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Doll Play Helps Build Empathy and Social Skills, New Study Shows

doll play helps build empathy and social skills

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • Doll play helps children practice social skills and empathy even when playing alone.
  • Given increased isolation due to COVID-19 restrictions, this can help lessen the risks of developmental delays in children.

According to a recent study, brain regions responsible for social skills and empathy are activated when children play with dolls. This is true regardless of whether children play alone or with someone else.

These findings reassure parents that even when children's social experiences are limited, as they have been during COVID-19, that they still have an opportunity to practice and develop social skills when playing alone.

What the Study Shows

The research, published in October in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, studied 33 children, aged 4 years to 8 years during episodes of play. Researchers from Cardiff University observed as children alternated between playing alone with dolls, playing with another person (a researcher) with the dolls, playing alone on a tablet, and playing with another person (a researcher) using the tablet together.

Throughout all play episodes, the children wore a functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) cap. This cap is able to gather data about brain regions that are activated during play.

Using this data, researchers were able to identify three key areas. These include the posterior superior temporal sulcus (responsible for social processing and empathy), the prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functioning or behavioral control), and the orbitofrontal cortex (considered the reward center of the brain).

Of the three brain regions identified, that which controls the social processing and empathy showed the most remarkable data.

Social Processing and Empathy

Social processing and empathy are processed via the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region of the brain. The study showed that the pSTS was equally active when playing either on a tablet or with dolls when the child was playing with another person. However, during solo play, it was activated far more during doll play than tablet play.

Sarah Gerson, PhD

The area of the brain associated with social processing and empathy is active both when children play with others (in both doll and tablet play) AND when they play alone with dolls. This suggests that children have the opportunity to rehearse social interaction skills when playing with dolls, even when playing alone.

— Sarah Gerson, PhD

Sarah Gerson, PhD, a co-author of the study and senior lecturer at Cardiff University's School of Psychology, explains, “The area of the brain associated with social processing and empathy is active both when children play with others (in both doll and tablet play) AND when they play alone with dolls. This suggests that children have the opportunity to rehearse social interaction skills when playing with dolls, even when playing alone.”

Parenting and education expert, Karen Aronian, Ed.D., explains that developing social processing skills is essential to further develop interpersonal communication, cooperation, and relationships both in childhood and into adulthood.

Aronian describes how doll play can benefit this development. “With hands-on doll play children model and try on the role of caregiving, as well as imaginative play. These are vital skills in developing a well adjusted, empathetic child and adult,” she says.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is also known as behavioral control. The amount of behavioral control in participants was not significantly different between tablet play or doll play . However, children did use more behavioral control when playing with someone else (a researcher), rather than alone.

This confirms previous knowledge that children, particularly in this studied age range of 4 to 8 years, will typically regulate their behavior when working with others on common goals, such as play.

Reward Processing

The orbitofrontal cortex is the brain's reward center. There was not a statistically significant difference in reward center brain activity between solo play or joint play. Nor was there evidence of doll play or tablet play being more rewarding to children.

Although some children may show a preference for one type of play over another, this is likely due to personal preference and is not represented in the data of this particular study.

What Does This Mean for Parents?

Gerson highlights that when children miss out on social interactions, parents may worry about their child’s social development. The COVID-19 shutdown of social activities left many children without their usual opportunity for social interaction and learning.

Sarah Gerson, PhD

It should be comforting for parents to know that their children can still practice social skills and empathy even when playing with dolls alone, especially during a time when playdates and peer interactions are likely less frequent than usual.

— Sarah Gerson, PhD

This study gives hope to parents that children can still practice and learn social processing skills even when isolated. “It should be comforting for parents to know that their children can still practice social skills and empathy even when playing with dolls alone, especially during a time when playdates and peer interactions are likely less frequent than usual,” Gerson explains.

What About Tablets?

If you would like your child to benefit from social processing with a tablet, then joining them for a game seems to be the way to do it. The study supports joint tablet play for social processing and empathy development, but not solo play. It is likely that the interactions between players is what develops these social skills, not the use of the device itself.

Aronian explains, “Devices can't provide nor replace the inner dialogue and audible communication of interactive play, nor the cognitive development that stimulates social-emotional literacies.”

What This Means For You

If you are in a space where your child is unable to attend social activities for any reason, it is reassuring to know that they can still practice social skills and empathy with a little imagination.

Although this particular study looked specifically at doll play, don't panic if you don't have dolls readily available. Many parents will have seen their child use stuffed toys, puppets, Lego people, or other figurines to play out imaginative scenarios between characters. This can still offer an effective way for your child to practice social skills either with you or when playing alone.

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Article Sources
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