Playing with dolls is an opportunity to imitate adults and develop creativity.
Children really enjoy dolls as toys. The games they play with dolls evolve as they grow up. At first, toddlers play with dolls by reproducing events of daily life. Later, they let their imagination unfold and make up role-playing stories.
Benefits of playing with dolls for children
In addition to being fun for children, playing with dolls contributes to their development. Indeed, these games benefit your child in different areas.
Benefits in terms of language
Playing with dolls gives your child the opportunity to use vocabulary from everyday life (e.g., body parts, physical sensations such as hunger and thirst, clothing, colours, sizes, shapes). While they play, your toddler can also practise using prepositions such as in, on, and under (“I tucked the baby in bed.”) and ask questions (e.g., “Where is the baby’s rattle?”, “Why is the baby crying?”).
Benefits in terms of emotional development and social skills
When a child makes their doll cry, they are signalling that they understand others can have emotions too.
Playing with a doll can help your toddler develop empathy for other people’s emotions and compassion for their needs. When they cover their baby doll with a blanket to prevent it from being cold, they are practising how to take care of others. Playing with a doll can even help your child get ready to become an older brother or sister.
Your child also develops kindness when they try to reassure their doll by cradling it and saying: “Everything’s going to be fine” or “I’m here, don’t worry.” Similarly, they exercise their social skills by playing with dolls. This is the case, for example, when they ask their doll to say “please” and “thank you” or apologize to their doll after dropping it on the floor.
Benefits in terms of imagination
Your toddler’s first scenarios are representations of their relationships with relatives, friends, and caregivers. The daily life of the doll is very similar to that of your child. Thus, their doll probably loves, hates, and fears the same things as your child.
Regardless of your child’s age, their doll doesn’t need to talk, cry, drink, or laugh. The simpler the doll, the more creative your child can be in their games.
Over time, they will change scenarios and embellish them with their imagination. Your child discovers their power to create and have fun with their ideas. This can allow them to decide that their doll is feeling a different emotion from theirs in a given situation, such as courage rather than fear. The doll can do and become whatever the child wants, which is inspiring for your toddler.
As your child identifies with their doll, they can reproduce what they are experiencing and even become someone else, for example, by pretending to be you, their educator, etc.
Benefits in terms of fine motor skills, intellectual development, and autonomy
Dressing a doll, feeding it, putting it to sleep, giving it a bath, and changing its diaper are all activities that allow your toddler to exercise their fine motor skills. By playing with their doll, they also better understand the importance of these activities.
In addition, this type of game allows your child to practise organizing daily activities in a logical sequence. For example, before giving a bath to their doll, they must undress it, and after the bath, they must pat it dry and put on its diaper before their pyjamas.
When playing with their doll, your toddler also learns to compromise. This may be the case for example if the mouth of their doll cannot open to eat food. Playing with dolls can also help your child with problem solving. For example, if their doll falls over when they try to make it sit up, they can try to figure out how to keep it upright using cushions. All of this also contributes to developing your child’s autonomy.
A game for both boys and girls
Traditionally, dolls were given to girls, but dolls are not “girl toys” at all. There are numerous benefits to playing with dolls that are just as important for boys as for girls. Boys like to cuddle, dress, feed, potty train, and walk a doll. All they need is for adults to give them this opportunity by thinking of offering them a doll.
Child development experts believe that children should be offered a variety of experiences, without pressure to choose a toy that would be considered “typical” of their gender or nationality.
Dolls based on age
Before 18 months old
Babies under 18 months of age do not yet play with dolls, but they might like to hold their doll in their hands or cuddle it, as it brings them security and comfort.
Around 18 months old
If your child is under 3 years old, do not give them a doll that has small parts, as they could remove them and put them in their mouth.
Toddlers usually start playing with dolls around this age. They imitate what they observe in their surroundings. For example, they brush their doll’s hair just as their parents brush theirs every morning. They hug and cradle their doll, just as we would with a real baby.
To ensure your child can easily play with their doll and care for it, give them one that is light and not too big. They might like a rag doll that is soft and comfortable, especially if they sleep with it or hold it tight when upset. They might also enjoy having a doll with hair, a hollow mouth to insert a pacifier, as well as eyes that can open and close.
Between 2 to 3 years old
At this age, a doll becomes part of the imagination of children and a real play partner. They like to cuddle, scold, console, tuck in bed, wash, walk, put to sleep, and even feed their doll with invisible food. Toddlers like to pretend to be their mother or father. They make their doll imitate everyday gestures and events. This enables them to experience the world of adults.
Dolls also allow children of this age to reproduce their experiences, both good and bad. They can thus express the emotions they feel (e.g., tenderness, jealousy, joy) and de-escalate conflict situations by re-enacting scenes with their doll. They also become more competent in caring for their doll, as their actions become more specific. All of this helps children to grow and to build their self-confidence.
It will be easier for your child to handle a doll that is light and not too large. Their first doll should therefore still be suitable. If the doll’s joints are flexible, your child will be able to make it sit, as well as dress and undress it more easily.
Want to buy a doll for your child?
From the age of 2 or 3, your child may like to choose their own doll. Try to respect their choice without influencing them, even if it surprises you (e.g., a boy who chooses a female doll or a child who chooses a doll of a different skin colour than theirs).
Between 3 to 6 years old
Children of this age invent longer and more complex stories with different roles (e.g., “I am the doctor and my doll is my patient.”). There is meaning behind all their decisions and they are interrelated. When playing with dolls, children often reproduce the rules set by their parents: “No, you can’t eat candy before mealtime.”
The doll represents a play partner that is always available and subservient. The most discreet of confidants, it will listen to all the secrets of their young owner. A doll can also reassure children at bedtime.
Playing with dolls is also an important aspect of socializing at this age, as children love playing together with their respective dolls. The presence of other children makes it possible to make the game more complex and to develop social skills, such as deciding on the story together, taking the ideas of others into account, and sharing doll accessories (e.g., clothes, dishes, brush).
At this age, children can also do more and more outdoor activities with their doll (e.g., playing in sand or riding a tricycle). For this reason, it is a good idea to choose a doll that is sturdy and easy to wash.
Dolls with mechanisms or electronic components are therefore not recommended. Preferably, the ideas for games should come from the children, not from the toy. In addition, these types of dolls are prone to breaking, which is disappointing for children.
After 6 years old
Playing with dolls can remain a source of fun for several years depending on the interests of the children. These games take new forms, because the child can replace the dolls with figurines, robots, Barbies, Transformers, etc.
The need to safely express emotions through games remains in children, even as they age. Playing with dolls is similar to keeping a diary, as it allows children to express the emotions experienced during the day.
It is therefore important to respect and value your child’s interest in dolls. Do not make fun of them, for example by saying it is a “game for babies.”
Accessories for dolls are not essential. Offering a few doll accessories to your child can still be a good idea, as they enrich the game experience. For example, if your child likes to pretend to feed their doll, they will be happy to have a bowl, spoon, and bib.
However, it is better not to buy too many accessories, as they can limit your child’s creativity. If they need an accessory they don’t have, they will have to think of a way to replace it. For example, if they want a high chair that they don’t have for their doll, they will have to think: “What can I use as a high chair for my baby?”
Things to keep in mind
Playing with dolls contributes to children’s development, and the games evolve as they grow up.
Dolls should be offered to both boys and girls.
To avoid choking hazards, do not give a doll that has small removable parts to a child under 3 years old.
Scientific review: Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2020
Photos: GettyImages/chabybucko, Linda Raymond, and Creatas
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