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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.