Barbie: The Benefits of Doll Play According to Neuroscience

Cardiff University, in a multi-year research partnership with Barbie, conducted the first neuroimaging study to deliver notable results about the effect of doll play on the brain¹. At Barbie, we've always known there are many benefits of playing with dolls and now there is scientific evidence that supports it.

Little girl and boy having a picnic with Barbies and their Dreamcamper.
Little girl and boy having a picnic with Barbies and their Dreamcamper.
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A Doll Can Help Change the World

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How Doll Play Stimulates the Brain

The study monitored the brain activity of children ages 4-8 as they played with a range of Barbie dolls and playsets. The key findings apply to all children, regardless of gender or ethnicity.

Key Findings
  • New for 2022! Barbie explores the importance of what kids say while they play.
    Latest findings show that when playing with dolls children use increased language about others’ thoughts and emotions. This allows them to practice social skills they can use when interacting with people in the real world.
  • Doll play activates brain regions that allow children to develop social processing skills like empathy.
  • The brain activation that develops empathy is evidenced even when the child is playing with dolls by themselves.

Learn more from Dr. Sarah Gerson about the context and relevance of the findings.


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Why Empathy is Important

When children create imaginary worlds and role play with dolls like Barbie, it prompts them to talk about thoughts about others' emotions and feelings. This can have positive long-lasting effects on children, building social and emotional processing social skills like empathy.

Empathy is an important indicator of children’s future success. According to globally recognized educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba, empathy allows children to:

  • Understand other points of view, helping them to be better collaborators, leaders, and parents.
  • Foster successful relationships and conflict resolution skills.
  • Build resilience which helps their ability to bounce back from adversity.

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Ten Tips for Developing Empathy

70% of parents are concerned with how social distancing might affect their children’s interactions with others.** Encouraging empathy helps children develop the skills needed to navigate an ever-changing world with confidence and compassion. Here are 10 tips from Dr. Michele Borba on how to teach empathy, by incorporating doll play as a useful tool.

Read Tips

Learn More

video still - Dr. Michele Borba, Educational Psychologist
video still - Dr. Michele Borba, Educational Psychologist

Dr. Michele Borba

Educational Psychologist

video still - Dr. Sarah Gerson, Neuroscientist, Cardiff University
video still - Dr. Sarah Gerson, Neuroscientist, Cardiff University

Dr. Sarah Gerson

Neuroscientist, Cardiff University

Meet Our Research Partners

headshot of Dr. Sarah Gerson
headshot of Dr. Sarah Gerson

Dr. Sarah Gerson

During her 18-year career, she has worked extensively in research and published papers on a wide range of child psychology topics.

headshot of Dr. Ross Vanderwert
headshot of Dr. Ross Vanderwert

Dr. Ross Vanderwert

His primary research interests focus on how the role of early experiences promote healthy brain development.

The study, led by Dr. Sarah Gerson, is published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

*Study was commissioned by Barbie (2020). Study was conducted with 42 children (20 boys and 22 girls) ages from 4-8 years old with full data captured from 33 children.
**Survey by OnePoll in July 2020 in 22 different countries questioning 15,000 parents of children aged from 3-10 years old.