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Cardiff University scientists team with Barbie to prove the developmental benefits of doll play

The Barbie brand has collaborated with neuroscientists as Cardiff University to bring to light new evidence to suggest that playing with dolls activates regions in children’s brains that develops empathy and social information processing skills, even when playing with dolls by themselves.

The 18 month study has been conducted by senior lecturer, Dr. Sarah Gerson and colleagues at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science where it used nueroimaging technology to provide the first indications of the benefits of dolls play within children’s brains.

Scientists monitored the brain activity of 33 children aged between four and eight, as they played with a range of Barbie dolls. Results showed that in each of the children, the posterior superior temporal sulcus – the region of the brain associated with social information processing such as empathy – was activated, even when the child was playing on their own.

Further more, the benefits of solo doll play were shown to be equal for both boys and girls.

“This is a completely new finding,” said Dr Gerson. “We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings. Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games.

“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 later in life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic.”

The study observed children as they played with dolls on their own, played with dolls together with another person, played with a tablet game on their own, and played on a tablet game with the research assistant. Dolls used in the research included a diverse range of Barbie dolls and play-sets, while the tablet games used were ones that encouraged open and creative play to offer a similar experience to the doll play.

Results of the study showed that when children played with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the empathetic brain region as they did when playing with others. Meanwhile, the children left to play tablet games on their own showed far less activation of the brain region.

Life sciences

In a move to understand the relevance of the findings, Barbie also independently commissioned a global survey that quizzed more than 15,000 parents across 22 countries. The results showed that 91 per cent of parents ranked empathy as a key social skill for their child to develop.

Only 26 per cent were aware that doll play could help their child develop these sort of skills. More than two thirds of parents, meanwhile, are concerned about how the periods of isolation being implemented across the world might affect their child and how they interact. 74 per cent of parents are more likely to encourage their child to play with a toy if they knew it was proven to help their development.

“As leaders in the dolls category, we’ve always known that doll play has a positive impact on kids, but up until now, we have not had neuroscientific data that demonstrates these benefits,” said Lisa McKnight, SVP and global head of Barbie and Dolls, Mattel.

The findings of this research highlights that playing with dolls, such as Barbie, offers positive benefits in preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy. As we continue to inspire the limitless potential in every child, we are proud to offer dolls that encourage skills we know are highly valued by parents and are determinants in children’s future emotional, academic, and social success.”

Barbie will now be supporting these findings with an online hub, barbie.com/en-gb/benefitsofdollplay, featuring resources for parents, caregivers, and children, to assist them in enhancing and applying their social processing skills. These resources have been developed alongside leading empathy expert, writer, and educational psychologist, Dr. Michele Borba.

Dr Borba added: “The latest scientific findings from Cardiff University and Barbie are extraordinary and so relevant to the times we are living, given the limited social interaction our children can have. It’s been shown that children who have developed empathy and social skills early in life can have better grades, stay in school longer and make healthier choices overall.

“Empathetic children might also be more likely to stand up for a child being bullied and try to engage and resolve the conflict. Understanding that kids can help develop these skills through playing with dolls like Barbie, is remarkable and a helpful tool for parents.” 


The results of the study are now published today in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience as ‘Exploring the Benefits of Doll Play through Neuroscience.

Dr. Sarah Gerson and the Cardiff University team along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.

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