yes, even boys!) by Christie Kiley, blogger of mamaot.com
      Dolls in Steiner/Waldorf kindergartens, preschools and playgroups by Connie Grawert, experienced Steiner early childhood teachers and consultant
      Your Kid’s New Friend Cayla May Not Be As Innocent As She Looks by Bob Sullivan / Credit.com  

      Image Attribution:
      Baby doll by A.J. Clothes made by my wife,
      Iric (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
      Superhero action figures by JD Hancock
      Barbie doll by Alexas_Fotos via PixelBay
      My Friend Cayla by Alienpalien (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons