I had a request a while back to do a holiday buying-guide type post about what dolls I’d recommend for what ages and thought it was a great idea. So I did it, and then forgot to post it, and was going to wait until this Thursday but then thought people are shopping now and might need suggestions!
Not only do I love dolls, I love kids, and my wonderful job lets me see on a daily basis how they interact with my toys and also hear about what toys they like at home. Oh yes, we do a bit of speech therapy too. :) I’m going to focus only on dolls here and give some suggestions of products I like, but please don’t think that’s the only toys I feel are appropriate! Kids need a variety of toys, books, art materials, outdoor experiences, etc. and dolls are just one part of that – and there are WAY more great dolls and toys out there than I was able to list here. These opinions are entirely my own and I received no compensation of any kind for listing any products here. The feminine pronoun “she” was used throughout this, but lots of boys enjoy playing with dolls too if you give them a chance!
The first consideration is how the doll will be used and its play value. The two main types of dolls in my view are interactive, where a child takes on a role in relation to the doll, (mom, doctor, teacher, friend, etc.) and what I call “scenario” dolls, where the child uses multiple dolls, for example a dollhouse family, to act out scenarios but doesn’t interact with the dolls.
Your purchase also makes a statement to the company –is your money supporting responsible manufacturing practices with nontoxic materials? Many European dolls like Paola Reina are great in this respect. Does the company acknowledge that children of different skin tones exist and might want to play with their products? Aside from that, cost, durability and availability are important factors.
Dolls that can “do things” like talk, or that require continued purchases of stuff to keep being fun are usually novelty items, not dolls with high play value. For example, Baby Alive is certainly durable and washable, but she can make a child feel her only use is feeding and diapering with her purchased food and diapers.
When lots of accessories are available (like AG or Barbie) you also want to be careful that “playing” with the doll does not just turn into “acquiring more stuff for the doll” and make accessory purchases carefully, choosing items that will get a lot of use. Sometimes, for example with Waldorf toys, the less a toy can do, the more play value it has! Sometimes not. In a recent AG catalog, the text describing Julie’s mp3 speaker chair said, “Just imagine all the ways to play!” Yep, I can. You set the doll in the chair. You turn on the music. That’s it. Eventually the electronic part may break, or mp3 players will be replaced by something new and the speaker function will be meaningless. The last time I was in the AG store, they had the new modern kitchen set up and of ALL the toys in the entire store, that’s what was getting the most use from kids. Toy kitchens in 18” doll scale can be a great option because they don’t take up as much room as an actual child-size toy kitchen, but can be used by kids or dolls.
The younger a child is, the fewer life experiences they’ve had and the more likely their play will involve acting that out, rather than imagining new scenarios. Kitchens and doll beds are PERFECT accessories because those help them reenact things they do several times a day. As they get older, they should be developing sequences in their play and starting to use their imaginations more. A kitchen is still perfect! As they learn about sequencing, they can act out the many steps in preparing, serving and cleaning up food on a daily basis, and then develop more imaginative play creating other scenarios that involve food such as going to a restaurant, having a holiday meal, birthday party, etc. If the AG kitchen is beyond your budget, both Our Generation and Journey Girls have kitchens that are not too big and have a nice selection of accessories. Ikea has doll beds for ~18” dolls and little dishes you can use with something as simple as kitchen appliances made from old cardboard boxes! My niece’s favorite toy for quite a while around age 3-4 was her “box house” made from an appliance-size box. We made little curtains for the windows and some cardboard furniture/props for the inside – best free toy ever!
Doll size is important to consider too. I was at TRU the other day and they had a ton of enormous “My size” Barbies, probably in anticipation of parents needing large, impressive presents to shove under the Christmas tree. In my opinion, that huge Barbie is likely end up at Goodwill before next Christmas, and here’s why: 1) She’s hard to manipulate – imagine trying to haul around a mannequin in your size all day! 2) She takes up a lot of space, which is likely to annoy parents when she’s left around the house 3) She doesn’t have extra clothes/accessories available. 4) Her adult body can make her unsuitable as either a same-age companion or take the role of a child for a little girl to role play with
So, what dolls might be good for what age?
During this age range, the doll’s purpose will go from drool rag/chew toy to huggable friend. As the child is exposed to adults caring for her, the doll can fulfill this function too and serve as a basis for developing multi-step play as the child acts out the adult role with the doll as the baby. It is even more important at this age than any other due to mouthing that the doll be completely nontoxic and have no choking hazards. My top pick would be a plush or rag type doll with non-removable clothing, so there are no loose bits that could be chewed off and choked on. Look for dolls of this type with specific labeling that indicates they’re appropriate for this age and pose no hazards.
This is one of my favorite ages! At 3, many children seem to “wake up” to the world around them. They want to imitate/participate in whatever adults are doing and start to learn routines and steps for doing more complex daily tasks.
