Doll Plays and Life Lessons
Have you ever marveled at how your little girl instinctively knows to cradle her baby doll? Or how even your most rough-and-tumble toddler son switches into his "soft" voice when speaking to his favorite stuffed animal? This amazing capacity for nurturing that even very young children demonstrate is brought out during doll play. From "first babies" or "lovies" that have been cuddle objects since they were born to baby dolls, stuffed animals, role-play dolls, action figures and beyond, children are fascinated with and spend a great deal of time imagining with dolls.
Doll play is important in helping children explore how to grow up and take on the role of the future adult. The care, feeding and nurturing that is brought out in doll play is basic human instinct. By encouraging this capacity in young children, we help instill the ability to give selflessly and care for others, and we hopefully help raise a more caring adult.
An Integral Part of Culture
Dolls have been a part of human imagination since the beginning of civilization. Evidence exists that dolls were part of Greek and Roman lives, and rough-shaped wooden or clay dolls were also found in Egyptian temples. European dolls, which are those most closely resembling the playthings we have today, debuted in the 14th century in Nuremberg, Germany.
Perhaps one of the reasons doll play has resonated throughout the ages is that it fosters a great deal of make-believe play. Dolls give children today the same wonderful imaginative play experiences as they did centuries ago. Children playing with dolls bring all their warmth, empathy and caring out in a very real way.
In fact, doll play is one of the very first indicators of the ability for imaginative play. One of the first bits of make-believe child development experts see is a very young toddler "feeding" their baby or stuffed animal.
Child development psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer of Yale University note, "Early opportunities to play with dolls afford children that chance to practice the vital human capacity for nurturance and for giving selflessly to others. We can hope that more and more boys can take advantage of such pretending games. As modern society evolves, an important feature of intimacy between adults may involve the sharing of nurturance and caretaking – one of the most sublime of human experiences. And it all starts with doll play."
Dolls Beyond the Toddler Years
As they age, girls look for ways to see what it's going to be like as grown-ups. Around age 4, the Madeline ragdoll, which has to this point been a baby or sister to the young child, is set aside for her more "grown-up" poseable Madeline role-play doll or other fashion dolls.
Role-play or fashion dolls help little girls work out what they can and want to be when they grow up. You see them creating figures from "real life" and acting out scenarios that those "real" people would find themselves in personally and professionally. Children really enjoy this type of trying on the adult world and adult roles for size.
In addition to the fun and enjoyment this brings to young children, doll play also serves beneficial developmental purposes by allowing kids to work out their emotions in a safe context. Scolding their baby doll or stuffed animal lets children work out their feelings without involving another child.
The Right Doll
Providing your 4- or 5-year-old with age-appropriate role-play dolls, fashions and accessories is critical to making the most of this vital stage of play and development. Look for dolls that emphasize positive attributes you want to encourage. Also, be on the lookout for dolls designed to emulate a similar age range as your child. Giving a 4-year-old an adult or late-teen doll is great for aspirational play, but they will benefit far more from role-playing with a doll that is of their own peer group. This really opens the door for them to work out situations that they are in currently as well as in situations that they may find themselves in the near future.
Keeping Doll Play Alive
With all their ability to help children learn vital life skills, try on adult lives, work out emotional and social issues and explore caring and nurturing, dolls should remain a cornerstone of childhood play from infancy all the way through the preteen years. Doll play enhanced by good story connections such as Madeline is a great way to reinforce and doll play throughout early childhood. These kinds of stories combined with classic doll play inspire new generations to keep the doll play tradition alive.