Playing with dolls. What’s it all about? Well, it’s complicated. For many children it can be an escape from troubling day-to-day realities. Maybe they’re having a tricky time with a friend or sibling, or maybe they’re experiencing a hard time at school. Whatever the bad things are in the “real” world, they can be eliminated in an imaginary one. Or maybe there’s nothing wrong at all and they’re just making the most of their endless imagination, before they grow out of “pretend” games?
Whether it’s playing with miniature monsters, futuristic figures, tiny animals or timeless dolls, it matters not – the child enters another world. And most importantly, it’s entirely of their own making. The child can play alone, and they are in control.
However they’ve got there, or whatever the reasons for sitting down with their dolls, children become the directors of their own epic: anything can happen, and the story never ends. As director of the epic, the child has lots of jobs – the cast has to be chosen and roles assigned, the location of each scene decided upon and the set designed, the costumes chosen, the script “written”, the plot contemplated and developed.
As a devoted doll enthusiast when I was very young, I think that playing with dolls was like making a very long-running feature film. I sat on the floor surrounded by my four dolls and all their furniture arranged in various room settings, with their clothes to hand in a box. Originally the script was based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women, but as time went on, I left the confines of that beloved book, and my dolls developed their own adventures and lives, and moved into modern times. As odd as it may sound, my dolls developed personalities too - there was a helpful one, a bratty one, a sporty one, a sickly one and the comedian. I had a veritable cast.
Antique/vintage dressing room setting created by Lorraine Rosner © ggmdolly.com
The sets and locations too were all imagined and then created with a few props. This is where toys other than the key dolls came in – the supporting cast for the protagonists. The futuristic figure could have a home or vehicle or enemy; the little kitty could have a bedroom or pet or family. In the same way that providing art supplies encourages a child’s creative expression and helps motor development, providing a nicely-detailed dolls’ dwelling encourages what educational psychologists called role play. It’s defined as a type of pretend play where children get into character and act out a role – or in this case get their doll(s) to do so. So a well-propped room set will provide a springboard into other realms. For example, a doll’s kitchen will allow the dolls to prepare meals, eat together, celebrate holidays – and if the kitchen has been provided with pans, plates, cutlery, maybe even some fake food, then it is even more satisfying.
Antique/vintage kitchen setting created by Lorraine Rosner © ggmdolly.com
As for the costume department – well, that’s probably the best part of all. My dolls seemed to have a life largely devoted to dressing for parties – tea parties, wedding parties, costume parties, birthday parties – and then exhausted by all that, they dressed for bed. Only to get up the next day, when there were picnics, then walks, then discos – endless events that required a dizzying frequency of outfit changes and a huge wardrobe. And it always seemed to be holiday season, with Christmas occurring with amazing frequency. Indeed, Christmas was always a favourite time of year as this gave me the chance to make them little presents out of clay or bits of fabric.
Antique/vintage bedroom setting created by Lorraine Rosner © ggmdolly.com
So, given that a large part of the appeal when playing with miniature toys is the pleasure of having the ultimate creative control, of directing your own epic, did it start with ruffled little girls’ grand Victorian dollhouses, or battlefields of tin soldiers? Well, apparently the love of the miniature started much earlier than you might think. Small, hand-crafted, doll-like relics have been found as remnants of most early civilizations. Documents describing dolls being used as toys have been found extant from ancient Greece, dating from around 100 AD, while Roman rag dolls have survived from 300BC!Playing with dolls, it seems, is as old as the epics that the playing creates. More than just a tradition, you could argue that that playing with dolls is instinctive. So if you give your child a doll this Christmas, or a soldier, or a robot from the future – you’re not just giving them a toy. You’re giving them their own story, their own film – their very own epic. And what greater gift could there be than that?
All photos © Lorraine Rosner of Good Golly Miss Dolly, www.ggmdolly.com