The theology of playing with dolls
When I was a child, I played with dolls. That’s no great revelation for a little girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s (yes, I’m that old!). I am the sixth of seven daughters, so my younger sister and I had not just our own dolls (new every Christmas) but all the abandoned dolls of our older siblings. I fondly recall a whole corner of the room we shared populated with dolls of every shape and size and color.
Most of these dolls didn’t do anything. They didn’t walk or say “mama” or perform any tricks, they just opened themselves to our imagination. Eileen and I WERE their voices, we moved them as we chose, we assigned them names and personalities. The one exception to not doing anything was my doll Agnes, who came to me at about age 7. I remember marveling on Christmas morning when my mother showed me that Agnes could answer questions “yes” or “no” with a nod or a shake of her head. Even when I understood that the button on her belly was “yes” and the button on back produced a “no,” I still found it marvelous. Maybe that same year, Eileen got her Betsy-Wetsy doll and could change its diapers (cloth, of course).
None of our dolls, I also recall, were the characters of movies or TV shows (now, with our paper dolls, that was a different issue, but that’s for another day). We did have Shirley Temple dolls that we loved, but Shirley was so many characters wrapped up in one that we were never limited to the roles our ringleted little friend had played. We loved our Ginny dolls, who were about 6″ tall and had lots of fun outfits. (I still have my Mary Ann’s tiny Dutch wooden shoes.) Barbies didn’t enter our collection — we (and definitely our mother) were not interested in glamour but in imaginative play.
I’m thinking about all this today because I just ventured into Toys “R” Us for my first granddaughter’s first birthday doll. I had to look pretty hard for a baby doll that wasn’t a Disney character and didn’t have some sort of hard-edged speaker in its tummy and didn’t poop a magical formula into diapers you’d have to keep buying, just like the real thing. I found a sweet baby with no name except the one she’ll eventually earn from her little mama, and better, one that can go into the tub for a real bath.*
Why is all this so important to me? Because playing with the imagination is the best part of playing dolls. Whether they’re babies that help us be pretend mommies and daddies, little-girl dolls like the Ginny (or American Girls today), or even the bears and bunnies and ponies that accompany our children to bed, these toys are the ticket to a world of imaginary adventures that take girls AND boys beyond their everyday world and, most importantly, beyond themselves.
In my Godly Play room, one of the favorite lessons is Baptism, which includes baby dolls (in my room, three babies with different skin tones). Part of the appeal of this story during work time is the opportunity to handle the “babies,” and I am especially touched to see boys — perhaps for the only time in their lives — enjoy the pleasure of these pretend little people and the nurturing role the dolls inspire.
Playing with dolls may help children imagine the things that they see (playing games of ‘as-if’) but it also opens the gateway to imagining things that no one has ever seen (‘what-if’), and isn’t that the kind of play that can help us imagine our way into the kingdom of God? Let us pray for a kingdom of love and compassion and hope and redemption and joy; and above all, let us play.
*(I also found it shocking in multi-ethnic Northern Virginia to see a huge array of white baby dolls and hardly any of color. What’s up with that? Again, an issue for another day.)