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Q: I wondered if the Center has any research on the American Girls phenomenon. Unlike Barbies and Bratz, these dolls are not sexualized, and they also have connections to history and culture through each doll's storybook.  I am guessing that they are probably a better alternative for playtime fantasies (at least for families who can afford them — the dolls cost $95 each). But they are also linked to all kinds of merchandising, encouraging families to buy accessories like furniture, clothes, and even pets to go along with them (also pricey).  What do you think about the pros and cons? My niece is 8 years old and I am thinking ahead to the holiday season.
Talking about Toys in Somerville,
MA
 

A: Dear Talking about Toys,

Though there is no research specifically about these dolls, research does show that the best toys for encouraging imagination are ones that allow the child to make up characters, stories, and situations.  As you mention, these particular dolls and their accompanying books do have the advantage of focusing on history and on who the characters are. The stories do not focus on romance, and the dolls and their story-book counterparts are proportioned fairly normally in comparison to many other dolls out there.

However, American Girls dolls come with specific names, characters, and back stories, which reduces the demand for the child to create all of those things. Additionally, the child is likely to start to want additional dolls with predetermined names, characters, and back stories to populate her world of play. Some of the stories, like that of a relatively new doll whose character is homeless, have caused controversy for other reasons.

In short, the less that a doll, or any toy, does on its own—the fewer pre-written stories they come with, and the fewer bells and whistles that determine how a child plays with it—the better the toy is for challenging, stretching, and energizing the growing brain.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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