On emulation play and dollhouses

Supposition: Toy kitchens are killing dollhouses. Discuss.

Backstory: I saw an awesome four-story handmade dollhouse at my daughter’s friend’s home this weekend during a birthday party. The dad built the house a few years ago for his now 6-year-old daughter. She never played with it.

This monster cube of a home, perhaps 4′ x 4′ x 4′, serves as a paper weight at the entrance to their living room. The dad is a stage set designer. Rest assured, this house is something.

My daughter has a dollhouse too. It’s store bought because her dad is a blogger. She doesn’t play with the dollhouse, but she loves her toy kitchen, vacuum, swiffer, clothes washer and numerous dress up clothes.

With the advent of writing, she uses pencil, paper and tape to invent pretend scenarios to act out. Earlier this week she pulled a table into the living room and parked toys on top of it to hold a garage sale… complete with a sign denoting her pricing scheme.

Wikipedia states dollhouses have been used by children for at least 5,000 years, dating back to ancient Egypt, but Wikipedia is conspicuously silent on the topic of ancient toy vacuum cleaners and other emulation toys.

So… anyway… when I heard that the awesome 4-story dollhouse had gone unloved, I wondered if the changing nature of toys had something to do with it. In this one case, not really. The girl doesn’t have many emulation toys at all, but perhaps that explains the disinterest in dollhouses. Maybe she’s just not excited about copying adults.

But in my daughter’s case, I wonder if her toy kitchen and other home life toys are just so more engaging than a dollhouse, and so the dollhouse loses. Or maybe race has something to do with it… black and white parents who bought her an Asian doll family.

Meanwhile, my 2-year-old son loves the dollhouse. Or more precisely, he loves the furniture. I’ll try to update this post later with a photo of him squatting over the miniature wooden potty.

Your thoughts?

See previously:


18 Responses to “On emulation play and dollhouses”

  1. ararechan says:

    oh wow, this hasn’t occurred to me until you posted this… I have a few mommyfriends and 2 of them (moms to under 2 yr old boys) recently bought toy kitchens. So did I!!!

    I haven’t read your “dollhouses for boys” post yet, but color me biased, I jumped at the idea of getting a deal on a kitchen/sink/range set but wouldn’t have given dollhouses a thought for our 18mo old boy.

    May 12th, 2010 at 11:37 pm

  2. anjii says:

    Ours get fairly equal use… we have a kitchen with a grill on the other side. 5 year old likes to grill a lot, 2.5 year old likes to make coffee and cook on the stove, and put his (real) drinks in the fridge and microwave (to be found much later… yuck). They both like to put dolls and stuffies in the sink with blankets and pillows to sleep (despite the fact that they have a doll playpen). The other emulation toys (stroller, grocery cart, sling, etc.) get a fair amount of use too. (Except for the highchair, which is something we actually used very little with them).

    When it came to dollhouses, I always imagined we’d have one, but had trouble finding a non-girly one in our price range, so it fell by the wayside. When our oldest was 4, he started asking for one, so I started looking harder. His specifications were, it couldn’t be pink and girly, and it HAD to have a garage. All I could find with a garage was an unfinished/unfurnished Melissa and Doug for $65 (CDN)… YIKES! But then one day, at a local thrift store, I found a vintage FP Little People house… the one with the brown roof and blue doors and GARAGE, for $5! I also later found the vintage Sesame Street FP LP set, and got a FP castle. They all get a lot of use from both boys.

    May 12th, 2010 at 11:57 pm

  3. Jeanne says:

    We’ve been thinking of getting a dollhouse for our (almost) 2-year-old boy. Whenever we head to the playroom at the Building Museum he’ll eventually leave the trucks and play with the wooden dollhouse, opening and shutting the doors and walking the dolls up the stairs.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that the nature of all leisure time has changed, shifting the toys our children want. I’ve never understood the appeal of a play kitchen, but can still remember the fun I had playing with a dollhouse for hours at a friends house (though I never had either as a child). There’s something intricate and meditative about a dollhouse: tiny pieces and playing god. It makes me sad to think we’re losing that.

    May 13th, 2010 at 3:33 am

  4. Cindy says:

    My almost 2 yr old son got a play kitchen for his 1st birthday. I found it horrifying that all of the play kitchens were in the “girl’s” side of ToysRUs, and mostly girls are pictured on the boxes. Times are changing, but I’d venture to say a majority of great chefs are MALE!!!

    He likes his playhouse (life sized) because that’s where I shove his tools, but when we visit his female cousins, he tries to walk up their dollhouse stairs and we’re constantly yelling at him because it WILL break.

