Psychology: Playing with dolls helps children develop empathy and social skills, study shows

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Playing with dolls uses a brain region that helps children develop empathy for other people and social processing skills, a study has discovered.

Researchers from Cardiff found that doll play activated the use of the so-called posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) more than other creative activities.

In addition, the social benefits of the dolls were observed even when children played alone — rather than with others — and were equal among girls and boys. 

The findings support the pioneering theories of the Swiss ‘father of developmental psychology’ Jean Piaget, who argued in 1945 that pretend play was inherently social.

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Playing with dolls, pictured, uses a brain region that helps children develop empathy for other people and social processing skills, a study has discovered

Playing with dolls, pictured, uses a brain region that helps children develop empathy for other people and social processing skills, a study has discovered

‘We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,’ said paper author and developmental researcher Sarah Gerson of Cardiff University.

‘Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.’

‘The fact that we saw the pSTS to be active in our study shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life.’

‘This brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents.’

In their study, Dr Gerson and colleagues used a brain-scanning technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor 33 children — a mix of both boys and girls aged from 4–8 — while they played with assorted Barbie dolls and playsets.

The children played both alone and with one of the researchers — and these activities were compared with solo and social play involving open and creative play that instead involved video games on a tablet computer.

Researchers from Cardiff found that doll play activated the use of the so-called posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) more than other creative activities. In addition, the social benefits of the dolls were observed even when children played alone ¿ rather than with others ¿ and were equal among girls and boys, pictured

Researchers from Cardiff found that doll play activated the use of the so-called posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) more than other creative activities. In addition, the social benefits of the dolls were observed even when children played alone — rather than with others — and were equal among girls and boys, pictured

In their study, Dr Gerson and colleagues used a brain-scanning technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor 33 children ¿ a mix of both boys and girls aged from 4¿8 ¿ while they played with assorted Barbie dolls and playsets

In their study, Dr Gerson and colleagues used a brain-scanning technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor 33 children — a mix of both boys and girls aged from 4–8 — while they played with assorted Barbie dolls and playsets

The team found that the pSTS was just as active when the boys and girls played along with the dolls as it was when they played socially with others.

In contrast, when the children were left along to play video games on a tablet, there was far less activation of the social-related brain region. 

The study was conducted in collaboration with toymaker Mattel — which produces the fashion doll Barbie, who made her commercial debut in 1959.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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