Kids in this age range don’t really have enough understanding of the world to know that a ballpoint pen or mom’s lipstick can permanently ruin their doll or that burying in sand is fun only for them, not their doll! They also don’t have too much dexterity or patience with frequent clothing changes yet, so the doll doesn’t need a very extensive or elaborate wardrobe. PJs that open completely down the back with Velcro are a good idea, to act out bedtime scenarios and possibly some cloth diapers, also closing with Velcro.
Keywords for dolls at this age: durable, huggable, washable, baby or toddler dolls to act out the world around them
Suggestions: There are all sorts of baby dolls available. Bitty baby or cabbage patch are a good choice if you’ll eventually want to sew for them, since lots of patterns are available, and they also come in all sorts of ethnicities so you can be sure to find one appropriate for your child. Both Corolle and Paola Reina also make nice, nontoxic baby dolls (Some of Corolle’s “Mon Premier Bebe” dolls have beautiful faces too) and a Waldorf doll is always an excellent choice. Waldorf dolls are generally handmade from natural, nontoxic materials like cotton and wool. Their cost can range from next to nothing if you make it yourself to about $100 for the Kathe Kruse version to hundreds of dollars for an artisan-made one on etsy.
Soaring imaginations need props and dexterity is improving! One of my most popular toys for kids this age is a set of wooden dolls whose clothes stick on with magnets. You can sometimes find these in specific themes to fit a child’s interests, such as a ballerina; Melissa and Doug is one manufacturer. Less time fighting to get the clothes on means more time imagining and the clothes and props help to suggest story ideas. A basic dollhouse like “Plan” and a family of simple wooden dolls is great as well and can grow with the child, adding furniture and accessories as needed.
Aside from dollhouses, now is the time for kids to really start interacting with dolls more; talking to them, making up scenarios and role playing. A doll that’s durable, not too big to carry around (maybe 13”-16”) and has simple-to-put-on clothes for different occasions is ideal. I like small, harder-bodied dolls like Corolle Cheries, Hearts for Hearts, Paola Reina Las Amigas, Wellie Wishers, etc. for durability but they are not as huggable as dolls with cloth bodies.
At this age, take the child’s preferences into account too – maybe she wants a doll that looks like her or maybe she wants something different!
Suggestions: Basic dollhouse like “Plan” w/ simple wooden dolls, dolls with magnetic clothing, Corolle Cheries, Paola Reina Las Amigas, Hearts for Hearts,Wellie Wishers, possibly an inexpensive AG clone
Age 7 and up
If you’re reading this blog, I know you like dolls. I also know it’s painful to admit a child you love might NOT like them too…but it’s true! If she doesn’t want dolls, she doesn’t, and your money would be better spent on legos if that’s what will get more use.
If she does want dolls, a child this age might “know” what she wants, but take care that she isn’t just wanting them because the commercials say so. Monster high is an example of this…their TV episodes keep introducing new characters with completely unrealistic body shapes and few clothes/accessories to let you do anything with them besides collect them. I feel similarly about Barbie, that young children should be encouraged to play with dolls closer to their own ages with more realistic body shapes. Some Barbie alternatives include her younger sisters like Skipper or a newer doll from across the pond called “Lottie”. You might remember from an early post in April’s journal that peer pressure can start to be a factor eventually too. If all her friends are getting together to play with their favorite brand of doll and she doesn’t have one, she can feel left out. When I was younger, I wasn’t permitted to play with Barbie, because my mom hated her so much and can remember going over to friends’ houses with my Ginny dolls instead. Eventually, I did get a Tracy (who was a friend of Barbie) for Christmas which proved Santa was real, because my mom would never in a million years have put one of those under the tree. ;)
As mentioned above, it’s useful to have two types of dolls: small dolls that can be manipulated to act out scenarios, like dollhouse dolls, and dolls the child can interact with like baby and child-type dolls. Clothing changes for different activities become VERY popular now, so if you don’t have time/skill to do a lot of sewing, choose a doll in a readily-available size so she can build up a wardrobe.
Scenario dolls: Lottie, Skipper, Calico Critters, dollhouse dolls, Playmobil
Interactive dolls: AG, Journey Girls, Maplelea, MyTwinn 18”, Our Generation, Adora 18”, Paola Reina Soy Tu, etc., Girl for All Time,
The ~13-14” dolls listed above like Corolle Cheries, Paola Reina Las Amigas, Hearts for Hearts,Wellie Wishers sort of straddle the line on how they can be used, depending on how many the child has. If there are several, the dolls can be made to interact with each other, with just one, the child can interact with the doll. They’re great for this age too!
I’ll leave you with a quote I really like from Sasha Morgenthaler:
“It is better a child have one doll to enjoy, keep and play with for many years, than many dolls used briefly and discarded. A single doll is then treated as people should be treated, with loyalty, consideration and love.”