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Dolls and doll play: A new look at a familiar prop

Dolls have been a fixture in dramatic play centers for decades. Despite changing doll styles and increasing doll gadgetry, experienced teachers continue to recommend simple and realistic dolls for pretend play.
Why do baby dolls beat out Barbies®? How can you use dolls to support children’s learning and development? When you buy dolls, what do you look for?

Dolls in children’s play
Playing with dolls is basic to dramatic play. The roots of make-believe begin between 12 and 18 months of age. During this time, children start to use objects as symbols and imitate behaviors (Rogers and Sawyers 1988). For example, 16-month-old Josh pretends to talk on a toy telephone.
True doll play begins about age 2 (Bronson 1995). Toddlers begin to talk to dolls, feed them, and tuck them into bed. Later children assume roles for themselves, beginning with the most familiar, mommy and daddy. Andrea plays mommy, for example, and says to baby, “Eat your peas.”
As role playing becomes more comfortable, children learn to play more than one role at a time. For example, David not only plays daddy but also speaks for baby: “Time for bed.” “No, I’m not sleepy.”
By age 4, children are playing cooperatively with peers. They use dolls to act out family and school roles. They also act out roles they have observed, either real or fantasy, such as doctor, firefighter, and Cookie Monster®.
In kindergarten and the primary school years, children play with all kinds of dolls and engage in elaborate fantasy play. Doll play increasingly becomes something only girls do. “[C]ompared with girls, boys prefer toy guns, adventure fantasy play, and video games with aggressive themes, whereas girls prefer household objects, enacting familiar roles, and dolls” (Goldstein 1994).
According to experts, pretend play is common to all children, with at least one exception. Children with autism have a neurological disorder that impairs imaginative play and social interaction (Autism Society of America).

Benefits of doll play
Pretend play, of which dolls are a part, benefits all areas of development. By dressing and feeding dolls, children enhance fine-motor skills. By assuming roles and interacting with other children, they practice language and social skills, including sharing, cooperation, helping, and problem solving. They learn the different roles people play and begin to see their own place in the world.
Children have a fundamental need to bring the large, loud world into manageable size, according to Jerome Singer, psychology professor at Yale University (1994). Pretend play gives a child “a miniature world of downsized objects and people where she is the giantess and the trucks, cars and airplanes are easily manipulable. She can reshape her own bedtime or feeding experience with the help of some props we adults can offer—dolls, toy beds, or toy kitchen tables. She can come to grips with what are often major crises, such as a battle over feeding or messy toileting, but ‘writing’ the scenarios herself and putting dolls into the now miniaturized situations and experiencing the power of watching them suffer as she pretends to be Momma.”
Doll play allows children to work through strong emotions. Hallie Speranza, who teaches at the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory, the University of Texas at Austin, says doll play can be therapeutic. Sometimes children “do mean things” with dolls, such as “putting a baby in the oven.” Such behavior allows children to release tension, rather than keeping it bottled up.
Children often use dolls to “work through things that may be going on in their family,” says Dawn Leach, director of the Austin Community College Children’s Lab School. “They may do and say things with dolls they wouldn’t dare do or say with their families.”

Matching dolls to children’s development
Most early childhood educators recommend providing dolls appropriate to children’s development. See the guidelines at left.
For infants, dolls are comfort objects in the same category with stuffed animals, says Leach. These dolls need to be soft and cuddly, yet washable and sturdy. If an infant becomes attached to a doll at home as a lovey, teachers allow the family to bring it from home but don’t let other infants use it.
Dolls made of cloth are fine, as long as they can withstand frequent laundering. “If an infant mouths the doll, we rotate it into the laundry basket,” says Leach, “so our dolls get washed every day or two.”
Dolls also allow infants to practice grasping objects with their hands. Dolls with rattles inside provide auditory stimulation and allow infants to experience cause-and-effect: shaking the doll causes noise.
Realism is important, Leach says. It ought to be clear that the doll represents a person, and not a cartoon or fantasy figure. For infants, this can mean a simple body form made of fabric as well as a plastic baby doll. Children 3 to 5 typically prefer dolls that look like real babies and those with moveable arms and legs that can be posed in different positions.
The best dolls look realistic but “don’t really do anything,” Leach says. “Dolls that walk and talk take away from what a child can imagine it will do.” Battery-operated mechanisms have other disadvantages: batteries must be replaced and mechanisms tend to break or wear out with heavy use. Even drink-and-wet dolls pose a problem: mold and mildew can grow inside.
Realism includes diversity. Beginning at infancy, dolls ideally represent various ethnic groups and cultures. Even in classrooms in which all children are from the same ethnic or racial group, dolls need to represent the diversity of the community.
It’s not enough for dolls to have different skin colors, says Leach. They need different kinds of hair and facial features. Dolls for preschoolers can introduce diverse abilities as well, through the use of props such as a doll wheelchair, hearing aid, and eyeglasses.
Both Leach and Speranza advocate anatomically correct dolls, beginning at infancy. These dolls “normalize” boy-girl differences, something children are already observing and discussing when they use the toilet, says Speranza. In some communities, however, parents may find these dolls objectionable, particularly if a school or center has never had them before. “It might be wise to check with parents first,” says Linda Ard, who teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi.
Attractiveness also matters, says Speranza. Children tend to pass over dolls with matted hair, a missing eye, or a body with ink scribbling. As a result, children need to be taught to care for dolls, and teachers need to clean and store them properly.

