Playing with Barbies may have more developmental benefits for your child than you might think.

A team from Cardiff University and Barbie—yes, that Barbie—recently studied the short- and long-term effects of children playing with dolls. It was part of a multi-year study, and they just unveiled the latest results.

Whether your kiddo plays alone or with a group of other kids, a little doll play can have a big impact. Researchers used near-infrared spectroscopy equipment to explore brain activation while children played with dolls and on tablets, both by themselves and with another person. When the children played with dolls, whether alone or with a partner, they had more brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region than those who played on tablets. The pSTS is linked to social perception, empathy, and speech. This effect was similar whether the children had neurodivergent traits or not.

In short, playing with dolls helps kids develop and practice social skills—something that’s good for all children. Research has shown that social processing and empathy skills are important determinants in children’s future emotional, academic and social success. Whether they’re talking about thoughts and emotions with others while playing with Barbies or even just playing by themselves, the results show that play truly is the work of childhood. 

The positive effects of play on kids’ social skills and creativity have long been thought to be powerful, ever since the landmark publication of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. But until now, this impact has never been scientifically evidenced at brain level, Mattel notes in a press release

“This multi-year long-term study commissioned by Barbie is the first time that key Piaget theories on play have been scientifically evidenced via brain imaging and the first to use neuroimaging evidence with natural doll play, meaning there was no prescribed storyline to show how the brain is activated during doll play,” states the company.

So the next time your child begs for a new Barbie, rest assured that doll play can contribute to their social-emotional development. 

“Our study shows that doll play can encourage social processing in children, regardless of their neurodevelopmental profile,” Sarah Gerson, PhD, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University in the UK (and lead researcher), said in a statement

“The findings show that all children, even those who display neurodivergent traits commonly associated with autism, may use doll play as a tool for practicing social scenarios and developing social skills, such as empathy,” Dr. Gerson said.