Should we still allow our children to play with dolls?

December 11, 2014 Published by

Dr Amanda Gummer was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this week, discussing the new generation of realistic dolls. You can listen to the full feature below, which also includes school children’s assessment of the dolls and commentary from the CEO of Lady Geek. Here Amanda reflects on the radio show. 

The debate on Woman’s Hour started off with a discussion on dolls with realistic body proportions, in comparison to the glamour dolls such as Barbie that children play with. The children interviewed for the article were much more interested in the clothes and the fantasy of the dolls  – being a princess versus wearing clothes that anyone can wear. They noticed more the play functions of the dolls (whether her arms moved) than the length of the doll’s legs or the circumference of her waist.

I’m not saying that the move towards realistic dolls is a bad one, but the play patterns that children engage in when playing with Barbie-esque dolls are all about princesses and fantasy. Children don’t assume that they can have that lifestyle, any more than they think they can look like Barbie or walk in her ridiculously high heels! And that’s ok. Imagination and role play with dolls is wonderful but it’s not the only type of play that dolls provide.

  • girl-play-with-dollBaby dolls  promote a different type of imaginative role play: one that helps children develop nurturing skills, responsibility, and kindness. Dolls can also be used to help children understand their own lives or those of other children.
  • Multi-cultural dolls are helpful both at providing dolls that all children can relate to but also when trying to help children learn about their world.
  • Dolls such as those from A Girl for All Time help children imagine what it was like to live in Tudor times or during the second world war.

The way children play with dolls makes them powerful vehicles for helping children develop a wide range of skills and knowledge.

The discussion then turned into more of a debate on genderised play. You’ll note that I always say “children” when talking about who plays with dolls. I’m a firm believer that children should be able to play with whatever toys they choose, without limitation or stigma.

There are lots of examples of society having different expectations of, or respect for, the different genders and it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the toys on the market. Until you close the gap between men’s and women’s premier league, you’re not going to get toy companies putting female footballers on football stickers that children collect and trade in the playground. The fact that more boys choose to collect the football stickers and play football than girls, and more girls tend to chose to play with dolls is, in my opinion, absolutely fine. The caveat is that should a girl want to play football, or a boy play with dolls, they are equally free to do so.

As we explained on the radio, the important thing is for children to have a balanced play diet. I would be happier to let my child play actively and imaginatively for much longer with dolls than I would let them spend in front of a screen, but what I really want is for them to enjoy a range of activities that help them develop all aspects of themselves. There are some really great educational, interactive gender neutral apps and games available. We’ve reviewed lots of them and know what fantastic apps are available for digital play. However, they can’t and shouldn’t replace active imaginative role play or any of the other types of play that children engage in in the real world, with real people.

The issue of gender neutral toys is an interesting one, and I agree that there are lots of toys that are equally enjoyed by girls and boys, bikes and tablets being two examples. However, most parents, grandparents etc, when looking for a present for a child, will search for ‘good toys for a 5 year old boy/girl’ rather than ‘good toys for a 5 year old child’. So when a site like the Good Toy Guide, whose aim is to provide parents with independent, expert advice on toys, play and child development, is producing guides for parents at Christmas we include both genderised toys (with the caveat that all toys can be enjoyed by both genders) and gender neutral toys in our guides for good toys for girls / boys.

We want to ensure that parents find the most appropriate toys for their children. Based on our observations of hundreds of children in our play clubs, there are some toys that appeal more to boys and others that appeal more to girls. I believe that we should continue to offer all different types of toys to our children, while being on hand to discuss issues such as body image and gender equality with them as they play.

Do you let your children play with dolls? Please let us know in the comments, or on our Facebook page. 

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This post was written by Amanda Gummer

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