THE ULTIMATE DOLLHOUSE BUYING GUIDE
We heart dollhouses.
Sure, there’s a healthy dose of nostalgia involved in those warm, fuzzy feelings. How could we forget those miniature claw-foot bathtubs, movable cabinet drawers, and the feisty doll dialogue of our own childhoods?
But fond memories (from which we have conveniently scrubbed any sign of rampaging, play-busting younger siblings) are only the beginning of our love affair with the land of miniatures. From a developmental perspective, the dollhouse is an absolute bedrock toy.
The beauty of the dollhouse comes from its storytelling possibilities. Its basic structure suggests a broad framework for play, but the child takes it from there, drawing on his or her own imagination to construct narratives.
This opens up a tremendous opportunity for pretend play (if you’re a parent, you know this when you see it; if you’re looking for a more official definition, you can check out this entry from the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.
To psychologists, this type of play is a developmental bonanza. It helps children develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially; as described by Penn State University professor James E. Johnson in a book chapter, this type of play allows children to take on other’s perspectives, collaborate with friends and siblings, and develop their storytelling abilities.
A dollhouse also provides an avenue for children to explore thoughts and feelings that they may not yet be able (or willing) to articulate. The dollhouse can become a smaller, more manageable theater on which to work through themes and issues in the child’s actual life—a “parallel universe,” as Dr. Susan Scheftel, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University and practicing child psychologist, put it.
“Given a dollhouse, many children will create scenarios that are wished for, despised and/or accurate representations of his or her life,” Dr. Scheftel wrote on her Psychology Today blog, Evolving Minds. “The dollhouse material obviously should never be interpreted literally or even biographically; but there is little question that a child who is acting out small dramas in a doll house is working through internal issues about self and family in a productive and symbolic way.”
In other words, like real life, but not too close to real life. And, unlike the real world, the dollhouse universe is actually under the child’s control. As one journalist put it, “doll houses can make the universe seem obedient.” (And who wouldn’t go for that every now and then?).
It’s hard to beat a dollhouse when it comes to repeat play value, too. Unlike toys that are exciting to open but then quickly cast aside, a dollhouse is the kind of toy that kids tend to come back to again and again.
Not only that, kids can enjoy playing with a dollhouse for years. While they may play with the dollhouse differently at 2 years old than they do at 4 or 6 years old, academics (and plenty of parents) have observed “the endurance of dollhouse play.” For some, a love for dollhouses and miniatures can even continue into adulthood.
That’s pretty awesome staying power.
Dollhouses are also a great pick because they work well for solo play and for play with siblings or friends. Your child may be completely engrossed in putting the dolls to bed, taking them to work, or acting out other narratives all on his or her own. Then, when playing with the dollhouse with a sibling or friend, your kiddo may explore totally different storylines, negotiate with the other child over how the play should proceed, or take the dolls off to explore previously uncharted waters. Either way, they’re (hopefully!) totally engrossed. All with no screens involved.
To learn about our top dollhouse picks, read The Best Dollhouses review.
Think you want to buy a dollhouse?
This is a big one (literally, in some cases). Dollhouses on the market today can range from pop-up paper dollhouses that can easily be packed away to doll mansions that top four feet in height.
As you consider what size dollhouse is best for your family, here are a few questions to guide you:
1. How much space in your home do you want to devote to the dollhouse?
Your answer to the size question probably varies depending on where you live. A city dweller trying to make the most of small spaces has different constraints than someone with floor space to burn.
Keep in mind that while some dollhouses will essentially become fixtures in your house, others can close or fold up, making it easier to put them away when they’re not being played with.
2. What size doll will the little one want to use?
Doll size varies from around two inches to 18 inches. If you want the dollhouse to work with Barbie or American Girl dolls, you’re going to find yourself in large dollhouse territory. But if smaller dolls are okay with you, you can consider the small and medium dollhouses as well.
One point to consider—there’s a lot to love about Barbie and American Girl, but there’s something wonderful about dolls that don’t already have a built-in backstory provided by the manufacturer. That allows your child’s imagination to take center stage as they create the dolls’ personalities and craft their stories.
3. How many kids will be playing with the house at once?
The more kids you anticipate playing with the dollhouse at once, the bigger the house you’ll want to consider. While one or two kids can probably share small sets with relative ease, three or more kids may require a medium or large dollhouse if everyone is going to get in on the fun at once.
