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.


How Doll Play Stimulates the Brain

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

In 2020, Barbie commissioned a multi-year research study:

  • In year one of the study, research found playing with dolls activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social processing skills.
  • The second year of the study investigated the importance of what kids say while they play and found 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.
  • Year three of the study shows that playing with dolls can have positive effects on social development for all kids, including those who display neurodivergent traits commonly associated with autism.

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

Doll Play and Neurodiversity

Doll play provides an inclusive and beneficial playtime experience for all children and although each child may have their unique approach to playing with dolls, doll play can provide developmental opportunities across the spectrum of neurodiversity.
Recognizing the diverse ways in which children's brains work and valuing neurodiversity can benefit children's social growth by promoting inclusion, tailored support, empathy, and innovation.

Why Empathy is Important

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.

Ten Tips for Developing Empathy

Six Tips for Developing Social Processing Skills in Children Through Play

Using play as a tool to cultivate social processing abilities in neurodiverse and neurotypical children can be impactful and captivating. Here are 6 tips from the Children’s Hospital of Orange County Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopmental Center on how to build social processing skills through play.

Read Tips

Ten Tips for Developing Empathy

70% of parents are concerned with how social distancing might affect their children’s interactions with others2. 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


Dr. Catherine Jones, Director Wales Autism Research Center & Dr. Sarah Gerson, Neuroscientist, Cardiff University - Year 3 Findings.


Dr. Sarah Gerson, Neuroscientist, Cardiff University - Year 1 Research findings.


Dr. Michele Borba, Educational Psychologist – The Importance of Empathy.


Dr. Sarah Gerson, Neuroscientist, Cardiff University – Year 2 Research findings around Language.


Cardiff University in the United Kingdom is globally recognized as an authority in developmental neuroscience. The Cardiff University School of Psychology was ranked among the top 3 universities in the U.K. for research in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience.

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.

Dr. Ross Vanderwert

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

Dr. Salim Hashmi

His primary research interests are in play, imagination and social understanding in childhood.

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.