    I can see why emulation play toys are more exciting though, especially with busy parents – who don’t get down and play dollhouse with the kid, monkey see monkey do kinda thing. I’m all about teaching my son vacuuming is fun ;-)

    As for the race issue – I’d much rather enforce diversity among real people and friends (where it’s easy to prove “different” can be great) than some stupid plastic toys. Pick your battles!

    May 13th, 2010 at 6:30 am

  5. Jen says:

    We have a dollhouse and a play kitchen. The play kitchen gets some use when we have friends over to play, but for us, the dollhouse gets way more use. My daughter has tons of little animals and disney characters that have made the dollhouse a home, a hospital (with Doc the dwarf as chief resident and Cinderella as the primary nurse) and a jail. It is involved in most of her stories even when she is dressing up acting out things herself.

    The kids who visit us are enchanted by the dollhouse, I think in part because not too many kids have one like it. The kitchen though is definitely used by all… but again, mostly when we have playdates.

    May 13th, 2010 at 6:34 am

  6. Jennifer McNichols says:

    Z has both a dollhouse and a play kitchen. She got the kitchen when she was about 2 years old and the dollhouse was a gift for her 5th birthday (it was a dollhouse that my grandparents made for me and gave to me when I was 5). Z loves tiny things (the smaller the better) so the dollhouse gets a lot of use. Z turns the house into a store front, a zoo, and sometimes, a house and uses it with the scale dollhouse figures, her polly pockets, tiny animals, big animals, and any other characters she has floating around. As she plays she verbally narrates the events that are happening and the dialog between the characters. She’ll play with her dollhouse for hours.

    By contrast, the kitchen is getting very little playtime these days. She plays with the pretend food all the time (setting up meals for her various stuffed friends) but the kitchen has become more of a storage area for the food than a place where she pretends to cook. Maybe because she often assists us in the kitchen the play kitchen isn’t as fun in comparison?

    May 13th, 2010 at 7:11 am

  7. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    Growing up, we both had a toy dollhouse (my parents built it from a kit and it was personalized for us) and there was a plastic kitchen in the house.

    I don’t remember playing with the kitchen at all. we had many hours of play with the dollhouse. We used the LEgo minifigs in our family sometimes and I made up birth certificates/likes and dislikes for each of them.

    May 13th, 2010 at 8:27 am

  8. KGS says:

    My 4-year-old uses her dollhouse and kitchen about equally often. Oddly enough, the small plastic Fisher-Price dollhouse a relative gave her seems to get a bit more playtime than the large wooden one she inherited from my childhood– perhaps the size/scale of the dollhouse to the kid has something to do with it? It’ll be interesting to see whether this changes as she gets older.

    May 13th, 2010 at 9:46 am

  9. Victoria says:

    Interestingly enough, my 5 year old son’s imaginex castle play-set came with a bed.
    He uses his castle as a house sometimes, but more often builds his own houses with blocks. He also has a kitchen that gets periodic heavy use, but never as much as his favorite toy – the cash register.

    May 13th, 2010 at 10:56 am

  10. Angelique says:

    We have two boys, and also own both a dollhouse and a kitchen. The dollhouse is a small wooden Melissa & Doug unit that from time to time gets pulled out of the closet for some playtime. The kitchen, on the otherhand, is a giant wooden monstrosity rescued from a preschool, consisting of four units that span the entire wall of my dine-in kitchen. This franken-kitchen sees daily enthusiastic use by both of my boys.

    As a kid, I had both a dollhouse (a pink Barbie abomination that I loved dearly) and a plastic kitchen playset with shiny plastic foods. I even remember the smell of the fiberboard floors of the dollhouse and the vinyl plastic eggs for the kitchen. (I’m sure I’m swimming with phthalates). They were both my most favorite things in the whole wide world. Not that long ago I found the crumbling bits of brittle pink Barbie house plastic in my parents basement and unexpectedly started crying as I took them out to the trash.

    All that being said, I don’t think kitchen sets are killing dollhouses. I think toy preference depends on the child’s disposition and innate preferrences, the example parents set, and the availability of the toy.

    May 13th, 2010 at 11:20 am

  11. Mags says:

    I had both a toy kitchen and a dollhouse as a kid. But I never played with the kitchen as much because it wasn’t fun if you couldn’t eat the food. I preferred baking with grandma! My Barbie house was my favourite toy and I would spend hours playing with it. The cool thing about Barbies was that I had all different ages and all different colours purchased individually. Parents will argue about what Barbie’s inhuman body teaches children but it never affected me. I loved changing Barbie’s clothes, using Barbie’s kitchen, and driving Barbie’s car with the baby dolls in car seats in the back of the pink convertible!

