Barbie and a team of neuroscientists from Cardiff University have released the latest results from a multi-year study exploring the short- and long-term impacts of doll play on development. In the second year of the study, researchers investigated the importance of what children say while playing and found that children use increased language about other people’s thoughts and feelings when they play alone with dolls.
The latest research found that children spoke more about other people’s thoughts and feelings, a concept known as internal state language (ISL), when playing with dolls than when playing games on Tablet. Talking about the internal states of others allows children to practice social skills that they can use when interacting with people in the real world and can potentially benefit children’s overall emotional development.
“When children create imaginary worlds and role-play with dolls, they first communicate aloud and then internalize the message about other people’s thoughts, emotions and feelings,” says researcher Sarah Gerson. “It can have long-term positive effects for children, such as increased rates of social and emotional processing and the development of social skills like empathy that can be internalized to build and form lifelong habits.”
When observing children, researchers found increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region when they spoke as if their dolls had thoughts and feelings. The pSTS region is strongly implicated in the development of social and emotional processing skills, supporting the findings of the Year 1 study that even when children play alone with dolls, it can help develop vital social skills like empathy.
The study used state-of-the-art functional near-infrared spectroscopy equipment to explore brain activation while children played with dolls and on tablets, alone or with another person. Researchers found that playing with dolls incited ISL on others more than playing with tablet games, and using ISL on others was linked to increased activation of pSTS.
“Internal state language can indicate that a child is thinking about the thoughts and emotions of others when playing with dolls,” said researcher Dr Sarah Gerson. “These skills are really important for interacting with other people, learning from others, and navigating a variety of social situations. It becomes important for making and maintaining friendships, and how they learn from their teachers and parents.
Empathy and social processing skills seem to be highly valued by parents and are essential as children continue to grow emotionally, academically and socially. In 2020, Barbie independently commissioned a global survey that suggested 91% of parents considered empathy a key social skill they would like their child to develop, but only 26% knew that doll play could help their child. child to develop these crucial skills. Parents and guardians have also been increasingly concerned about their children’s developmental pathway over the past two years, with 61% of parents saying their child’s social-emotional development has been negatively affected by the pandemic.
“We’re proud that when kids play out stories with Barbie and express their thoughts and feelings, they can develop crucial social skills, like empathy, that give them the tools to be confident and inclusive adults,” says Lisa McKnight, Senior Vice President and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls, Mattel. “As leaders in the doll category, we look forward to discovering even more neuroscience-based benefits of doll play through our long-term partnership with Cardiff University.”
The results of this second year of research, entitled Doll play inspires social thinking and social conversation: Internal state language representations in the brain, were published in Developmental sciences in 2021 by Dr Sarah Gerson and colleagues from the Center for Human Developmental Science at Cardiff University, UK, and colleagues from King’s College London.
In autumn 2020, Cardiff University and Barbie unveiled the results of the first year of the study, Exploring the benefits of doll play through neuroscience, Posted in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. You will find more information on the results of the first year here. This multi-year research effort explores the short- and long-term impacts of doll play on development, with new stages of research and results through 2024.
Parents and caregivers can visit Barbie.com/Benefits to learn more about research and access resources.