Dolling Down Children's Toys

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The options in today’s doll market, whether it’s Barbie, Bratz, or Monster High, all have something in common: they all tend to wear an adult’s portion of makeup, despite the fact that they are made for young children. Now, many parents are searching for alternatives, because they do not feel comfortable with these mature-looking toys.

Tree Change Dolls, designed by Australian mother Sonia Singh, is a novel idea that takes discarded dolls and transforms them into toys that girls can easily relate to without propping up unrealistic expectations of body image.

Singh started the project to interject some creativity into her free time after losing her job. She finds the toys in secondhand shops, brings them home, removes the factory-painted face, washes them, and repaints a new, more child-like face. Meanwhile, her mother knits more realistic children’s clothing. The name Tree Change Dolls comes from the Australian expression “tree change,” used when someone has decided to switch to the country life.

Singh strongly states that she did not set out to support any movement when she founded the project, aside from the environmentally positive task of recycling. Since her project became viral on the internet about a year ago, her half a million followers on Facebook are constantly sparking up heated debates about how age-appropriate certain toys are in today’s industry.

“I’m really happy to allow people to discuss those ideas, but I certainly never set out to make that statement, it’s really taken me by surprise,” Singh tells BTRtoday. “I’m just restyling them in a way that appeals to me and I want to make them look like little children.”

Many adults believe that mainstream dolls are setting unrealistic standards. These body image-conscious mothers and fathers fear that their kids could grow up believing that something is wrong with them unless they are 5’10” with a tiny waist and a face made up with cosmetics.

Families may worry that these dolls are promoting insecurities about the physical appearance at such a young age, leading to low self-esteem and even potentially to eating disorders.

Parents are starting to opt for more natural-looking products that their daughters can relate to. Brands such as American Girl, Lammily, Lottie Dolls, and even Singh’s Tree Change Dolls are now becoming more desirable because of their body-positive attitude and virtuous look.

“As soon as I put them up for sale they’re gone within a few minutes,” Singh says enthusiastically. “I auctioned a few on eBay for charity last year and some of those dolls went for over a thousand Australian dollars.”

This shift in consciousness has extended so far that it has even influenced Barbie, the largest doll manufacturer in the world. The fact that the movement towards dolls sans eye shadow and lipstick has exerted enough force to influence mainstream suppliers indicates how deeply it has taken root within the demographic targeted by those suppliers.

This year, Barbie released a new body-positive line of Fashionistas that not only better represents different races, but also introduces curvy, tall, and petite body-types. The faces of these dolls are much more relatable to the generation of three to ten year old girls who are actually playing with them.

Chris Byrne, the EVP and content director of “Toys, Tots, Pets & More” (TTPM), the leading product review site for toy consumers, expresses a disbelief that a lump of plastic could be a role model for growing girls or a mascot for a movement. He claims that the demand evolution is simply the swing of the fashion pendulum.

Barbie, owned by the Mattel Company, saw its first rise in sales last year–its first sign of progress in three-years. Byrne explains that Barbie has always been cyclical in its market. He notes that this spike could be due either to a lack of competition or to the fact that this down-to-earth look may just be this period’s trend.

So, is this just a fashion trend, or are doll consumers catching on to a more progressive mode of thinking and conscious buying?

Certain psychology studies have found that baby dolls help children in developing cognitive skills and even basic motor functions. Being able to relate to an anthropomorphized toy and care for it teaches a child different emotions and how to form relationships. Being able to talk aloud to it and practice vocabulary can help to establish concrete language skills.

“The child’s affinity for the doll is really just a reflection of what she is seeing and learning in the culture around there,” Byrne tells BTRtoday. “If parents have a very specific idea of what’s an appropriate look, kids are going to replicate that in their play.”

Ultimately, he states that the choice of doll should be up to the child, and that they should have every option available to allow their imagination to run wild.

For example, if a child wants to pretend for the day to be a celebrity teenager, a Bratz doll—with their glitter and glamorous wardrobe—may be more appropriate. If the next day the child wants to pretend to go to the park with her best friend, then perhaps a toy that is created to appear more realistic, such as an American Girl doll, would be more suitable.

“All of that imagination should be open to children as they define themselves through their play,” Byrne says.

Both Byrne and Singh encourage parents to raise strong and confident children by helping them to practice self-confidence and love. Toys can act as a great tool to assist in this process.

“I think that if play can reinforce that in girls, however the plastic is molded, that’s a wonderful thing,” Byrne expresses.

Singh only creates about 20 Tree Change Dolls a month and sells them on her Etsy account. Her next batch will go on sale April 6, at 8 a.m. EST.

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