Dolls play remarkable impact on children’s social development

by | Oct 24, 2023

Mattel, Inc. (NASDAQ: MAT) and a team of neuroscientists from Cardiff University have released their latest findings from an extensive multi-year study, which explores the short- and long-term developmental effects of doll play. The study’s third year, with peer-reviewed findings, underscores the potential benefits of doll play for children with diverse social communication styles, including those displaying neurodivergent traits often associated with autism.

In this latest phase of the research, led by neuroscientist Dr. Sarah Gerson from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology’s Centre for Human Developmental Science, the team built upon previous discoveries from the first and second years. Notably, they expanded their participant pool, which now included children aged 4–8, exhibiting both high and low levels of traits commonly linked to autism. Collaborating with Dr. Catherine Jones, Director of the Wales Autism Research Centre at Cardiff University, the data reinforced the initial conclusion that engaging with dolls, either alone or in a group, can foster social processing in children. Importantly, this held true for children with and without high levels of autistic traits, albeit through distinct modes of play.

 

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Dr. Sarah Gerson, the lead researcher, stated, “Our study shows that doll play can encourage social processing in children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile. The findings indicate that all children, even those who exhibit neurodivergent traits commonly associated with autism, can employ doll play as a means to practice social scenarios and develop social skills, such as empathy.”

Using state-of-the-art functional, near-infrared spectroscopy equipment, the neuroscientists monitored brain activity while children engaged in doll play and tablet use, both individually and with a partner. They discovered increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region during doll play, whether played alone or with a social partner, but less so during solitary tablet play. The pSTS region is deeply involved in social and emotional processing, indicating that doll play may enable children to rehearse and enhance these skills, even when playing independently. Intriguingly, this brain activity was similar in children displaying fewer and greater traits commonly associated with autism.

 

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The study’s findings suggest that doll play supports social processing in children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile, albeit through different pathways. For children with fewer autistic traits, discussions about others’ mental states correlated with pSTS activity (i.e., conversations about others’ thoughts and emotions during solo doll play). Conversely, for those with more autistic traits, engaging in conversations with others during doll play was associated with pSTS activity, even when playing alone (i.e., general social engagement with researchers/experimenters rather than a specific type of discussion about mental states).

The Year 3 results from Cardiff University highlight that children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile, can engage in and potentially benefit from doll play concerning their social development. Moreover, research has shown that social processing and empathy skills are crucial determinants of children’s future emotional, academic, and social success.

Dr. Catherine Jones emphasized the importance of recognizing and valuing neurodiversity, acknowledging diverse cognitive processes, and fostering inclusive approaches to social development for all children.

This groundbreaking study, commissioned by Barbie, is the first to provide scientific evidence for the positive effects of doll play on children’s social skills and creativity at the brain level. The study, titled “Embracing Neurodiversity in Doll Play: Investigating Neural and Language Correlates of Doll Play in a Neurodiverse Sample,” was peer-reviewed and published in the European Journal of Neuroscience in September 2023. Parents and caregivers can access further information and resources at barbie.com/benefits.

The study involved 57 children (27 boys and 22 girls) aged 4 to 8 years, with varying levels of autistic traits, measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient-Children’s Version (AQ-Child, Aueyung, et al., 2008).

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