Hearty hope being played with at a picnic by boy

Dolls are for boys too

“Why on earth would my boy want to play with a doll?”, a question that unfortunately comes up a lot in conversations about toys.

Whilst the world has moved on from a time when women and girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers (unfeminine) or work in senior positions (too emotional) we thankfully now live in a country where girls wearing traditionally ‘boys’ clothes or doing traditionally ‘boys’ activities is socially acceptable.

But for boys this isn’t the case.

If they venture across the gender divide adults reactions are at best unsure and at worst to ridicule. Boys ‘should not’ play with dolls, make up and certainly not wear dresses. Times, it seems are changing for some but not others.

And these views stubbornly remain part of our society.

60% of parents are worried about gender stereotyping

There are of course an increasing number of parents who disagree with this, a recent Fawcett Society study found that 60% of parents are worried about gender stereotyping. [1] In fact our own study found that 62% of UK adults actively encourage kids to play with a wide range of toys, not just those designated for their gender.

Just as we have seen the limitations that gender stereotypes place on girls, we are also seeing the limitations that they can and do place on boys.

Take for example our current issue with a lack of men taking paternity leave. There is a lot of work underway to encourage men to take shared parental leave, yet as a society we are not happy for boys to play with dolls and prams. Boys are humiliated both overtly – adults taking dolls away from boys and telling them that dolls are for girls – and more subtly – frowning, lack of encouragement and offering alternative toys – for having an interest in dolls. How do we expect men to be comfortable taking paternity leave when we teach boys (and girls) from less than a year old that dolls are simply not toys for boys?

Toy Catalogue research by Let Toys be Toys found that only 13% of children playing at ‘caregiving’ activities were boys [2]. Yet a study by Dr Paola Escudero and researchers from MARCS BabyLab found that five month-old boy babies were more engaged with images of dolls than cars [2]. Little girls and boys like playing with dolls. It’s not that surprising, after all they are mini versions of themselves!

It makes sense too as babies start to understand facial expressions before language. And it’s these that can really give children an idea of what fits within their remit of toys. Dr. Jennifer Jipson, found that around 12 months, babies often use something called “social referencing” to figure things out. “For example, infants are cautious about engaging with an unfamiliar toy or person when their parent shows fear, and more likely to explore if their parent shows happiness.” [3] Showing happiness is approval and this in turn positively reinforces the behaviour they are exhibiting, and the toys they are playing with. When a negative response is given to an 18 month old boy picking up a buggy and a doll, it’s easy to understand how this can affect choices.

Doll play enables children to rehearse, use and perform these social skills even when playing on their own

Not having access to dolls can also limit certain skills. By removing the opportunity to play with dolls, boys are not exposed as much to nurturing play and ‘family’ play.

Creative, ‘pretend play’ offers children the time and space to explore emotions in a safe setting, learning through scenarios with their dolls and working through situations that they have found themselves in. Dr Sarah Gerson found in studies “brain activity indicates that doll play enables children to rehearse, use and perform these social skills even when playing on their own“. [4] Which feels particularly relevant for children at the moment.

Doll play also helps the development of fine motor skills and dexterity as children are manoeuvring small arms into clothes and doing up tiny buttons or velcro fastenings. It also allows children to practice getting dressed and undressed. It’s a reason we love the dolls on our site by One Dear World, with their removable clothing and the sports kit that is available.

It’s easy to slip into reinforcing traditional stereotypes because we have all grown up with them.

Stereotypes are embedded first by adults then in tun policed by children peer to peer, repeating what they have seen and heard. Adults need to take responsibility for their reactions, the toys they buy and the limits they place on children.  It’s easy to slip into reinforcing traditional stereotypes because we have all grown up with them. Unfortunately, these actions can have far reaching consequences. Kidzania research has found that by the age of four children already make different choices in job roles depending on their gender and that boys rarely choose caring or supporting roles when in their play cities. [5] As adults we need to question ourselves, watch and listen to children to help them explore in turn removing limitations.

We should only care that children have choices.

The focus has been on empowering girls which is important; but we also need to remember that societal expectations weigh heavily on boys too. We see this all too starkly when it comes to boys and dolls. We need to remove these limits for boys if we want an equal society, and just as we are empowering girls, allow boys to feel emotions, be caring and yes, play with dolls.

We shouldn’t care what children choose to play with or choose to do. We should only care that they have choice. Real choice to become the individual that they want to be.

You can find fantastic brands selling lots of soft toys for all children here.

[1] https://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/research/toy-catalogues/


[3] Dr Jennifer Jipson https://www.romper.com/p/do-babies-understand-facial-expressions-experts-explain-22987954

[4] Cardiff University study 2020: https://gulfnews.com/parenting/learning-play/study-playing-with-dolls-can-combat-negative-impact-of-covid-19-isolation-for-boys-and-girls-1.1604315649603

[5] Ger Graus, KidZania Global Director of Education

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