How to Play with a Doll's House
Did you have a doll’s house when you were a child?
What made it so special?
Was it the size or style or furniture?
Or was it the stories you told?
More than a castle or a train set, more than cars or blocks, a doll’s house is where children go to make sense of their world.
Often, the doll’s house is where children imagine their world as they would like it to be.
This is my new bedroom. It is big and there is a bunk bed.
It’s also where children try to make sense of stressful or unpleasant situations.
The play is not quite make-believe. The stories are often based on real events.
Above all, a doll’s house is about understanding your place in the family and the wider world. It is a safe place to push boundaries and explore situations in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
You can re-enact the events of the day and imagine alternative outcomes. You live vicariously through the characters and explore the consequences of behaviour - good and bad - without doing these things yourself.
What would Daddy do if I let the dog climb into the fridge?
What would Mummy say if I pedalled my bicycle down the stairs?
What would happen if I threw my lunch out of the window?
All these are possible with a doll’s house - without having to face the consequences in real life.
But a doll’s house is not just about drama and conflict. Children also use them to work through everyday situations.
Would you please pass the jam?
Yes, of course, here you go.
Thank you. You’ve made such a lovely breakfast.
Table of contents
- A history of doll’s house play
- Doll’s houses are for language development
- What’s the right age for doll’s house play?
- The six stages of play
- A doll’s house for boys?
- How to choose the right doll’s house
- Doll’s house furniture and figures
- Choose the right dolls for your house
- Decorate your doll’s house
- The do-it-yourself doll’s house
- Stories about doll's houses
- Final word
A history of doll’s house play
The history of doll’s houses doesn’t go back very far. The first recorded version only dates back to the sixteenth century.
At that time, doll's houses - like this one at the V&A - were designed for the amusement of adults. Some were even used to teach domestic servants how to run the household. The doll’s house as a child’s plaything came much later.
And yet, now, we see the doll’s house as an indispensable addition to the playroom. It seems that it must always have existed.
But why? What is it about doll’s houses that makes them so important?
Doll's houses are for language development
Sit in front of a doll's house and pick up two figures. I bet the first thing you did was make them face each other. It's a natural instinct.
Soon after you may have started to think about who they were, what they were doing and what they might say to each other.
Above all, a doll’s house is about conversation: the bossy big sister, the grumpy father, the doting grandmother. Everyone has something to say and someone to say it to.
‘Good for language development’ is something you see on toy packaging. It sounds impressive but what does it actually mean?
By the time our children start school, we want them to be ready to read and write. But you can’t write if you can’t speak, if you haven’t ‘told’ a story with dolls and other toys.
Doll’s house play helps our children hone their speech and, as they grow, their use of language becomes more sophisticated. But they need lots of practice.
Have you ever said something to your child only to hear her repeat it later in play? One of the ways children learn to speak is through ‘chunks’ of language - readymade phrases picked up in their entirety.
It’s time for bed.
Go to your room!
Once upon a time…
And they lived happily ever after.
At the doll’s house, your child will repeat and rehearse words she heard during the day, learning to use language correctly and in context.
Watch the YouTube phenomenon, Come Play with Me, and you’ll see two ‘toddler’ dolls engaged in all kinds of domestic situations. It’s not high-brow viewing, but what’s interesting is the language they use. Almost everything they say is lifted straight from the girls’ own experiences at home. You can almost hear their parents’ admonishments.
Wash your hands before you eat or you’ll get sick!
Put your coat on or you’ll catch a cold!
I learnt this the hard way as a teacher when I overheard my nursery pupils playing ‘schools’ with their dolls. Bossy Mr. Ralphs was scolding one of the children and they had perfectly captured my patterns of speech. I soon changed my ways!
What’s the right age for doll’s house play?
Toddlers enjoy time at the doll’s house but until some point during their third year, their focus is on more basic pursuits:
Will this bed fit through the doorway?
If I look through the other window can I still see the table?
