This post has been written in collaboration with pediatric speech-language pathologist Katie Yeh (PlayingWithWords365) and clinical psychologist Laura Hutchison (PlayDrMom). Thank you for your wonderful contribution, ladies!
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The baby doll is such a fantastic toy that we hope ALL children (Yes, even BOYS!) will have the opportunity to own and play with during the toddler years. This is because baby dolls are packed with potential for teaching children about themselves and the world around them. Let’s take a look!
Cognitive, Fine Motor, & Self-Help Skills
Baby dolls offer kids lots of opportunities for developing their cognitive, fine motor, and self-help skills. Kids often find it easier to practice these skills on someone (or something) else before they can apply them to themselves. And because boys often develop some of their fine motor and self-dressing skills later than girls, it’s important for them to be exposed to more opportunities for practice. For example:
- Dramatizing using a doll: Around two to three years old, children typically begin to act as if their doll can see and interact with them. They may link several actions with the doll in sequence such as feeding the doll, bathing the doll, and then putting the doll to bed. This sort of pretend play is a hugely important part of their cognitive development.
- Removing clothes: Though some clothing items are easier to remove than others (like those baby socks that never stay on their little feet!), kids often benefit from trying it out on a doll before doing so for themselves. Taking clothing off is usually mastered before putting it on and includes removing items such as hat, socks (pulling from the top rather than pulling on the toes), shoes, shirt, using a pincer grasp to unzip, pulling down pants, and unbuttoning large buttons.
- Putting on clothes: Getting clothes on can be tough and is typically MUCH easier when first practiced on a doll. Some common clothing items kids can practice on dolls and themselves include placing a hat on their head, zipping with some assistance, putting shoes on, pulling pants up, putting on a shirt, and buttoning large buttons.
- Using both hands in midline: This skill is expected to emerge around a year and a half and tends to coincide with the development of skills such as zipping/unzipping or holding the doll while pretending to feed it.
- Feeding: As children’s pretend play skills develop, so do their self-feeding skills! Playing with a baby doll gives them the opportunity to practice appropriately holding and using feeding items such as spoons, bottles, cups, forks, bowls, etc.
- Bathing: Kids can practice giving their doll a bath (with pretend water if the doll is not allowed to get wet)! This is great for practicing sequencing skills (first fill up the tub, then put on shampoo, then rinse hair, etc.). I have also used dolls in therapy to help kids move past their fear of bathing by having them help me give the doll a pretend bath using all the necessary supplies (so they get used to the sensory experience from the water, shampoo, etc. and can have more control over the experience). We talk about the supplies needed and the steps taken during bath time, and then they can narrate the steps and comfort the doll during “bath time” while playing out a simple or elaborate pretend narrative. (A plastic Potato Head also works great for this experience.) Parents have been so proud when their child eventually agrees to get in the bath after practicing with the doll for weeks on end!
- Grooming & Hygiene: Dolls provide the perfect opportunity for practicing grooming and hygiene skills such as brushing hair, brushing teeth, and washing hands.
- Potty training: While I don’t have a lot of experience on this front (yet!), a child with an active imagination can really benefit from using a doll to help with potty training. While skills such as indicating discomfort over soiled pants and sitting on a potty chair with assistance are skills a child must develop in him or herself, they can be played out on the doll either by the caregiver or the child him/herself. For example: “Uh oh! Baby has a wet diaper! He feels yucky”, or “Okay, Baby, time to sit on the potty!”
The baby doll is a toy that can really help open up and expand a child’s pretend play. Children learn a lot of language through their play and play offers them opportunities to use and practice their speech and language skills. Let’s look at just some of the language concepts that a baby doll can help teach and support:
- Body Parts: Dolls are FANTASTIC for teaching various body parts: eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hands, fingers, tummy, feet, toes, knees, elbows, etc. Yes, you can teach these without a baby doll but providing another opportunity to practice labeling this vocabulary helps to generalize the vocabulary to other people. It helps to teach children that “nose” not only refers to the thing on their own face but to all faces.
- Clothing Labels: Using the doll and its clothes, you can teach the names of clothing items like shirts, pants, shoes, socks, jammies, etc. Putting on and taking off the clothes also works on fine motor skills!