    May 13th, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  12. Elizabeth W. says:

    My kids go in cycles it seems. Stuff falls in and out of fashion with them. The trick is keeping the good stuff around even if they don’t use it because eventually they will get to it. No one has touched the Duplos in over a year since my 5yo mastered using the “little legos”, but this last week my 3yo, who has never been much of a builder of anything – much more a dolly girl – has adopted them as her new favorite toy. She even asked to build a tower in bed last night.

    We’re not doing alot of dollhouse play right now, or kitchen play, but both have been favorites in the past and i’m sure will be again. I think one of the big differences between play kitchen and dollhouse is that the dollhouse stuff is teeny tiny. Kids LOVE itsy bitsy things, whatever they may be. Big dump trucks are fun, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need your matchbox cars, you know?

    May 13th, 2010 at 4:25 pm

  13. Jenn says:

    We have a play kitchen and dollhouse and neither gets used very much at all by my 4 & 6 yo daughters…instead they make one section of the couch “someone’s” house and the corner behind the dinning room table is “someone” elses house and the coffee table is the store and the entryway mat is the restaurant. So you get the picture, my entire house is their “dollhouse”. We are constantly stepping around dolls in the hallway because they are “sleeping” and tripping on the stairs because all the dolls are at “school”.

    As for the play kitchen, the only purpose it serves is to hold all of the pretend food & dishes, because they take everything out to my dining room table to play tea party. They have a kid sized table & chairs mind you, but the real thing is always better!

    May 13th, 2010 at 5:36 pm

  14. HappyMom says:

    My daughter is now nine. When she was younger (2-5 years old) she played with a kid kitchen. Never touched a nice dollhouse, which I eventually sold. Now she loves Playmobil animals and dolls, has a barn and wants a house for her birthday.

    For her, it was age (and therefore temperament) specific.

    May 14th, 2010 at 10:26 am

  15. Dallas says:

    My 3 year old (just 3, yesterday), has a “kitchen” and a small doll house, both gender-nonspecific.

    She prefers Legos, a Melissa and Doug barn and animals, books, Colorforms, play-doh, and coloring.

    Also, any musical instrument.

    We are currently on the hunt for a record player.

    However, I had a Barbie House that I played with until high school. No convertible, but G.I. Joe Jeep.

    May 15th, 2010 at 12:38 pm

  16. Tiffany says:

    My son’s now 4, and we had a play kitchen for him (the Little Tikes Cook’n'Learn kitchen sans batteries- one of the few that came in blue and was small) from the time he was a little over one until about 3.5. He really enjoyed playing with it for quite some time, but as he grew older and got to the point where he always helped with the real food production, the play kitchen became a storage spot for his “picnic” items. However, he spends hours and hours a day building houses, car washes, tents, skyscrapers, schools, castles, and every imaginable structure out of his Magna-Tiles (which are incredibly versatile). Even funnier, most of the time it isn’t his stuffed animals enjoying the buildings, but all his play cars- who camp, go to school, take care of their car children, etc, in the buildings. Considering that he’s invented so much of this imaginary life, I really think a lot of it is temperament.

    May 15th, 2010 at 6:16 pm

  17. Christina says:

    My daughter (3 1/2) loves her dollhouse (actually a wooden “princess castle” from Melissa and Doug. It’s just the right size for her 4″ disney princesses (I know), and she’s added other friends and pets for them (some of her miniature animals). It stays right by her bed, and she plays with it during quiet time and after she’s supposedly gone to bed. She also has a “zoo,” a “farm,” a “swimming pool” (for her mermaid and friends), and a dinosaur pen, all with appropriate inhabitants. She’s big on everybody having a home of their own.

    She doesn’t have a play kitchen, due to lack of space, but she does have toy food, pots and pans, and a couple tea sets. Sometimes she’s in the mood for one type of play, sometimes the other.

    May 15th, 2010 at 6:49 pm

  18. JenRae says:

    We have a dollhouse and a kitchen, and the dollhouse gets WAY more use! Sometimes my daughters use the kitchen as an extension of the house (like the oven and microwave are extra bedrooms! haha!!!). We also got some hand-me-down polly pocket houses, and my girls could play with them for hours.
    We’ve had the dollhouse for 3 years now, and the polly pocket ones for 1.5 years, and they still play with them.

    July 19th, 2010 at 7:33 pm