Now, an aside on doll imagery for consideration

December 4, 2014

In 1896 Caswell Ellis (1871-1948) and G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) published a survey that focused on how children play and interact psychologically with dolls. It also examined child rituals related to doll play such as naming, feeding, discipline, and how children created imaginary social lives for their dolls, which would be illuminated in illustrations by Sarah S. Stilwell. The Ellis & Hall study found that perhaps nothing so fully opens up the child’s soul in the same way that well-developed doll play does.   Ellis and Hall reported: Whispered confidences with the doll are often more intimate and sacred than with any human being. The doll is taught those things learned best or in which the child has most interest. The little mother’s real ideas of morality are best seen in her punishments and rewards of her doll. Her favorite foods are those of her doll. The features of funerals, weddings, schools, and parties which are re-enacted with the doll, are those which have most deeply impressed the child. The child’s moods, ideals of life, dress, etc., come to utterance in free and spontaneous doll play.

The Ellis and Hall study found that the educational value of dolls was enormous, and that doll passion was strongest for children between the seven and ten years of age, reaching its climax between eight and nine. Ellis & Hall commented that a child’s doll: Educates the heart and will, even more than the intellect, and to learn how to control and apply doll play will be to discover a new instrument in education of the very highest potency. The study concluded that: Many children learn to sew, knit, and do millinery work, observe and design costumes, acquire taste in color, and even prepare food for the benefit of the doll. Children who are indifferent to reading for themselves sometimes read to their doll and learn things they would not otherwise do in order to teach it — or are clean, to be like it.

Let me briefly visit the seemingly conflicting issue of control related to doll play: while Victorian parents used dolls as instruments of control so that girls were taught the mundane tasks of domesticity — for girls — dolls became vehicles for flights of fancy. During doll play, girls made and controlled the rules for play, and dolls provided girls with freedom for self-expression. The irony was that with this imagined-freedom and control in doll play, girls also received the practical socialization and instruction that parents wanted them to get.

Dolls became neutral vessels for the children’s imaginations where they can work through the issues of their daily lives. The essence of “childness” is universal and timeless – children who can happily entertain themselves with an empty box once the novelty of the toy contained within that box has worn off; having the ability to create imaginary worlds that hold very real solutions; and these inner worlds are necessary. When our toys create total-entertainment-experiences, we do not need to develop our own imaginations, and thus, we loose our ability to imagine. If you look at creative people today, they need a lot of time alone – for whatever reason – this is the time and place where they develop ideas. When children are young, we need to provide them with space for imagining so they can discover practical insights and prepare for the adult world.

Source: Caswell Ellis and G. Stanley Hall, “A Study of Dolls,” Pedagogical Seminary 4 (December 1896): 129-175.

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