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For generations, teddy bears have been a staple in children’s lives, providing comfort and companionship but a teddy bear isn’t just a soft cuddly toy for a child to sleep and play with, it can also play a pivotal role in their social and emotional development.
Comfort & Security
Teddy bears can provide comfort and security to children. They offer a sense of familiarity and safety, easing feelings of anxiety and stress, especially during times of separation. This is because a teddy bear is regarded as a ‘transactional object’ which, according to Donald Winnicott, an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, is ‘any non-imaginary item that a child chooses on their own, attributes special value to, and over which the child has absolute control.’
A transitional object tends to be chosen towards the end of the first six months of a baby’s life and will have ‘qualities reminiscent of the mother: it is soft; it can be stroked, cuddled, and bitten’. According to Angela Joyce, of the British Psychoanalytical Society, ‘as gaps between feeds grow, space opens up between baby and mother, occupied by this special object.’ It’s at this age that the little ones start to ‘leave the state of absolute dependence on their mother to become more independent’.
A teddy bear brings a child a sense of security. In times of stress, touching and cuddling a teddy can be comforting and soothing, providing a sense of familiarity. A teddy bear can act as a protector, evoking a feeling of safety and comfort, especially in unfamiliar situations or when a child feels lonely or isolated. Teddy bears also provide comfort when primary caregivers are absent.
At around 12 to 18 months old, children start to learn fundamental social skills. At this stage, a child will begin to ‘play’ which, according to Winnicott is ‘fundamental to the development of a healthy mind’.
Children learn about emotions and social skills through play. Through interacting with their teddy, children learn how to care for ‘someone’, how to empathize, and how to share. This play also helps children develop their communication skills, which in turn helps prepare them for interacting with people.
Compassion and Empathy
Caring for a teddy bear satisfies the need to nurture and connect with others. Through pretend play, children learn to consider the needs of others, which fosters an appreciation for relationships. Teddy bears are particularly effective because children often identify with them and feel a sense of responsibility to care for them.
When playing with a teddy bear, a child breathes life into it. There is no limit to the number of games that a child can invent, a teddy bear can become a superhero, a princess, or an astronaut, allowing children to explore their creativity and imagination. Acting out stories and scenarios with their teddies helps children develop their language, social, and emotional skills. Children may also express emotions and thoughts while playing with a teddy bear that they might not be able to convey using words.
Pretend play with teddy bears also helps children develop problem-solving skills. Games may include scenarios where their teddy is in danger or needs help which requires a child to think critically and come up with solutions that will help their beloved bear. This type of play also encourages empathy, as children may imagine themselves in their stuffed animal’s situation and develop a sense of compassion for others.
Role-playing can also help children navigate new situations such as starting a new school or attending medical appointments. Through role-play, an adult can prepare a child for changes or potentially stressful situations and seek to understand and alleviate any concerns that a child may have.
Engaging in pretend play also helps develop speech and language skills. In talking to their teddies, children practise their vocabulary, try out new words, and gain confidence in their speech. These pretend conversations allow children to express their emotions and articulate their thoughts. Storytelling with toys is also thought to help with reading and writing.
Development of Fine Motor Skills
Playing with teddy bears helps with the development of fine motor skills in children. Dressing up a bear or feeding a teddy using small utensils requires concentration and coordination to perform the activities successfully. Children who lack fine motor skills may struggle to write, draw, or dress up independently.
Teddy bears are more than just adorable companions. Teddy bears provide children with a sense of security, they foster emotional growth and resilience and teach children about emotions, social skills, and empathy, helping them to develop into well-adjusted children ready to venture out into the world.