Playing with Barbies is a big part of the day here at our house, and my daughter has loved playing with them over and over again. Her imagination stretches and soars as she creates their world, but what else is she learning? The benefits of playing with Barbies and dolls can not be understated, and a new study proves it.
A recent study commissioned by Barbie and conducted by the University of Cardiff in Wales suggests that your child is learning a whole lot of empathy when they sit down to play with their favorite dolls. Researchers found that playing with Barbies and dolls — whether alone or with others — activated a "region of the brain associated with social information processing such as empathy." Dr. Sarah Gerson from Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science said, “This is a completely new finding. We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games."
The research itself, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, is pretty interesting, even if you don't usually read data for fun. The way researchers did it was to cordon off kids in groups, giving each a type of toy, including a wide variety of Barbies. They monitored the brain activity of the children as they played, looking to see where it lit up. What they found was pretty singular — the kids who were playing with dolls were really leaning into the part of the brain that is associated with empathy. What makes this significant is that kids that were playing alone received the same benefit. That means that even if your child isn't playing with other kids and learning empathy through experience, it is possible to learn empathy by proxy through doll play.
So what does this mean for worried parents of only children during this pandemic? Can Barbies teach your kids empathy and also help others? The initial research suggests that it could help. While you're obviously going to need to continually engage in the practice of discussing emotions and emotional regulation with your children — and placing them in different types of situational discourse — it's one more tool you probably didn't know you had. When kids are playing with dolls, they are assigning to them different life experiences, different abilities, and different personalities, and that helps them learn. I know that my own daughter currently has her own little Barbie RV commune thing happening, with group childcare and kids with IEPs (much like her brother). It's fascinating to watch.
While our kids might learn a lot intuitively, like my daughter looking for affordable childcare and access to education, it is up to us to continue to expose our children to cultures and communities outside of our own so that they not only build empathy and understanding through play, but also through education and experience. (Although experience is perhaps still a ways off during this pandemic.)
And Barbie is here to help. They've set up an online hub at Barbie.com/Benefits with a wealth of resources for parents and kids to "assist them in enhancing and applying their social processing skills." There are worksheets and talking points, and a full guide to this research. It's basically Science Professor Barbie in real life, and I love to see it.