There’s nothing cuter than seeing a little girl or boy playing with a baby doll. But at the same time, it’s a little strange. Why would a child, barely past infancy, want to cuddle up with a doll representing their current level of development?
It turns out that science doesn’t have a lot of answers. Studies have shown that young girls will automatically pick up dolls and start playing with them from the moment they can crawl. Girls are naturally drawn to depictions of babies and seem to have a nurturing instinct built into them by biology. Parents don’t have to prompt girls to play with dolls: they just do it automatically, even before they’re able to speak.
What’s so interesting about this research is how early these behaviors appear. Girls usually start to walk upright at around ten months, develop empathy at approximately sixteen to eighteen months, and start talking soon after. But scientists investigated much younger girls, just six to eight months old – too young for them to understand anything about societal expectations or for them to interpret language cues from their caregivers. In short, the desire to play with dolls, particularly baby dolls, appears to be innate, to the surprise of many.
None of this should be taken as conclusive evidence. But the people conducting the study did try to correct for any parental influence by correlating the amount of time that a girl played with a doll (versus a toy car alternative), with parental attitudes towards gender. The scientists found that there was no correlation between parental attitudes and the children’s decisions, again suggesting that they were acting independently.
Dolls Are Tactile
One of the main reasons put forward for why children love dolls so much is that they are tactile. When caregivers are not around, dolls act as a substitute, allowing children to interact with others and experience touch physically. The toy is a kind of surrogate for the mother or a vehicle through which a child can enact their own caring instincts. It would make sense that evolution primes us for interacting favorably with infants, even if a doll is just a depiction.
Dolls Come With Accessories
Another reason that kids love dolls is the fact that they come with accessories. The best dolls prams on the market allow children to care for their dolls in the same way that their parents care for them. Children can also brush a doll’s hair, change their outfit, and pretend to make food for them. (Some dolls allow children to feed them physically).
Dolls are also developing technologically. The latest version of Baby Born, for instance, allows kids to talk to the doll, and the doll will respond.
Different Kinds Of Dolls For Different Personalities
Baby dolls aren’t the only kind of doll on the market for kids. Other varieties include rag dolls, small world dolls, and fashion dolls.
Ragdolls are mainly seen as a comforting aid for kids: something floppy and soft they can grab onto in times of need. But although kids will react to the tactile feel of rag dolls, that won’t prevent them from ascribing all of the same properties to the doll as they would a baby doll, if not as consciously.
Fashion dolls tend to be more popular among older children. Fashion dolls allow kids to experiment with dressing their dolls up in different ways.
Dolls Are A Learning Aid
Dolls also help children develop speaking skills. Children will often simulate conversations with dolls, replaying conversations that their caregivers have had with them. This isn’t just idle play, but a critical part of developing speech and language. Kids need to have the freedom to develop linguistic skills and practice them, even when there’s nobody else around for a conversation.
Dolls Help To Develop An Imagination
Many children find that dolls are a great way to develop their imaginative fantasies. Dolls provide them with a basis to begin exploring social situations.
While it’s true that kids love dolls, it’s also true that we’re still not entirely sure why. It seems to be something innate, but why remains to be seen. It could also just be that dolls are a form of comfort for the child in what can seem like a scary and dangerous world. Being able to relate to something smaller and even more helpless may help to elevate kids and make them feel powerful and stronger, rather than utterly reliant on their caregivers. The mystery of the popularity of dolls will remain, but there’s no doubt that children love them.