What happens if I stuff the bathroom full of furniture?
It’s heuristic play. Equally valuable, just missing the dialogue. But that’s OK. It’s coming next.
The six stages of play
The way children play changes over time. The youngest play alone, exploring objects with their senses and practising whole-body movements. But as they grow, they start to play alongside others.
Mildred Parten identified six stages, from playing alone to playing together. Doll’s houses are brilliant because they guide your child along this journey in a simple and natural way.
Toddlers enjoy sitting side by side, each engrossed in their own play. But as the years pass, they start to share resources and talk as they play. Eventually, they learn to co-operate towards shared goals.
You are Mummy and I am Grandpa. Henry is the dog.
Get out of the kitchen! Bad dog!
Let’s get dinner ready. You lay the table and I will bring the chairs from the kitchen. And don’t forget food for the dog
This kind of co-operative play is hard to replicate elsewhere. You get it in the home corner, but you need a co-conspirator. One of the best things about a doll’s house is that if you don’t have a playmate you can supply all the voices yourself.
A doll’s house for boys?
Boys love playing with the doll’s house. It’s just that they play differently.
Watching my daughters at play, the focus is on dialogue and relationships. The dolls talk and act out everyday family scenarios.
The boys do some of this, but they are much more interested in setting it up. The sofa goes here, the cupboard goes there.
You see the same thing when they play with the toy castle. Their energies go into placing the soldiers and on the action. Dialogue is almost an afterthought.
Not all boys, of course, and not completely. The point I’m trying to make here is that children play with the doll’s house in their own way - and that each is equally valid. Children have a natural drive to play in ways that drive their development. That’s why your toddler will post figures through the window but your preschooler will make them talk.
My eldest son is nine and he still sits with his four-year-old sister at the doll’s house, joining in with the story, the deferential junior partner, like a patient grandparent.
They seem an unlikely pair but the doll’s house brings them together in meaningful play.
How to choose the right doll’s house
At its simplest, a doll’s house is no more than an enclosed space in which dolls can encounter each other. Go in, go out, meet, make conversation.
Of course, a larger, more complicated doll’s house is more interesting and offers more play potential.
With every door, window and staircase, you add more play potential. Each room has a unique set of possibilities: the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room all have their own stories to tell.
A portable home
Toddler-friendly figures that are easy to grasp, place and post make for the perfect introduction to doll’s house play. Younger children often like to stay close to their parents so a self-contained, portable doll’s house that can be carried from room to room is a great way to keep the toys from sprawling throughout the home.
You can also take it outside to play with in the garden, amongst the flowers, where bees, butterflies and creepy-crawlies can join in the fun.
A simple, two-storey house
One size up from the carry-along, Cottontail Cottage opens up to reveal two floors. A bedroom and a sitting room offer the chance to move the story from one space to another.
Large wooden doll’s houses
Do you know Michael Bond’s story, The Tale of the Castle Mice? This beautifully illustrated book, set in “The Earl’s Castle”, describes the adventures of a family of mice who live in a doll’s house.
Does your doll’s house have room for a second family? Perhaps the mice live in the attic - or below stairs. Do the humans know they are there?
Why stairs are important
Children running helter-skelter down the stairs, the dog capering down after.
Later, sleepy children going back up to bed. Naughty ones sent up early.
The stairs get a lot of use in a doll’s house.
They encourage movement between rooms and floors. They keep the story flowing, giving the protagonists purpose. They link the rooms together and bring the entire house to life.
A different perspective for different kinds of talk
Look through windows and doors. Open the front of the house or the roof. Be an observer or a protagonist.
How we play with a doll’s house determines the language we use. Are we part of the action or narrating it?
A doll's house without the dolls or the house
If we agree that conversation is the essence of doll’s house play then anything that encourages dialogue must fulfil the same purpose. A simple set like these stables works just fine. The same is true for a castle, of course.
Except for one thing: a doll’s house helps a child understand her place in the family and to think about close relationships and how to nurture them. In short, it’s about emotional intelligence.
