Study: Playing With Dolls Helps All Genders Learn Empathy

Playing with dolls has always been considered something girls do, but new research shows how much it can benefit both boys and girls. A newstudycommissioned by Mattel – maker of Barbie – finds when kids play with dolls, it helps them learn to be empathetic and develop social skills. Researchers from Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Development Science say these skills are especially important right now as children may be learning remotely and don’t get to play with friends much.

For the study, researchers observed 42 boys and girls between the ages of four and eight while they played with Barbies and other dolls, both alone and with other kids, as well as while they played games on a tablet. The kiddos wore a device that fits like a swim cap so scientists could measure their brain activity. While they played with the dolls, a part of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus was activated and it’s associated with social information processing, like empathy. When the little tykes played with the tablets, this part of the brain was activated “far less,” even if they were playing games with creative elements.

Study authors explain that dolls “naturally encourage children to create their own social worlds” and that learning social skills, like empathy, is especially important during the pandemic while kids may be isolated from friends and missing out on social interaction.Sarah Gerson, a developmental neuroscientist who oversaw the study, hopes their findings encourage parents to let both boys and girls play with dolls. "These skills aren't gender-specific," she says. "Being able to think about other people's emotions is equally important for boys and for girls."