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Updated: Apr 21, 2021

How dollhouses can shape your child’s expectations and role-play

Dollhouses in role-play

This summer, I have come back to my parents’ house to visit after the long lockdown. Going back to one’s old room always stirs up mixed feelings. This year, I have never been so aware of the old toys I used to play with as a young girl and I compare them to the toys I use at nursery with my children. I am particularly interested in dollhouses at the moment. 

In a Montessori nursery, one will usually find a dollhouse available for children aged above 4. It supports role-play and it is used to observe language, social and emotional development. The narrative structure children use while playing with a dollhouse can tell us a lot about their verbal intelligence; think about the use of prepositions, verbs, nouns and adjectives.  Even more so, dollhouses are precious tools to gain insight into children’s wellbeing and intimate home life events. The wooden figures become social representations of family conflicts, interactions, relationships and even parenting methods. Precisely because I am aware of the importance of dollhouses in role-play, I have started to wonder whether they truly represent the homes of 2020 children. 

Various types of dollhouses

The first dollhouse is a typical Victorian model which has set the standard for this type of toy in the years to come. It was usually gifted to rich family girls and depicted high-class society at that time: wallpaper and china usually completed the dining room. This is often found in Montessori nurseries as it is passed along to the next generation of children. The second and third house are from Scandiborn and Ikea respectively and, although more modern and less adorned, they still have two or more floors and large rooms. The fourth example is smaller than the rest, very compact and Nordic in style, it resembles a young couple’s apartment. The difference between the first and the fourth dollhouse is apparent: room space is reduced, there is no staircase and the front of the house is missing. As you one can see, as the dollhouse is simplified, it is also becoming less accurate and realistic as a building. However, I reckon it can still engage the child in an articulate role-play displaying all the traits mentioned before. 

How dollhouses changed in time As I was researching how dollhouses have changed in time, I learned that they have changed very little or at least not so much as to reflect the real changes in housing conditions in modern cities. How many families actually live in a two-storey house with no multi-functional room? Are dollhouses actually reflecting real-world homes or are they perpetrating old-fashioned imagery which children might never live up to? Is there any evidence of this being harmful at all? After one whole morning of online research, I was not able to find an “apartment dollhouse” so I began to wonder whether it is a matter of semiotics. An apartment house would be one-storey and box-shaped. Would children recognise that as a house or is the semiotic symbol of house an independent building with floors and a chimney? Could we transform the symbol as in the hand drawing and would it be worth it?

A question of semiotics The only example I found of something that satisfies me is this house by CliCQUES - a cardboard house which could easily turn into a DIY project for a rainy day. While CliCQUES cleverly manages to simplify to the extreme the abstract concept of house and make it as open ended as possible, one might wonder whether this type of house may adequately support language, emotional and social development. The question arises: as we simplify our world into four lines, are we simplifying our verbal and intellectual capacity as well? If so, should we prefer realistic portrayals of modern living conditions or complex role-play scenarios when educating children?

Perhaps, the modern dollhouse could be a condo building with one-story flats, communal areas and numerous families inside. 

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