Ecommerce retailers like The Pattycake Doll Company offer a selection of dolls designed for children with disabilities. For instance, the Down Syndrome dolls have some of the distinctive physical characteristics associated with that disorder. Other dolls are accompanied by a wheelchair or guide dog. Like all other dolls, these items provide entertainment and tactile comfort to every child who hugs and plays with them.
When designed, marketed, and sold well, these dolls for children with special needs can go beyond this, though. They can help the child build self-efficacy. The concept of self-efficacy isn’t exactly the same as self-acceptance or self-esteem. Psychologists use the term “self-efficacy” to refer to the degree of confidence a person has that they can accomplish a specific task. The child who is convinced they can remember the words to a simple song gains self-efficacy in song memory. The child who believes they can make their way out of the classroom in case of a fire has self-efficacy about escaping from danger.
Why come up with this limited definition? Because research findings, such as from studies at Stanford University, indicate self-efficacy is a better predictor of success for a child with disabilities than is the child’s general self-esteem or their self-acceptance. Self-efficacy is a precursor to self-acceptance and self-esteem. But because of the targeted scope of self-efficacy, it’s where those of us in the toy industry can focus our efforts to give best results with children having special needs.
Here are three research-based ways:
- Active play is the ground in which self-efficacy grows. The doll should both invite and withstand active play, taking account of the capabilities and limitations of the special needs child. The visually impaired child will want facial features that are sculptured so the child can feel the facial features with their fingers. The child whose disorder disrupts well-coordinated movement will want a doll that’s especially easy to hold onto and resists damage whenever dropped.
- Give the doll a compelling personality. We’d like either an “exactly like me” or a “my best friend” quality the special needs child relates to. Then they’ll feel companionship when taking on the world. The face and body design can communicate personality. Next, give the doll a name or invite the child to name the doll. Downi Creations chooses the first route, sending off their soft-bodied vinyl dolls with monikers like Kathryn, Jesse, and Timothy. Other toy professionals take the other route, perhaps believing that the child is more likely to relate well to the doll after choosing the name. This is in the tradition of Cabbage Patch Dolls and the child-created products from Build-a-Bear Workshop.
- Tell a back story which includes adventure. Research finds that vicarious experiences appropriate to the child’s abilities, but at least a bit challenging, build self-efficacy and that emotional arousal locks self-efficacy into the child’s mind. What does the doll enjoy doing? What does the doll do to conquer fears? The descriptive catalog copy for the doll. A small storybook sold with the doll at a package price. A list of professionally-recommended books about a child with the special needs. Each of these can do the job.
By designing dolls like these or choosing them for your inventory, you have a compelling benefit to offer your customers.
Peter Laudin, pictured above, owns The Pattycake Doll Company. I’m grateful for Peter’s generous advice as I wrote this post, and I appreciate his permission to use the photo of the Down Syndrome doll in this post.