A team of neuroscientists at Cardiff University have released the latest findings from a multi-year study exploring the short and long-term developmental impacts of doll play.

In the study’s second year, researchers investigated the importance of what kids said while they play, and found children use increased language about others’ thoughts and emotions when roleplaying alone with dolls.

This is a concept known as internal state language (ISL), and in doing this, children are able to practice social skills they can utilise when interacting with people in the real world and can also be potentially beneficial to children’s overall emotional development.

The study was conducted in partnership with Barbie and also found during the observation of children, an increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region when they spoke as though their dolls had thoughts and feelings.

This region [pSTS] is heavily involved in the development of social and emotional processing skills, further supporting year one findings that, even when children play by themselves with dolls, it can help build vital social skills like empathy.

Research Dr. Sarah Gerson said: “When children create imaginary worlds and role play with dolls, they communicate at first out loud and then internalize the message about others’ thoughts, emotions and feelings.

“This can have positive long-lasting effects on children, such as driving higher rates of social and emotional processing and building social skills like empathy that can become internalized to build and form lifelong habits.

“Internal state language can indicate that a child is thinking about other people’s thoughts and emotions while playing with dolls.

“These skills are really important for interacting with other people, learning from other people, and navigating a variety of social situations.

“It becomes important for making and sustaining friendships, and how they learn from their teachers, and parents.”

The study used state-of-the-art functional, near-infrared spectroscopy equipment to explore activation of the brain while children played with Barbie dolls, both by themselves and with another person.

This research from Cardiff University suggests that doll play can offer kids the opportunity to emulate scenes and interactions from their daily lives – as children mimic what they see their parents, teachers or peers say and do.

As a result, dolls can give them an outlet to recreate what they’ve seen and heard to rehearse skills they can use in real-life social situations.

The research also suggests that these findings are gender agnostic – revealing the comprehensive critical importance of doll play in practicing social skills.

According to a global survey of 15,000 mums and dads of three- to 10-year-olds, 91 per cent ranked empathy as a key social skill they’d like their youngsters to have.

Yet just 26 per cent were aware that doll play can help their child develop these crucial attributes.

Although six in 10 reported their little one’s social-emotional development had been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Lisa McKnight, Senior Vice President and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls at Mattel which commissioned the Cardiff study, said: “We’re proud that when children play out stories with Barbie and vocalize their thoughts and emotions, they may be building crucial social skills, like empathy, that give them the tools needed to be confident, inclusive adults.

“As leaders in the dolls category, we look forward to uncovering even more benefits of doll play, grounded in neuroscience, through our long-term partnership with Cardiff University.”

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