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Dolls for Older Kids
Captivating the Imagination through the Tween Years
At what age do girls stop playing with dolls? It depends... a lot. Some girls leave them behind as soon as they have the skills to read, manipulate tech toys, or swing a baseball bat. Others love dolls all their lives.
There are differences between the doll play of older and younger children. Younger children are more likely to play mommy and use dolls as props for trying out adult roles. Older children, meanwhile, are more likely to engage in elaborate dramas; they still do, the "Let's pretend," but the characters may be historical children or characters out of books.
As compared to younger children, nine- or ten-year-olds are less likely to favor baby dolls. They're more apt to be drawn to teen dolls or to "companion dolls" -- dolls that represent nine- or ten-year-olds like themselves. In time, traditional pretend play gives way to making clothes, accessories, or houses.
Memories: Late Doll Play
Once upon a time, I was self-conscious about having played with dolls on up to junior high age. Later I realized this was something that ran in my family -- across generations. The reason it wasn't immediately apparent to me was that most of my female relatives were older or younger than me by a half a generation to a generation. When I was 26, one of my first cousins had girls who were twelve and fourteen. The younger was still very much into dolls, (particularly Barbie's little sister, Kelly). The elder would not play with them, but would join us to design homes for Barbies out of cardboard boxes: practicing architecture and interior design. There's a picture of another cousin many years older than me, a big girl of eleven or so, cuddling a baby doll on Christmas morning.
Girls born in the early to mid-seventies outgrew dolls sooner than other generations: those before and after us. The pendulum went the other way. I was a teenager already when those first American Girl dolls came out. Dolls had been put away -- yet they still fascinated me. I've known others to express the same thing. We may decry the materialism, but AG has done more than any other line in making doll play cool again. Whether or not girls are into them is partly a matter of personality and partly a matter of peer group. But girls who are entering their teens don't necessarily feel uncool showing off their AG dolls online.
Back in the late 80's, Pleasant Company took a bold move: They marketed dolls to girls over age ten. The stated goal was to capture girls' imaginations during that golden stage when they were old enough for literature and young enough for play. The early dolls all represented different historical periods. The target age was eight to twelve. The line of dolls was soon accompanied by a magazine designed for modern girls up to thirteen. The magazine, too, strove to provide positive role models for girls... and to be an alternative to turning too early to teen magazines with their emphasis on boys and fashion.
The American Girl dolls have been embraced by their target audience, and also by younger children and older collectors. The company is still creating historical dolls, but for some years now, an alternative line -- representing modern girls not unlike their owners -- has been a phenomena. The dolls are a bit pricey, but there are alternative lines. Companion dolls (as 18 inch dolls are sometimes called) are big.
My older niece, who is going into 5th grade, is a big American Girl fan!
Images of American Girl
When I was a child, there wasn't a difference in the target age groups for dolls of different sizes. But apparently there's some research suggesting girls are more apt to see larger dolls as companions... and play with them longer.
- Attack of the Tall Dolls
This article explores "tall" as a marketing ploy to keep girls playing longer. It also postulates that social scientists welcome the trend, saying doll play gives youngsters a chance to explore social relationships and conflict solving.
- Doll Diaries
Young girls -- some entering their teens -- share their thoughts on "taller is better" in the comment section. Some entertain the hope of becoming AG writers/ designers some day.
Maplelea: Canadian Girls
There are now numerous companies making companion dolls. Maplelea's dolls are an alternative to the American Girls in some ways. The target audience is girls between eight and twelve. The company is smaller, and there is a different take on culture and history. Maplelea dolls are modern Canadian Girls, but some are very much in touch with their heritage, be it Inuit or French Canadian. They come with a journal: a chronicle of the doll's life paired and a space for her girl-companion to write. They are a bit more like the AG Girl of the Year series than the historical series since Girl of the Year dolls are modern girls and have only a limited amount of accompanying literature). Maplelea continues to make items for the same dolls, though, instead of limiting production to one year.
Price-wise, Maplelea dolls are comparable to American Girls. They are made in small lots, and sold primarily to a Canadian audience. After reading responses by real eight- to twelve-year-old girls, the company expanded their line to add Leonie of Quebec, who plays hockey and guitar. (Isn't she a doll?)
Maplelea Canadian girls must be ordered from the manufacturer.
A Perspective from Across the Ocean
Here we meet a group of British eleven-year-olds whose social and play worlds have been transformed by a doll phenomena: what one mom refers to as the 'mini-me'. 'My London Store' apparently owes a good deal in the inspiration department to U.S. American Girl stores. In Britain as in the United States, preteen peer groups can indeed determine that dolls are cool.
So: Is it a healthy alternative to too-much-tech-too-soon and a return to traditional concepts of childhood or is it a plot to turn little girls into big-time consumers? What stands out? That they're savoring tea parties instead of coveting Facebook accounts... or that they crave matching outfits and doll salon experiences?
- UK Daily Mail
The mom of an eleven-year-ponders the 'mini-me' phenomena.
Kidz n Cats... and Adults
Some dolls toe the line between play doll and collector's doll. If a girl is still interested in playing with and handling her dolls, the essential thing is that they be made from vinyl and not porcelain. Clothes should also go on and off. (It helps if the doll is a reasonably standard size.)
