At the beginning of each episode of the new preschool show Moon and Me, a child places her dolls down to sleep in their toy house. “Lay down, Pepi Nana,” the child says, tucking the figurine under the covers of the tiny bed. “Close your eyes. Don’t you peep. This is the way we get to sleep.”
She proceeds with her nighttime ritual with Goodnight Moon-level methodicalness, watering “lily plant”, putting Colly Wobble the clown into his special bag, and resting a blue-haired girl named Little Nana in her designated matchbox.
The routine is enchanting, partly because it’s such a whimsical production (the series is filmed using puppetry, stop-motion animation and intricate homemade effects) but also because it so wonderfully captures how little kids play with toy houses.
For creator Andrew Davenport, the man behind Teletubbies, accuracy was the goal. In writing the show, his team collaborated with the University of Sheffield to observe how children engage with toy houses.
Researchers set up cameras and microphones throughout a toy house (“It was like the Big Brother house only with toys,” Davenport told The Guardian) and looked at what goes on within the four — er, three — walls when kids play freely. What they found supports the importance of symbolic play in child development.
All kids can benefit from playing with toy houses. Here’s how, according to the findings from the Moon and Me project and other research.
The houses can teach them the importance of daily routines.
“Bed time, meals, bathroom visits all are consistent elements of toy house play,” the team from Davenport’s Foundling Bird production company tells me.
They can learn classification skills.
Kids can learn that different spaces have different sets of functions and protocols. During the Moon and Me observation project, toys were constantly “moved up and down and in between floors using stairs and doorways”. Those bridges can help a child understand that a character is leaving a space and entering a new one.
They can give children a sense of control.
In a piece titled “Why do we love tiny things?” Bustle writer JR Thorpe explains that dollhouses and miniature play are “safe spaces”, particularly for kids: “If your own environment is chaotic, poverty-stricken, miserable, beset with domestic woes or traumatic, dollhouses offer the direct opposite: A universe entirely at your command.” In child therapy offices, dollhouses are a staple.
It shows them that play has no end.
I was always fascinated while watching my six-year-old daughter play with her doll house, mostly because of the many DIY upgrades she would add to it.
She’d run around our home looking for loose parts that could bring her vision to life. A junk-mail catalogue clipping became the TV. Old bottle caps were transformed into a backyard obstacle course. A sponge was the jumping castle. A handful of shredded tissues served as a car wash.
Within a toy house, there are an infinite number of configurations to be explored, and stories to be told.