The question of how to "best" introduce a doll to your child is a question I have heard about many times, and that so far I have managed to answer on a one to one basis, but I thought it would be a little more efficient to address it in a post here. This post is about what I think about in regards to introducing a doll to your child. I will be talking from the basis of this child not having any other special dolls, or a child that is not so keen on playing with them, although you have tried.
For the most part, parents get dolls from me for special occasions, or as a special friend to their child. Usually, although it doesn't happen all the time, the dolls are given as birthday presents, for Easter or Christmas. Any of these three celebrations already involves excitement of some kind, and I know that it is hard to contain the emotions when you know that they will be opening this special doll. However, we have to take in consideration several factors, to somewhat give your child and their doll a better chance at establishing the kind of relationship that you are hoping for.
I normally talk about this process in the care instructions I send for my dolls. I explain a little what open ended play means, and how our children work (seriously, they do!) emotionally, physically and psychologically through their doll. But I will touch upon the subject here on a more elaborate way.
Children use their toys as tools to gather knowledge. Wether they are testing gravity, science effects, or how two colours meld together when you colour on your doll's face. I've been there. Or they relive experiences that they are quite not grasping, but that they see, hear or feel in the world around them. Someone was mean to them. Someone was good to them. Mommy did something that felt good and so they mimic it. As many others have said, children's play is usually an imitation of life. They exercise their nurturing muscles, and they socialize with the dolls around them. That is why is of such importance to provide our children with toys that are made of natural materials (since nature speaks so clearly to them), that are safe for them, and that are beautiful. To imbue their learning with beauty, to "coat" them so to speak from day one in a world that speaks to them of the love we feel for them.
As I was saying, a very exciting occasion might not be the best choice here to introduce a doll for your child. It all depends of course if your child already has dolls or not, or if your child is sensitive to others being close to him, or if your child has been given dolls before and not really experienced emotion or attachment or actually developed doll play in a consistent manner.
I think that is wise to first observe our kids. Take notice of their rhythm, and of the evolution of their week. If you have a very fussy child after school, then of course this would not be the time. Perhaps a birthday party full of children and family is also not the time, as there are other toys and other presents begin opened. Perhaps Christmas morning is just the right time in your family, perhaps you much rather introduce this doll on a rainy day, on a quiet afternoon between you and your child, where you can both sit down and play together. It all depends on your family dynamics and your child. Waiting for a grand occasion to reveal the grand present almost always ends up in disappointment and I believe it has obviously nothing to do with your child or their toy. It has to do more with what weexpect our children to feel and act, after all, I as a doll maker am as excited as you are to "hear all about it", so I understand what you are feeling and what your hopes and wishes are.
Another thing to consider, and I have talked about it before, is the appropriateness of a doll to a child. In my humble opinion, the so called "right" doll for a child is that one that suits his or her developmental needs. Nothing else. Not the right shade of hair, or the right shape of eyes, or the right outfit, or the right doll maker. A doll is a doll. And our children need one.
They need a doll that suits the stage they are going through, and also the developmental (cognitive and motor skills) level in which they are in. A baby does not need a doll with clothes on, or hair even, as a baby is grasping and tasting everything he or she has around them. A toddler needs a baby doll, a doll that resembles him, that gives him the opportunity to try his fingers at putting on a diaper or a simple hat, and a doll that is easy to carry. A slightly older child is therefore going to be most excited and appreciate a doll that she can dress and undress and bring with her, and have all sorts of fun together enacting being the child (she is the mommy) or the friend at the tea party. And, as I am slowly learning, our 6 year old needs a doll that can wear makeup! You know what I mean though. Every child IS different, and so it is our task to figure out what kind of doll will be the one that our children will make more use of.
Now that I have explained this, let me tell you a few things that I have seen work wonders when introducing a doll to your child:
1. Make sure to create the environment.
Like in everything else, it is all about the experience. Make sure your child will have your entire attention when he or she opens this present. Or perhaps you are sitting the doll under the tree. Make sure to "be" there for them, to join on the excitement, to answer their questions and to relish every.single.moment of it. If you have selected a rainy afternoon, have some play food at the ready so that you can get started right away. Or a blanket ready, to put the doll to bed that night. Remember, your child will mimic the way you treat the doll and him, so by showing respect and devoted attention to it, your child will follow.
