New study shows that playing with dolls allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills

By Amarilis Whitty | Mattel Inc.

  • The study by neuroscientists from Cardiff University provides first neuroimaging evidence of brain activations during natural play with dolls made possible by using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology
  • Evidence shows that doll play activates brain regions which are associated with social information processing and empathy, indicating that doll play enables children to rehearse, use and perform these skills even when playing on their own
  • Other findings show that doll play allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills more so than solo tablet play, even when playing by themselves
  • This study is the first time that some of the fundamental theories around play being social of Jean Piaget, considered by many as the father of developmental science, have been evidenced at a brain level

A team of researchers from Cardiff University has used neuroscience for the first time to explore the positive impact doll play has on children, bringing to light new evidence that doll play activates brain regions that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when playing by themselves.

 Over the past 18 months, senior lecturer Dr. Sarah Gerson and colleagues at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science have used an emerging neuroimaging technology, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which makes it possible to scan brain activity while the subject is freely moving around, to provide the first indications of the benefits of doll play at a brain level.

Through monitoring the brain activity of 33 children* between the ages of 4 and 8, as they played with a range of Barbie dolls, the team found that the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), a region of the brain associated with social information processing such as empathy, was activated even when the child was playing on their own. These benefits of solo doll play were shown to be equal for both boys and girls.

Dr. Gerson explains: “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. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic”.

The study also provides the first evidence at a brain level to support some of the theories around play put forward by Jean Piaget, the 20th-century Swiss scientist who is now regarded as one of the fathers of developmental psychology. In 1945, Piaget outlined many of his ideas in a paper entitled, ‘Play, dreams and imitation in childhood,’ in which he described pretend play as being inherently social. Since then, the effects of pretend play have been thought to be positive for kids’ social skills and creativity, but this has never been scientifically evidenced at a neurological level.


Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play through Neuroscience
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The findings of the study show that when children played alone with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the pSTS as they do when playing with others. Another finding of the study is that when children were left to play tablet games on their own, there was far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games involved a considerable creative element.

The results of the study are published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience as ‘Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play through Neuroscience.’ 

The study, conducted in partnership with Mattel, the makers of leading doll brand Barbie, is the first-time neuroimaging data has been used to highlight how the brain is activated during natural play with dolls. Recognising that this study is a first step towards understanding the positive impact of doll play with further research required to build on these initial findings, Dr. Sarah Gerson and the Cardiff University team along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.

*Study was conducted with 42 children (20 x boys and 22 x girls) aged from 4-8 years old with full data captured from 33 children

Image: Shutterstock

Original article: Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play through Neuroscience

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