Dolls in the German Kidz n Cats collection were at one point listed as collector dolls on the Madame Alexander site. It's not surprising -- their faces and outfits are both exquisite. They are eighteen-inch jointed vinyl, though, and can wear a variety of outfits.
They do cost several times as much as the play dolls in Madame Alexander's Favorite Friends line. The cheaper Madame Alexander play dolls are often considered American Girl alternatives. Parents sometimes select them because American Girl is beyond their comfortable means or because the girl is on the young end of the age range and they're not sure if she's ready to appreciate and care for an expensive doll.
The Kidz n Cats dolls are for the girl who is ready to take care of a high-end doll. I see them as appropriate for one who really cherishes dolls and seems likely to carry that fondness past the age that girls traditionally play with them.
The dolls are no longer distributed by Madame Alexander, but you can still find them in the United States.
Using Dolls to Act Out Stories
Older girls use dolls as acting props and springboards for writing. They extend books, create original characters, and try out their theatrical skills. What I see in some of these videos is very much like what I remember from my own childhood -- with the addition of technology. I play acted the roles from these same books, though there was no YouTube then.
YouTube adds perhaps a new element. Some of the videos represent true play, either creating a story or delivering well remembering lines. Others are more about creating a product: dabbling in film technique as well as acting.
This sweet-faced Heidi Ott 18-inch doll is another option for girls who are transitioning from play doll to collectible. The manufacturer's recommended age is 12 and older; there is a note that she is not for children under seven. The doll hails from Switzerland. Price-wise, she's just a little less than American Girl. There aren't a lot left; this doll is marked "last stock".
Companion Dolls of an Earlier Era
Companion dolls didn't begin with the American Girls. A childhood friend had a My Friend Mandy doll. Mandy was a couple inches smaller and probably a good deal cheaper than an AG doll; like most dolls of that era, she had painted eyes. I believe she was marketed to the same age group that baby dolls were.
My doll (pictured here) was a smaller, more generic child doll, who actually pre-dates Mandy, but was named "Mandy" in honor of my friend's doll. I believe I had her from the time I was a toddler; the photo shows me around the time of my ninth birthday.
When my older niece, now nine herself, saw a picture of me holding the doll, she asked why I was carrying a dolly. I reminded her that she had just taken her own doll with her out to breakfast. "Yes," she said, "But she's an American Girl. That looks like a little dolly."
Adult Reminisces - ... and Rediscovered Dolls
- Rediscovering Mandy at 29
This blogger had a Mandy doll as a child, and got one again through eBay at 29. She display several pictures of Mandy, including one where the doll is sitting amidst doll clothing patterns, "choosing her fabrics". The comments are fun, too. One refe
- More Mandy Reminisces
Here, a number of adults (mostly born in the 70's) share their reminisces of Mandy.
- My Friend Dolls
Here is a history of the "My Friend" line -- with pictures. Readers have shared their reminisces in the comments section.
Fashion Dolls (and 9 - 11 1/2 inch Character Dolls)
Barbie: Ages, Stages, and Changes
And then there's Barbie! She has provoked more than her share of controversy. When I was a child, though, I didn't think of her in terms of body image. She was simply an adult character in my play.
It's interesting to observe the changes in Barbie over the years. The modern Barbie, designed for play, has a different figure, with a smaller bust and more realistic proportions. The older style is still available, though. In fact, quite a few vintage dolls have been reissued. I observed that the older career dolls were more realistic than the newer ones with regard to outfits and accessories. The newer ones are more apt to wear (and surround themselves with) pink. There are quite a few "cute-sy" accessories; the baby doctor play set included a stork. Not so with the student teacher (or astronaut) of yore.
There have been changes, too, in Barbie's intended audience. There was a point where she was marketed to girls up to twelve -- a little past baby doll age. Now that market has gone to American Girls and other companion dolls. Those ultra-pink Barbie play sets -- like baby dolls -- are marketed mainly to the under-eight set. My six-year-old niece is a Barbie fan. My ten-year-old niece is not.
Other modern Barbies are marketed to collectors, "girls" of all ages. This includes holiday, vintage, cultural, and character dolls.
Only Hearts Club
Only Hearts Club dolls are designed to promote positive values. They're nine inches tall -- scaled to fit with Barbie (though some parents think of them as a Barbie alternative). The dolls care for horses and small animals.
The books are designed for primary grades, but the dolls are marketed to girls up to age ten.
BFC Club Dolls - Girls can use dolls to explore the more immediate future: middle school
BFC -- Best Friend Club -- dolls are designed to represent middle school girls. Like real middle school girls, they have not only different coloring and features, but different body types as well. (Some are more child-like, some more adolescent.) They are available in two scales. The fashion dolls are smaller than Barbie, more like a younger sister. The newer 18 inch dolls capitalize on that so-popular notion of the companion doll.
Doll Play Eventually Gives Way to Doll Collecting
My Aunt Helen had a combination guest room/ doll room. Even as a woman in her fifties, she loved to get a doll for Christmas. (And I enjoyed spending a night at her house during my childhood and early teen years.)