As a little girl growing up, what I loved most about playing with fashion dolls was the imaginary worlds I could create. Sure, I enjoyed the accessories and the clothes, the colors and designs. But the more important reason I liked them was not just because of the fashion aspect.
Having the ability to change their clothes was like a character doing a costume change -- a visible cue for a change of scenery, props, and dialogue.
I could create something different. A new world. A place to escape to and live out my dreams. Fashion dolls, and their accessories, were tools that helped me do that.
Now that I have two little girls of my own, I’ve noticed that for them too, playing with dolls is not really about the fashions. Sure, there might be some attraction factor in the clothing, but that isn’t really what holds their attention. It’s all about their imagination and the scenes they can create.
The toys are not the focus, they are tools that help them create worlds of their own.
The types of fashion dolls that I played with in the past just don’t hold much appeal to me now, and I avoid buying them for my kids. What my little girls want and need instead are not fashion dolls exactly. The toys they need are what I’d call “imaginative assists” for their play.
Yes, they want dolls, but they also want tools and prompts to spark their imagination. They want things they can run with to act out their own ideas, be creative, and explore possibilities.
Fashion Dolls Were Originally Meant to Prepare Children for Adulthood
What many parents don’t realize is that fashion dolls have a history of being manufactured with very specific reasons in mind. Culture has changed, and the reasons those dolls were created generations ago are quite different from the reasons I wanted to play with these toys. They are also very different from the reasons our kids love to play with dolls in modern times.
Originally, fashion dolls were designed for children who were much older, only a few years away from being sent off into marriage. The dolls I played with as a child reflected those older times, because they were meant to look like adults.
All those years ago, it was perhaps appropriate that these dolls had bodies shaped like adults. After all, they were meant to only be played with for a couple of years, until children were actually entering puberty and then becoming adults and ready for marriage and to have kids of their own.
In fact, we don’t have to go too far back in history to realize this. My own mother was married and had children in her late teens, after graduating from high school.
So naturally, my older sister played with those types of fashion dolls, and so did I.
Society has moved on -- it just takes the toy industry, and parents’ buying behaviors, some time to catch up and evolve to match modern realities.
Childhood Today Is Longer Than Ever Before in Human History
As kids stay home with their parents longer than ever before and delay starting families of their own, childhood extends and goes on longer than ever before. But at the same time, kids have more access to information than previous generations did.
Kids are bombarded with images of grown-ups and may feel pressured to fit in with that reality before they are truly ready.So, kids today face a unique challenge.
They may feel pressured from cultural cues that surround them to grow up faster than their parents and grandparents ever did. But meanwhile, the amount of time before they truly become independent from their parents is actually getting longer in most cases.
How can we promote values of independence in children, without them growing up too fast?
While I don’t have all the answers, here are a few things I am actively trying to do, as a parent, to help my children, and sharing here in case they can help you too:
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Pay closer attention to the types of toys we allow into girls’ worlds.
Often, parents are reactive to the choices of friends, family, and others who buy gifts for our kids. I’m guilty of this myself, as I don’t want to risk being impolite to someone who is going out of their way to purchase a gift.
However, it’s also important to advocate for our kids and their best interests. We can be more intentional by sharing a wish list of toys that are more appropriate for our kids with others who we know will buy them toys anyway.
The experts agree, such as Dr. Christia S. Brown, the author of “Beyond Pink and Blue: Raising Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes.” As she says in her excellent article on the topic, “All toys are educational, in that all toys teach. We may not, however, be paying attention to WHAT they are teaching.”
Taylor with our Astro Adventure set
Remember that just because your kid wants the latest toy that their friend has or that’s being advertised to them, it doesn’t always mean that is what’s best for them. I truly believe that some toys are more like “junk food” and don’t instill good values, while others actually help them grow and create a healthier childhood from an emotional development perspective.
Buy toys for girls that encourage active play versus passive admiration.
There’s nothing wrong with a child wanting to play with a doll wearing a glittery dress, but ask your child and yourself, “What is she going to do in this?” Can she run and jump, can she bend her legs and do the things your strong girl loves to do? Can the doll truly behave like a child and act out the dreams of a child?
If all the doll can do is assume passive poses and look pretty, that isn’t a positive toy choice, because it won’t enable your child to truly act out their ideas and create their visions through play.
If a doll has bendable joints, it’s not only easier for kids to do quick costume changes, but for the doll to move quickly from one activity to the next, keeping up with the child’s imagination.
Also, make sure the accessories for the doll encourage fun activities that kids do, not just things adults do. Dolls that are age-appropriate should enable kids to do things they actually do in real life, like dress up as astronauts, pretend they are taking care of a dog, play soccer or go to their ballet class.
On the flip side, if the dolls they play with are only about fashion, their imagination is limited just to putting on an outfit, admiring it, and changing them into another one. Then what? There isn’t much more you can do with a doll that can only assume a standing or a sleeping position.
Dolls that are so passive actually limit creative play to just focusing on their appearance.
When kids do play with fashion dolls, encourage active play.
If you have fashion dolls that your child enjoys, watch them and see how they play with these toys. Make sure their playtime is not just about changing clothes. Ask questions to help your kids think further, inspire a sense of adventure, and think beyond just the toy itself.
Kids don’t want to play with dolls just for the sake of it. For most kids, the dolls are characters in a performance, actors in a play, ways for them to act out their ideas and make them seem even more real.
Help them turn those ideas into action beyond just the dolls themselves. If they are pretending they are going on a picnic, can you print out some pictures of picnic items and food they can cut out to pretend to go along on the picnic? Can you help them make a picnic bench out of popsicle sticks and glue dots?
Give them ideas, show them they can continue to craft and create their visions beyond just the doll. (For example, the video below teaches your child how to make a chair for their doll out of a wire hanger!)
And don’t forget to ask your child questions to prompt their creative thinking.
“What will she do after the picnic?”
“How does she prepare the items for the picnic?”
“Who will join her on the picnic?”
“Can you draw a map of how to get to the picnic?”
Usually, a few simple questions can help your child take their ideas in a new creative direction.
Moving Beyond Fashion Dolls to Promote Leadership in Girls
Ultimately, fashion dolls had their time and place in history -- but I believe that time has passed. New generations need toys that are modern and reflective of the current day, in which girls are not taught that their most important job, and their inevitable future, is to have kids and raise a family.
For me, the bottom line is that, if we want more women to be leaders of society someday, we need to give girls toys today that promote this way of thinking. Kids need toys that expand their horizons, open up more possibilities, encourage new ways of thinking, so that they can practice the skills they will someday use to fulfil that vision.