Why Boys Need Dolls
Roanna Mottershead, co-founder of GenNeu, the gender neutral toy and book store for kids, takes a look at the importance of dolls to boys' play.
From chubby-faced cabbage patch dolls to impossibly thin barbies, vintage collectables to freakishly realistic ones that cry and wee, dolls take many shapes and forms. But though dolls themselves are more diverse than ever, the gender of the children we buy them for hasn’t changed much: they’re still a ‘girly’ toy by default.
For many parents, a doll doesn’t even spring to mind when they think about buying toys for their son; the toy box automatically fills up with vehicles, building blocks, and construction sets.
Though it’s more and more common for parents to say they would buy their son a doll if they asked for one, by waiting for the child to take the initiative it still sends a message that it’s unusual — something to be tolerated rather than encouraged.
But research has shown there are a huge range of developmental benefits from playing with dolls; Western Sydney University even demonstrated that baby boys aged four to five months actually prefer objects with faces, like dolls, to machines such as toy cars.
By ignoring dolls, our sons are missing out on honing some vital skills that they’ll need in years to come.
Dolls are a fantastic tool for imaginative play. They help children work through the situations — and emotions — they encounter every day.
1. Process Emotions
If something didn’t go as they expected, dolls can also help children re-visit the situation, processing the emotions they may not yet be able to verbalise.
2. Practice Situations
From practising the bedtime routine to going to the doctor, being able to act out situations before they happen creates familiarity, helping it seem less scary.
3. Develop Language Skills
While they’re chatting away in their own little world, they’re also working on another skill — language. The everyday scenarios children model with their dolls are perfect for practising the words that go with them.
As well as nouns — clothes, bed, nappy — they help develop more descriptive words like cold, hot, hungry, sleepy, as they imagine how their baby may be feeling.
4. Learn Empathy
The act of imagining how the tiny plastic human they’re caring for is feeling also works on another essential skill: empathy.
Being able to imagine how someone else is feeling and adapt your behaviour is a life skill that will help kids build strong relationships with friends, colleagues and partners in later life.
5. Build Motor Skills
Dolls don’t just develop communication and social skills: there’s a physical aspect to playing with dolls that can really help build motor skills.
Big actions like carrying their baby around, pushing it in the buggy, or putting it to bed work on gross motor skills that kids need to develop their muscles and improve hand-eye coordination.
Practising more fiddly skills like dressing and undressing their baby or feeding them work on fine motor skills that little ones can then use when they perform these actions in real life.
6. Your child is the leader
But you know the best thing about dolls? No adult supervision required!
In recent years, there’s been a real emphasis on making sure play time includes a balance of organised, adult-led activities and child-led play. Child-led play has been shown to boost creativity and support emotional development through independent decision making. It’s even been shown that kids who are engaged in child-led play concentrate for much longer as they bring their vision to life, supporting cognitive development.
Dolls are perfect for facilitating this kind of unstructured, child-led play. They can create whatever scenario or form of entertainment they need at that exact moment — no screens needed.
That flexibility — both in how children play with them and the skills they teach — is exactly why dolls are one of the oldest and best loved toys out there.
And why every boy should have one.
Roanna Mottershead is the Co-Founder of genneu.co.uk, an online store that challenges gender stereotypes with its range of gender neutral toys and books.