Doll's house furniture and figures
A set of furniture quickly brings the house to life. Empty rooms are immediately given a purpose. Stories are suggested and dolls have a reason to move from one room to the next.
But it doesn’t have to match - or be to scale. Your child doesn’t mind. She suspended her disbelief a long time ago and is deeply immersed in play.
Supplement your basic furniture with homemade and individual pieces. You will have a house that is uniquely yours.
Choose the right dolls for your house
A rag doll, a plant, a half-man-half-onion, a flying baby in a onesie…
…and the scale is all wrong.
But somehow it just works.
The characters in the BBC’s Moon and Me encapsulate the magic of the doll’s house. Pepi Nana and Little Nana are the only true dolls. All the others seem to have been pulled at random from the toy box. All that really mattered was that they represented something that contained a spark of life.
The important thing about dolls is the way they interact. What are the conversational possibilities? The greater the variety, the greater the play multiplier effect.
The obvious starting point is a doll family. Brother, sister, mother, father.
The family dynamic makes this combination interesting. How do parents speak to each other? What do they talk about? How do parents speak to children? How do children speak to each other? What dramas and joys do they experience?
Of course, as your child’s imagination grows, those figures can take on new roles. The father becomes a butler one day, a neighbour the next; the mother a stepmother, then a visiting doctor.
Decorate your doll’s house
Sometimes your doll’s house feels stale. The same old figures doing the same old things.
Didn’t you say that I could get years of play out of a doll’s house?
But my child is bored. She barely uses it anymore.
The trick is to introduce new stories.
There are many ways to do this.
Make the house interesting and new with some simple redecoration (with your child’s help).
- Paint the walls
- Put up wallpaper (wrapping paper works fine)
- Make DIY props like tiny food and crockery using FIMO or salt dough
- Make new clothes for your dolls using squares of felt (cut a hole for the head and tie a ribbon around the waist)
- Draw pictures to go on the walls. Make picture frames from matchsticks or cut a frame shape out of cardboard using box cutters.
- Make an outbuilding or garage using an old box or build one using wooden blocks.
Think about how we use small world play to retell familiar stories and imagine new ones. Can you do the same with your doll’s house?
- Put a figure into bed and surround the house with pot plants. It’s Grandma’s cottage in the woods. When will the Big Bad Wolf arrive?
- Three beds, three chairs, three bowls and a little girl with blonde hair…
The do-it-yourself doll’s house
A doll's house will be the centrepiece of your child's play for years to come but it’s sometimes fun to create a structure that is unique and new.
Take a shoebox and make your own small world. It could be a tiny, portable holiday home for your dolls or a simple room to sit on a bookshelf.
Cut out some windows and a door. Use cotton reels for stools and make cosy beds from large matchboxes.
This is a quick and easy way to add some seasonal fun to your doll’s house play. A box, a few craft materials and you soon have a haunted house, Santa’s grotto or an Easter garden.
You can also take the cardboard box idea further and create a puppet theatre for your dolls to perform in.
Doll’s house play has become truly imaginative, from everyday domestic scenes to pure fantasy.
Stories about doll’s houses
Another way to re-ignite your child’s imaginative play is to read books and watch television programmes set in doll’s houses.
- The Tale of the Castle Mice, by Michael Bond
- The Empty Doll’s House, by Enid Blyton
- Mary Mouse and the Dolls’ House, by Enid Blyton
However, watch out for The Doll’s House, by Rumer Godden. It takes a dark turn and isn’t suitable for younger children.
Inspiration may also come from further afield. What kind of play would The Nutcracker inspire? How could you modify your doll’s house to tell this story?
A doll’s house is the perfect toy.
It accompanies children on their developmental journey from experimentation and discovery to co-operative and fantasy play.
There’s no one perfect design. Choose one that works with the space you have. Figures and furniture are important, but you can mix and match. Remember Moon and Me: it’s the stories that count.