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Doll Play Prompts Social Thinking and Social Talking: Representations of Internal State Language in the Brain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Salim Hashmi, Ross E. Vanderwert, Amy L. Paine, Sarah A. Gerson

Original languageEnglish
JournalDevelopmental Science
Accepted/In press24 Jun 2021
Published21 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: We would like to thank Holly Bembo, Hope Price, Catherine Gleave, and Mia Harding for assistance in collecting and coding data, and Emma Aanestad, Marvellous John, and Eliza Melkonyan for transcribing the children's speech. Amy L. Paine is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant reference: ES/T00049X/1). We thank all of the families for giving their time to participate in this research. Funding Information: Funding for this research was provided by Mattel Inc through partnership with Oxy Insight Ltd. Mattel and Oxy Insight funded the equipment and some personnel for this project and were involved in initial discussions regarding the study design. Neither Mattel or Oxy Insight had final say in the study design nor played a direct role in the collection or analysis of the data; interpretation of the results; or writing of the manuscript. Publisher Copyright: © 2021 The Authors. Developmental Science published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd Copyright: Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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    Uploaded date:06 Aug 2021

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King's Authors


Doll play provides opportunities for children to practice social skills by creating imaginary worlds, taking others’ perspectives, and talking about others’ internal states. Previous research using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) found a region over the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) was more active during solo doll play than solo tablet play, implying that doll play might present opportunities for rehearsing theory of mind and empathy skills, even when playing alone. In this research, we addressed this more directly by investigating 4–8-year-old children's (N = 33) use of internal state language (ISL; i.e., references to emotions, desires, and cognitions) when playing with dolls and on tablets, both by themselves and with a social partner, and their associated brain activity in the pSTS using fNIRS. We found that children used more ISL about others when playing with dolls than when playing on tablets, particularly when they were playing alone. This mirrored the patterns seen in pSTS activity in previous research. When individual variability in ISL about others was considered, more ISL about others was linked to stronger pSTS activation. Thus, variability in pSTS activity during play is not about the perceptual or physical differences between toys (e.g., dolls are more human-like) but about what children think about when they engage in different kinds of play. This is the first research to investigate brain activity during spontaneously occurring ISL and indicates that children have a tendency to take and discuss others’ perspectives during doll play, with implications for social processing in the brain. A video abstract of this article can be viewed at

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