Baby dolls versus Barbies
Many experienced teachers look with disfavor on fashion or teen dolls in the classroom. From a practical standpoint, fashion dolls have many tiny parts that can be lost. Children—and teachers—get frustrated looking for tiny shoes or hats.
From the standpoint of social-emotional development, fashion dolls promote a stereotype of a beautiful woman as tall, skinny (some would say anorexic), busty, and blonde. They “place an emphasis on fashionable clothes and other possessions; and they suggest teen-age or adult role-play activities rather than activities that are appropriate for young children” (Bronson 1995). These dolls “create interest in teen appearance, music and risk-taking behaviors that children imitate but don’t understand” (TRUCE).
But some educators say teen dolls can have a place, depending upon children’s needs and the teacher’s values and beliefs. “For example, if you believe that fashion dolls have impossible figures that no person could live up to, and if you believe that children already are exposed to models that the vast majority of people could never look like, then those beliefs may influence you to keep teen fashion dolls out of the child care environment. If you value the creative process that children go through in pretend play and you want them to be able to use dolls to act out what they may be seeing in part of their world of teenage siblings, friends and relatives, then you may want to allow fashion dolls” (Thompson).
Similar arguments apply to toy soldiers like G.I. Joe®. Many educators believe such “dolls” promote aggressive play and the use of violence in problem solving. However, if children are from police or military families, a teacher may want to allow toy soldiers so children can explore these roles and their feelings within the context of units on safety and peacekeeping.
Professor Singer argues that toy soldiers have been popular for generations, and many boys who played with them grew up to be well-known pacifists. “I am much more concerned about the millions of children who have no toys, no parents who tell stories or read to them, and no sense of history but who do have available real guns and who are stimulated to imitation by older peers and by the heavy doses of daily exposure to realistic violence on television” (1994). He suggests that pretend play with toy soldiers could allow boys to release negative emotions and learn the consequences of their actions.

Supporting children’s dramatic play
Children need little, if any, encouragement to play with dolls. “We may say something like, ‘This baby looks really hungry,’ and then we let them go,” says Speranza. Children take it from there. Dolls are an open-ended learning material; they can be played with again and again in many different ways.
Actually, experienced teachers advise staying out of children’s pretend play, except for basic supervision. If children invite the teacher to “come to our tea party,” the teacher can participate in their play but without becoming the focus of attention. Teachers can excuse themselves at an appropriate opportunity: “Oh, I need to go to the doctor now. Thank you.”
Careful observation of doll play can provide insight into what children are thinking and feeling. Experienced teachers tolerate behavior in pretend play that would not be allowed in real life, like hitting a doll, as a way for children to work through strong feelings, but only up to a point. “If the play degenerates, it’s time to intervene,” says Speranza.
When intervening, teachers need to focus on the feeling. Not: “Moms don’t treat babies that way,” but: “How do you feel when hitting the baby? How does the baby feel?”
At the same time, children need to understand that dolls, like other toys and learning materials, must be used as intended. “We respect people and things” is a common rule. In preparing the dramatic play center, teachers put dolls in their beds or on a shelf, rather than dumping them in a box. Careful handling and display is “a nonverbal way of suggesting use,” says Speranza. Before leaving the center, children put the dolls back where they found them.
It’s not necessary to dress dolls after play (or for storage), except perhaps for a diaper, because children change the clothes during play anyway. To protect hair during storage, Speranza advises a tight-fitting doll cap.
The number of dolls put out for children to play with depends on many things, including the children’s age and space. For toddlers, who cannot share toys, teachers put out at least two of the same doll. For preschoolers, in a dramatic play center that can hold five children, two or three dolls may be enough. If children are playing “doctor’s office,” five or six dolls may be necessary.
Boys play with baby and child-like dolls until about age 4 or 5 when they may switch to “boy dolls” like G.I. Joe. If a boy gets teased about playing with baby dolls, experienced teachers step in: “We read the book, , with children to remove the stigma,” says Speranza. Some educators insist that doll play is OK for boys because it teaches the nurturing attitude they will need as fathers.
Teachers can encourage boys to engage in more doll play by changing the housekeeping props in the dramatic play center. If the center is a doctor’s office, dolls become the patients, for example. If the center is an airplane, dolls become child passengers.