Why Some Dolls Are Better Than Others
Experts agree that playing with dolls has a range of developmental benefits, but the types of dolls you choose and how you play with them matter. Here’s everything you need to know…
When my first daughter was born, I swore up and down that she would never own a Barbie or Elsa doll. Fast-forward seven years and I’ve added twin girls and a graveyard of broken Disney dolls to the mix. I fought the anti-princess war valiantly, but I failed miserably.
And you know what? It’s totally fine. My girls haven’t bought into the princess myth because I’ve offered them a wide variety of toys and spoken to them openly about why Barbie isn’t a realistic chick. They get it.
They still love dolls though, so I decided to do a deep dive into doll research to find out whether they’re good or not. The answer? It depends. (You knew I’d say that, right?)
In this article, I’ll cover:
- The benefits of playing with dolls
- The types of dolls to avoid
- The best types of dolls for kids
- The importance of how you play with dolls
Scroll down for more…
The benefits of doll play
Dolls have a range of developmental benefits for little ones, including:
- They help young children make sense of the world and their place in it
- They enhance fine-motor and self-help skills (through clothing and grooming the doll)
- They encourage imaginative play which is crucial for children’s development
- They sharpen children’s language skills
- They help kids develop their social skills and empathy
- They can help prepare children for the arrival of a sibling
- They can educate kids about their bodies and encourage conversations around consent
But one thing is clear from all the literature: not all dolls are created equal.
The types of dolls to avoid
I’m starting with no-nos from the doll world because sadly they’re the norm rather than the exception. While doll standards are slowly starting to change, there’s still a long way to go.
Parents should try to steer clear of:
- Choosing only white dolls or dolls that adhere to white beauty standards (slim, blond hair, light eyes) or gender standards (action figures only for boys) because they teach children a homogenous view of the world
- Fashion or teen dolls that are oversexualized, promote an unattainable body image, reinforce traditional stereotypes or encourage a consumer mindset
- Battery-operated dolls that restrict children’s imaginations
- Dolls made from plastic (unless they’re made from recycled milk jugs or bioplastic) because they may contain toxic chemicals such as BPA, BPS, formaldehyde, PVC, lead and other heavy metals, VOCs and pesticides
- Dolls that smell like plastic because they probably contain PVC/vinyl or dolls that smell fruity because they likely contain phthalates
Barbie dolls have long been the subject of controversy. Research has shown that girls who play with Barbie dolls at a young age have lower self-esteem and may be more prone to eating disorders.
When you consider that the classic Barbie doll had a size 0 waist and that her proportions wouldn’t have allowed her to stand upright or hold her head up, it’s clear that girls are fighting a losing battle when it comes to looking like Barbie. Even the more recent Curvy Barbie who has a size 4-6 waist is much thinner than the average American woman.
The best types of dolls for kids
Here are the types of dolls parents should look for:
- Dolls that represent different races, cultural backgrounds and disabilities to teach children about diversity
- Dolls that have realistic body shapes and sizes to encourage a healthy body image
- Dolls that break away from traditional gender roles to teach children they can be anything they want to be
- Anatomically correct dolls that educate children about their bodies and can allow parents to introduce the concepts of body safety and consent
- Soft, simple, realistic, battery-free dolls that inspire imaginative play
- Dolls made from natural fibers (such as organic cotton, sustainable wood or natural rubber) and finished with non-toxic dyes
If you can’t find the exact doll you’re looking for, try making your own. You can add non-traditional props (such as a firefighter outfit on a female doll) or make modifications that represent your child.
“My daughter Eve is in a wheelchair and we couldn’t find a doll that was like her when she was little, so we made a wheelchair out of pieces of plastic and rubber,” says Tanya. “We took off the doll’s legs and replaced them with straws that looked more like Eve’s legs that have no muscle tone. Eve was so happy that she called her Little Eve and took her everywhere. It’s pretty cool that there’s a Barbie in a wheelchair now, but for a long time there were no options like that.”
The Tot’s top three dolls
We love these dolls that tick all the boxes!
The Olli Ella Dinkum Doll promotes diversity and encourages pretend play.
The Cuddoll Personalized Look-A-Like Doll allows you to choose the right gender, skin color and eye color to look like your child
The Apple Park Organic Baby Boy Doll is designed to promote social-emotional development.
These artisan-crafted Goose Grease wooden peg dolls will give your child endless hours of imaginary play joy while promoting diversity and teaching kids about important historical figures.
How you play is as important as the dolls you choose
Regardless of which type of doll you choose, pay attention to the way you play with your child. Try to steer clear of gender stereotypical scenarios during pretend play, such as Daddy going to work while Mommy stays at home and cooks.
Focus on empathy and emotions rather than clothing and appearance. Try, “The little girl is sad because she can’t find her teddy bear” rather “The little girl looks so pretty, what a lovely dress.”
Boys should also be involved in doll play – and not only with boy dolls doing traditionally male activities.
“My son is four and he loves playing with dolls,” says Janna. “He has a whole bunch of them – Frozen dolls, and soft babies – and he dresses them up and brings them everywhere. People look at him funny sometimes, but I just ignore them. They’re the ones with hang-ups, not me.”
Even when we can’t change the dolls, we can change the scripts we feed our children. No matter how hard marketers try to brainwash our kids, our influence will always be stronger. And that’s something to feel good about…