- Basic Concepts: Use baby with other baby toys (bed, blankets) to teach some basic concepts like: prepositions (baby in the bed, baby under the blanket), colors, and size concepts (using different sized dolls).
- Verbs/Feelings: Use the baby with some other baby toys (bed, bottle, clothes) to teach verbs/feelings/etc. like: eat, drink, sleep, sit, stand, hungry, sleepy, thirsty, and more. For example: “Is the baby hungry? We should give him something to eat!”
- Answering “wh” questions: You can ask your child an array of questions to work on his understanding of these words while he plays. “Where is baby?” “Where is baby’s nose/fingers/belly button?” “What does the baby want to eat?” “Why is the baby crying?”
- Social/pragmatic skills: Baby dolls can be a great tool to use to help teach appropriate social/pragmatic skills. Children can take turns playing with different dolls, and they can practice using language to ask questions about the dolls and what they are doing.
Children use play to understand their world. Doll play helps children:
- practice nurturing and caring (socio-emotional)
- re-enact interactions with their own caregivers, family, and friends (cognitive reframing)
- prepare for a sibling (rehearsal)
Regardless of a child’s gender, these skills are all valuable life lessons. In carrying, holding, feeding, and rocking a baby doll, children are practicing being loving to others. They may be modeling how they remember being taken care of as a baby, or how they see adults in their world caring for children. Just as children copy parents talking on the phone, working in the kitchen, vacuuming, etc., doll play is no different. It is children’s way to understand and begin to make the world their own by practicing these everyday events.
Doll play is also a way for children to re-enact things that have happened in their lives. Doing so allows them to increase their understanding of the events. They can also take on the opposite role, which allows them to see things from another’s perspective (SUCH an important skill to acquire!). Many times children will enjoy taking on the adult role in order for them to feel a sense of control and power. This makes complete sense because children have very little control over their world (for some necessary and good reasons). Giving a child the chance to have some power and control in play allows them to give it a try in a safe way.
Playing with baby dolls is also a wonderful way for young children to prepare for the birth of a sibling. Parents can model ways to appropriately touch and care for an infant which can give the sib-to-be a taste of what they can expect. Also, once the baby arrives, the new big-sib can care for their own baby doll right alongside mom and dad. This can be particularly helpful since it is quite normal (for obvious reasons) for the older sibling to not get as much attention once the baby arrives. Being able to have their own activity – but still feel connected to the parent(s) and family – can help a child ease into having an additional member in the family.
Some children will prefer to play out these same scenarios with other stuffed toys or miniatures because they feel better connected to them or they need the play to be more removed (less real to the actual situation) than playing with baby dolls. I’m mentioning this because I don’t want parents/caregivers to think that just because a child doesn’t play with baby dolls they can’t learn and practice these skills. But I do believe that baby dolls offer children something unique that other toys just can’t do.
Check out this inspiring post about one mom’s quest to teach her three young boys how to someday care for a baby by modeling it with their dolls. Seriously, this post is amazing…you may need tissues.
We hope you have enjoyed our take on how you can use baby dolls to promote kids’ development! How have your kids benefited from playing with dolls? We’d love to hear your story!
About the Authors:
Christie is a mama to one precious kiddo (15 months) and an occupational therapist to many. Her blog, Mama OT, is a place where she shares helpful tibdbits learned from life as both a mom and a pediatric OT. Follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter for more tips on how to promote your child’s development and help them have fun along the way!
Katie is a a mom to two little ones (E, almost 4, & Ev, 21 months) and a licensed, credentialed pediatric speech-language pathologist (when she finds the time). She blogs at Playing With Words 365, sharing information about speech & language development, intervention strategies, therapy ideas & tips, and even a little about her family and their life too. Follow along on Facebook or Pinterest for more speech-language ideas and tips.
Laura is a mother of two and a clinical psychologist specializing in children and play therapy. Her blog, PlayDrMom, is dedicated to promoting the importance of play and strengthening relationships with children. Follow her on Pinterest and Facebook for even more tips on parenting and playing.Facebook, and follow on Twitter and Pinterest. Oh, and subscribe to Mama OT by clicking "Subscribe!" on the homepage so you can receive new posts via email and not miss out on all the great tips published here!