Visit any toy store and you'll be faced with a dizzying array of educational gadgets that promise to turn your toddler into a mini-Mensa member before she ever sets foot in a classroom. But at this age the best teaching toys are ones she likely owns: dolls, puppets, and stuffed animals.
These playthings have unique advantages over other toys, researchers say. Because kids know that a plush puppy or a princess doll represents a living thing, they can relate and attach emotions to it. Playing with these "friends" allows kids to explore their complex feelings.
"Children often express emotions and thoughts while playing with dolls that they might not be able to convey using words," says Allan Gonsher, a play therapist in Overland Park, Kansas.
Dolls and stuffed animals also give 2- and 3-year-olds the chance to master people skills, improve their vocabulary, and much more. Check out the surprising life lessons your toddler learns from these pretend playmates -- and how you can help make them stick.
Lesson #1: Being Independent
Your newly mobile toddler might be psyched to leave your side and explore, but this freedom probably freaks him out too ("What if something bad happens?"). With his Elmo or Dora doll beside him, though, he may feel less vulnerable. "Dolls and stuffed animals can help toddlers cope with separation anxiety," says Paul Donahue, PhD, a child psychologist in Scarsdale, New York.
How you can help: Encourage your toddler to play alone with his doll or stuffed animal for 10 to 15 minutes once or twice a day to boost confidence and self-reliance. Another way you can foster his independence: Have your toddler practice skills with his dolls or stuffed animals, says Randye F. Huron, MD, director of the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, in New Jersey. "When it's time for your child to brush his teeth, ask him to show teddy how it's done," she says. You can also suggest your child "show" the stuffed animal other tasks, like how to get dressed or set the table.
Lesson #2: Dealing with Emotions
Two- and 3-year-olds regularly experience intense feelings, but they become easily frustrated because they can't fully understand or express them yet -- which can lead to a major tantrum. "Children at this age can learn to manage their emotions by role-playing with dolls," explains Dr. Donahue. "It gives them a way to communicate their own experiences in a playful, nonthreatening manner."
How you can help: Use a doll or a stuffed animal to act out a scenario that frequently upsets your toddler -- such as when you drop her off at daycare in the mornings. Let the doll play the role of your child. When the doll gets upset and starts to "cry," ask your toddler, "Why is dolly so sad?" Give her a chance to tell you how she thinks her doll feels. Then reenact the scene -- but this time, have the doll wave goodbye and find some friends to play with. This allows your little one to see a better way to handle the situation in real life.
Lesson #3: Learning Language
At this age, children are in the middle of a major language explosion -- picking up and using as many as 10 new words every day! When your toddler starts chatting with his dolls and stuffed animals, it means he's also listening to the sound of his own voice -- which can help him improve his pronunciation and beef up his rapidly expanding vocabulary.
How you can help: Listen to what your child is saying as you play, and then expand on it, says Dr. Huron. "If he says, 'Baby eat,' you can say, 'The baby eats a cracker.' Then you can expand on it further by asking, 'What does the baby want to drink?'"
You could also pretend the doll is asking the questions in order to engage your child in role-playing.
Lesson #4: Getting Along with Others
Your toddler is just beginning to learn how to play with other children and make friends. Her dolls and stuffed animals give her the opportunity to practice taking turns, sharing with friends, and empathizing with others, explains Dr. Donahue.
How you can help: When your child invites you to play along with her stuffed friends, use it as a chance to show her different examples of getting along with other people, suggests Dr. Huron. "If she's holding a tea party, for instance, you might have her do some play sharing. Say something like, 'We have one brownie, and everyone needs to get a piece. Let's give a little bit to Princess Patty and then a little bit to Bunny." Give your kid a chance to see things from someone else's point of view by reminding her to make all of the pieces even -- or Bunny will get very mad!
Lesson #5: Building Confidence
Toddlers need to feel a bit of control over a world that can seem huge and intimidating. That's why you'll often catch your child playing the role of parent to his doll or stuffed animal, treating it the same way you treat him: telling it "no," putting it to bed, punishing bad behavior with a time-out, or giving it hugs and kisses.
How you can help: When you play together, if you feel your child needs encouragement, let him pick out a role for your doll to play, and then encourage him to direct all of the action. "Ask, 'What should I say? What should my doll do next?'" says Deanne Ginns-Gruenberg, a play therapist and owner of the Self Esteem Shop, a bookstore in Royal Oak, Michigan. Not only will this activity build up his confidence, but you might be surprised at how much it unleashes his creativity too.
Guy and Dolls
Parents are sometimes reluctant to buy dolls for their sons, but they shouldn't be. Boys learn valuable lessons from dolls and stuffed animals that they don't get from trucks and Legos. Playing with dolls:
Flexes his language muscles. He may prefer banging trucks together over having a tea party, but when your son lets his stuffed pals interact, he hones his verbal skills.
Encourages him to be empathetic. The ability to nurture and relate to others helps kids succeed, no matter what sex they are.
Provides a safe outlet for aggression. When your son's dolls clash and battle, he's working out his emotions rather than bottling them up or lashing out at others.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Parents magazine.