2. Storytelling always helps.
I always encourage parents to create a "mental" picture for their children before the doll arrives or is presented. Start telling them a story about the adventures of this silly doll, who is traveling far and wide, and is coming with all sort of good stories and jokes to tell. Create a world in which your child can submerge himself once you give him the doll, that way half the battle of bonding is already being done. Mention traits about the doll that are characteristics of your child's personality. They both like gummy bears, or how they both like to play in the swing, or how they both have a Grandpa that works on a boat. Something like that. Exercise your storytelling muscles!
3. Walk the walk.
Again, as in all areas of life but especially when it comes to our children, we need to model the behaviour first. Treat their dolls kindly, be gentle to them, always speak to them as well, and your children will invest them with life through their imagination. If you want your child to play with his or her doll, then YOU play with her first. I know right? How liberating! We have encouragement to play! If your child sees you playing with their doll, dressing them, asking questions of "what is Lucy going to wear today", "what should Lucy like to eat today", or "I wonder if Owen is ready for bed time?" then more likely than not you are paving the road for a true doll lover. A child that will invest countless hours, engrossed in doll play, acting out all kinds of events, and cementing a childhood full of wonderful memories of simple, open ended play, that perhaps will trickle into trying to foster the same ideals and the same childhood pleasures into their future families and children. How wonderful! and all because you took the time to sit down and play dolls with them. **It is of importance to mention that you don't have to play dolls with them all the time in order for them to bond with their doll. This is usually necessary only at the beginning, especially if you a have a child who does not engage in doll play. However, as their relationship grows, children really play by themselves with their dolls, without instigation at all. Of course, you won't be blamed at all if you do play with them too!
4. Have it Available.
Always have the doll available to them, NOT on a shelf where they can't easily access it. It is better to set the doll in some sort of environment where it's almost as if the doll is just there by itself. Like you had nothing to do with it. Sit the doll in front of a play table. Or have the doll comfy covered on a doll bed. Make it inviting for your child to interact with their doll, to be easy for them to play. My daughters' first dolls are always on their beds, as those are the dolls they sleep with. Other dolls I have made for them sit all together on a doll crib. I usually have to go and organize the place as my children are still young, and I always get such a kick of dressing the dolls in new clothes for them to see the next day, or to set tea parties for when they get back from school. I make it a date to do the doll's laundry together, or to get the dolls ready for a party by using the wooden iron to press the dolls dresses. By having the dolls always close to them, at the ready, you will slowly start to see a relationship grow.
5. Be VERY patient.
All relationships take time to develop. It takes time to know a new neighbourhood, to find new friends, to learn to ride a bike. Our children need plenty of time to bond with their doll, this doesn't happen over night. They might play one day very excitedly with the doll, and then "ignore" it for the next few weeks. This is not a failure. This is how its supposed to happen. Just because you don't see them playing actively with their doll doesn't mean that they are not "using" their doll. Some children use their dolls as spectators. They like them to be there for them to do other things in front of them. Some kids don't dress their dolls constantly, but they like to sit them next to them, or to draw for them, or do their hair. Again, every child is different, and just because some kids take instantaneously to a doll and bring her everywhere with them, that doesn't mean that because your child doesn't do that he or she is not "playing" with their doll. I have heard from people, especially with children with sensory challenges, when the relationship really took long to develop, close to a year, and now they are inseparable friends.
Please know that I say all of this with my heart on my hand, hoping to be able to help you out in bringing this doll to your child for him or her to PLAY with it. I don't say all of this from a mighty place where I think I know all there is to know in regards to doll play, because I don't. I only speak for that which I know, have observed, and have heard others say to me in regards to their children and their dolls.
If you have any tips or stories of your own to share, please write them down, so that others can also reap the benefits of your success story. And thanks for taking the time to read all of this. By now I am truly convinced of your determination in making this relationship happen, this is a long post.
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