A groundbreaking multi-year study conducted by neuroscientists at Cardiff University, in collaboration with Barbie, reveals the incredible benefits of playing with dolls.
Regardless of a child’s neurodevelopmental profile, doll play has been proven to enhance and practise essential social skills. “Neurodevelopmental” is a term referring to the brain’s development of neurological pathways that influence performance or functioning, for example intellectual functioning, reading ability, social skills, memory, attention or focus skills.
In the first year of the study, researchers discovered that engaging in doll play activates specific parts of the brain responsible for empathy and social processing skills.
Building on this exciting discovery, the second year of the research focused on exploring doll play in children, thanks to the support of Barbie.
This study focused on the developmental impacts of doll play and its potential benefits for children with varying social communication styles, including those with neurodivergent traits commonly associated with autism.
The research, now in its third year, has revealed that playing with dolls can significantly contribute to the development and practice of social skills in children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile.
The study’s lead researcher, neuroscientist Dr Sarah Gerson, said that all children, including those with autism traits, can use doll play as a tool to enhance their social abilities, such as empathy.
The study involved a diverse range of participants, including children aged 4 to 8 who displayed both high and low levels of autistic traits.
The findings showed increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region, a part of the brain which is associated with social and emotional processing, during doll play.
Suggesting that doll play activates brain regions linked to social information processing, enabling children to rehearse and perform social skills even when playing alone.
Additionally, the researchers found that doll play supports social processing through different pathways, depending on a child’s level of autistic traits.
On the other hand, for children with more autistic traits, engaging in conversation with others during doll play, even when playing alone, was linked to an increase in brain activity associated with social and emotional processing
“Our study shows that doll play can encourage social processing in children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile.
“The findings show that all children, even those who display neurodivergent traits commonly associated with autism, may use doll play as a tool for practising social scenarios and developing social skills, such as empathy,” said Gerson.
Dr Catherine Jones, who is the head of the Wales Autism Research Centre, said these new discoveries are important because they show us how playing with dolls can help kids become better at socialising and understanding other’s feelings.
Socialising and empathy are super important for kids to do well in school, make friends and be happy.
She added: “It’s really important to embrace different ways that kids’ brains work and create inclusive spaces for them.”
This study is special because it uses brain science to prove that playing can help kids with their social skills and imagination. It’s the first time that scientists have used brain imaging to show how playing helps kids grow and learn.
The researchers also let kids play however they wanted, without telling them what to do with the dolls. This helps them see exactly how their brains react to playtime.
Michael Swaisland, who works at Mattel, is proud of what the study found. He said that playing with Barbie dolls can help all kids develop, no matter how their brains are wired.
He’s excited to keep working with Cardiff University to learn even more about how playing with dolls can help kids grow and be happy.
“As Barbie continues to inspire the limitless potential in every child, we are delighted to know, through neuroscience, that playing with Barbie may encourage the development of social skills such as empathy in children, including those who display neurodivergent traits commonly associated with autism.
“We look forward to uncovering even more benefits of doll play through our long-term partnership with Cardiff University as we look to shine a light on the benefits the play pattern has towards development, that parents might not have been aware of.”