A study shows that playing with dolls affects the brain

Playing with dolls it is certainly one of the longest living and most beloved pastimes ever. But if it educational value from symbolic game had been known for some time now what we still did not know is that dolls can also affect brain developmenthelp the little ones a strengthen social skills and empathyeven when playing alone.

That’s actually what came out of one examination conducted by the famous Barbie fashion doll line together with a pool of British neuroscientists. Based for the first time on neuroimaging – technology that makes it possible to highlight the areas of the brain involved in certain types of behavior – research has revealed that when children play with dolls, it would be precisely the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing social information and empathy. Not only that, the even more relevant aspect is it these areas will also be activated during individual play And in the same way for both girls and boysas proof – once again – of how safe gender stereotypes can limit the potential of the little ones.


The survey has been conducted over the past 18 months from Sarah Gerson together with a team of researchers of Science Center for Human Development ofCardiff UniversityGreat Britain, and aimed to achieve first indications about the possible benefits that puppetry would provide in the brain.

Monitoring of brain activity with neuroimaging was performed on 42 children – 20 males and 22 females – aged between 4 and 8 years (with complete data collected on 33 children) for which play sets and Barbie dolls were made available. The results showed that when playing with dolls, the children were activated superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), which is a region of the brain associated with the processing of social information such as empathy, and that the same area of ​​the brain was also involved when children played alone. Effects on the brain that have been proven the same for both boys and girls.These numbers are a true revelation. We activate this area of ​​the brain when we think of other people, and especially of what they are thinking or feeling – explained Dr. Gerson – Dolls encourage children to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to problem solving or construction games. This kind of play makes children think about other people and how they can interact with each other. The fact that pSTS was active during our study is proof that playing with dolls helps children experience some relationship skills they will need in the future.“.

Tablet and dolls

To observe the effects on the brain of several game modes, Cardiff researchers analyzed several situations: I play with dollsindividually and in pairs, but also games with tablet, always individually and in pairs, in the latter case choosing creative digital activities to give children an experience similar to playing with dolls. The study data showed that when children played with dolls alone, their superior temporal sulcus was activated just like in party games, while letting the children play on their own on the tablet, the same brain area would show much less activation.

The importance of empathy

Playing alone with dolls could help children develop empathy a capacity inherently traced back to group activities – seems to be one surprise too and above all for the parents. In order to analyze the extent of the data coming from the survey, Mattel has in fact independently ordered one vote on over 15,000 parents of children in 22 countries around the world.

The data that emerged in Italy showed that 58% of parents consider empathy a basic relational ability for their children, but only 17% said they knew that playing with dolls could help children cultivate it. A particularly relevant figure today who – after the long lockdown period – many parents have expressed their concern for children effects, such as the long isolation may have had on interpersonal skills some children.

And precisely for the theme of social skills, Barbie has dedicated a special online platform (* barbie.com/en-us/gaming benefits) * where parents can find not only UK research data but also resources and advice to stimulate empathy in children.


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