Source: Barbie

It turns out that playing with Barbies is more than just fun.

A new study from Barbie and a team of neuroscientists at Cardiff University explored the impact of playing with dolls on a group of kids. Using neuroimaging, the team found that kids develop empathy and social processing skills through doll play.

In a course of 18 months, senior lecturer Dr. Sarah Gerson and her colleagues at Cardiff University’s Center for Human Developmental Science monitored the brain activity of 33 kids between the ages of 4-8 as they played with a range of Barbie dolls. It found that in both boys and girls, the region of the brain (called the pSTS) associated with social information processing, such as empathy, was activated even when kids played by themselves.

“We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,” Dr. Gerson explains, “Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other. The fact that we saw the pSTS to be active in our study shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life.”

Dr. Gerson with Barbies | Source: Barbie

The kids in the study were split into different sections: playing with dolls on their own, playing with dolls with the research assistant, playing with a tablet alone, and playing with a tablet with the research assistant. It found that the pSTS was activated the same way, whether kids were playing with the dolls by themselves or playing with others. Those who were left to play tablet games on their own had far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games required creativity.

Barbie also commissioned a global study to further understand these results. It got results from more than 15,000 parents in 22 countries. It found that 91 percent of parents would like for their kids to learn empathy, but only 26 percent knew that doll play was a way to handle it. More than two thirds were concerned about how the current social isolation was affecting their kids’ social developments skills and 74 percent are more likely to encourage their kids to play with toys that will help them develop these skills.

Parents can learn more about these findings in the new online hub The website features resources gathered by leading empathy expired Dr. Michele Borba for parents, caregivers, and kids for how to better apply these skills.

About the author

Nicole Savas

Nicole Savas

As a kid, Nicole either wanted to be a professional toy player-wither or a writer. Somehow, as social media editor for The Toy Insider, The Toy Book, and The Pop Insider, she’s found a career as both. She's grateful to work somewhere that she can fully embrace both her love of teddy bears and her admiration for the Oxford comma. When she's not playing with toys at work, she's playing with her baby girl at home.