Why (Black) dolls are important in every playroom
I would love for the days where it is thought that only girls should play with dolls and tea sets, while boys play with trucks and tool sets, to be long gone – but I know this is far from reality so I want to talk about why dolls (in general) are important in every child’s playroom, regardless of gender; and why black dolls specifically are also important, regardless of your child’s skin colour or ethnic background.
- Developing empathy and social processing skills
Children make sense of the world through play; and of people through doll play. When children role play using dolls, they are able to talk through and process varying emotions, developing and rehearsing social skills that help them relate to other people in the real world. Mattel, the creators of Barbie announced in Oct 2020, results from a study they had carried out with a team of neuroscientists from Cardiff University. They found evidence that doll play activates brain regions that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when playing by themselves; and that these benefits of solo doll play were shown to be equal for both boys and girls.
- Develop nurturing skills
When children play with dolls, they model and practice care-giving ie looking after something (read, someone) unable to do so themselves. They carry and rock the dolls in their arms, feed them, change their clothes, and put them to sleep.
Being a care-giver, being able to nurture and look after another living thing cannot and should not be gender specific. Dolls are a good way for all children to practice this literally life-giving skill.
- Encourage and understand diversity
Layered on top of the above 2 benefits of doll play, is the need to reflect the real world during play time. Store shelves and online shops need to reflect this reality as well, to broaden consumer choices. As children create imaginary worlds during doll play, and talk about their and others’ feelings and emotions, it is imperative that they are able to explore dolls with different skin tones, different cultures, different hair and facial features…dolls of different sizes and heights, and of different physical abilities than their own. These need to be normalised during play time where they can safely process thoughts and emotions about these differences. Parents and educators alike need to positively shape these conversations around diversity and playtime is potentially the best time to do this.
- Positive representation
Specifically for those racialised as black – playing with a doll that looks like them shows them that they matter in society and that they are seen. This is not just about having “black and white dolls” because the narrative that accompanies the skin colour has to be positive. This video aptly breaks down the importance of positive representation using dolls in the Brown vs Board of Education case that was instrumental in overturning school segregation in the United States.
I daresay, before Black Panther was released, many children, regardless of their skin colour, had not conceived the notion that there could ever be a black superhero simply because they hadn’t *seen* one. This is one of the reasons why the movie was so successful. It is also one of the reasons why I created a black female superhero doll for my sons.
As my first son was approaching toddlerhood, I realised none of the toys and books at his nursery or even at home featured characters that looked like him or represented his beautiful African culture and heritage. I resolved to do something about this as I wanted to bond with him over meaningful games and toys and also keep him connected to his roots somehow. I set about designing puzzles that featured his culture, as well as other African cultures. As I was working on the illustrations for the Yoruba culture, he caught a glimpse of it and exclaimed “Look Mummy, it’s me, you and Daddy”. He was so excited! It occurred to me that at age 3, this was the first time he’d seen his family unit illustrated in a toy. It broke my heart – but also made me super excited about the joy this could bring into other homes and this is how I discovered my passion for promoting diversity and representation in toys and games.
I believe it is one of the best ways we can develop a more inclusive society – after all these children are our future leaders; our presidents, policy makers, police officers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, influencers, entertainers, everyday members of society. We all have a responsibility and a part to play in shaping their upbringing so that they do not inflict any more damage on already marginalised and under-served communities. Who would’ve thought you could do this through play!?