How Dolls and Tea Parties Are the Playtime Work of Childhood

Amy Rees
October 9, 2008

Babydolls and tea parties.  The very definition of preschool girl play, right?  Frothy pink and white porcelain (perhaps tin would be wiser), all set out for wide-eyed, long-lashed dollies.  It's just what girls do, right?

Or perhaps it's your boy toting the doll, whether it's a classic doll to care for in the style of "William's Doll" from Free to Be You and Me or a Little People or Mighty World firefighter (which, trust us, is a doll just the same).  Just games, right?  Just fun.

Well, as with all things early childhood, all play is work (and all work is play, happily).  So, what's really going on in those little minds as they play for hour upon hour with their dolls of all stripes?  What on earth could be so fun -- much less so developmentally important -- about setting a tea party table again and again?

None less than Dr. T. Berry Brazelton reminds us that dollplay "offers a way to try out wishful thinking, to learn about one's roles, to learn controls, and to be a friend."

And you wondered what the appeal of that cold plastic doll with the hard, clutching fingers could be.  Now you know.

We spent so much of last month exploring the world of preschool social development -- roles, controls, friends.  And now doll play brings us right back.  We knew this stuff, this social stuff, was central.

The ever-inspiring Ginger Carlson give us ideas for how and what to use to fashion dolls of all kinds -- "sticks, feathers, flowers, stones, cornhusks, leaves, knobby bits of root, branches, bark, moss, lichen, and vines."  Or you could "add features to root vegetables ... and nuts to make animals."  Animals or babies, firefighters or princesses, it's all self-actualizing play that "gives both boys and girls opportunity to imaginatively role-play life situations and practice the responsibility of self-care."  Ginger includes dolls on her list of "wonder tools" that stoke little imaginations aflame.

And the tea parties?  Sure, the baby play is reenacting so much of their own little lives and the roles of their parents.  And sure, the firefighting play is the best kind of wishful thinking.  But setting the table?  Repeatedly?

It is Maria Montessori, to whose approach so many wonderful preschools hew carefully, whether or not formally, who tells us to give real tasks to little children to teach them responsibility.  And magically, it seems to us, these wise little ones use responsibility and self-care to unlock their imagination -- the more they feel capable of, the more they dream.  The stronger their actions resonate in their world, the more potent their imaginations.  Powerful stuff. 

So, when little ones set and reset their tables, they are still in heavy role play, they are counting and sorting and creating pre-math patterning skills, they are engaging the rules of social interaction in their world.

And they are drinking pickle juice with their dearest friends.

What fun indeed!

From the Parents

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