Another possibility: Consider a dollhouse with 360-degree access. Dollhouses like the Manhattan Toy MiO Wooden Playset, the KidKraft So Chic Dollhouse, and the Pottery Barn Kids Monique Lhuillier Parisian Dollhouse allow kids to approach the house from different angles, making it easier for them to enjoy the house together.
4. Do you care whether the dollhouse is portable?
Some dollhouses are as movable as your kitchen sink while others are easy to take along to playdates, the grandparents, or even out to dinner.
Depending on your answer to these questions, check out our write-ups on dollhouses of different sizes:
For a look at truly movable dollhouses (we’re talking a handle and closing walls), check out our write-up on portable dollhouses.
For most of us, this is where the rubber hits the road.
Luckily there’s a pretty decent range on dollhouse pricing. There are a number of models that can be yours for under $40, like the Hape Geometrics Kid’s Wooden Doll House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Victorian Pop-Up Dollhouse, the Manhattan Toy MiO Sleeping Place, and the Calico Critters Cozy Cottage Starter Home.
On the flip side are the $300+ budget-busters, like the KidKraft Grand Anniversary Dollhouse and the Plan Toys Victorian Dollhouse. Not to mention the Pottery Barn Kids Woodbury Götz Dollhouse—list price of $499-$649.
As you set your budget, keep these two questions in mind:
1. What sort of quality do you expect?
Are you looking for something that can be passed down to your child’s child, or do you just want something that will work for right now?
The answer may depend on the child, too. How rough is the kiddo usually on his or her toys? Are most still museum quality or has the child been known to destroy even the heartiest of toys on the first play outing?
As you consider which dollhouse is best for your family, keep in mind whether you’re buying for now or buying forever.
2. Does the dollhouse come with dolls and furniture?
The great white whale of dollhouses—finding one that comes with dolls and furniture.
The sad truth is that many don’t. So you may just have to make your peace with that. (On the flip side, this may not be such a bad thing—buying furniture and dolls separately let’s you choose the dollhouse you love without worrying about whether the furniture is up to snuff or the dolls might look creepy).
Luckily there are a number of companies that make kid-friendly dolls, beds, refrigerators, telephones, and pretty much anything else that you like. These sets can run anywhere from $10 for a single room’s worth of furniture to close to $150 to furnish a full house. Dolls can cost you another $15 to $30. (You can check out some of our favorite dollhouse dolls here).
There are some options that do come with pretty much everything your kiddo needs to start playing. If this is a priority for you, check out the Fisher-Price Little People Surprise & Sounds Home, the Indigo Jamm Hascombe Dollhouse, the Calico Critters Luxury Townhome Gift Set, or the Hape Geometrics Wooden Dollhouse.
AGE OF CHILD
How old is the child you’re buying for?
Dollhouses vary quite a bit in complexity. And while kiddos may love playing with the world in miniature, all those tiny tables, chairs, and plates mean loads of little pieces around, which means… Small parts alert! Small parts alert!
While you may be eager to dive into the biggest, most beautiful of the dollhouses, keep in mind the size of the pieces, the fragility (or robustness) of the dollhouse and its parts, and of course the age range recommended by the manufacturers.
While all those little pieces mean that most dollhouses are flagged as best for kiddos 3-year-olds and up, there are a handful of models with lower recommended ages. For the younger dollhouse lovers, check out the Indigo Jamm Hascombe House, the Fisher-Price Little People Surprise & Sounds Home, the Playmobil 123 Suburban Home, or the Green Toys House Playset.
To pink or not too pink.
Beginning your dollhouse journey can feel like crashing into a pink explosion. And if pink is your thing, that’s all good. You certainly have plenty of options. Check out the Playmobil Deluxe Dollhouse, the Melissa & Doug Classic Heirloom Victorian Wooden Dollhouse, and pretty much anything from KidKraft (the KidKraft Bonita Rosa Dollhouse and the KidKraft Girl’s Uptown Dollhouse are pink extravaganzas).
And while we are way over the idea that pink is a girl color, if you’re looking for something that reads a little more gender-neutral, there are plenty of those to choose from as well, like the Hape All Season House, the Calico Critters Luxury Townhome Gift Set, and the Playmobil Take Along Modern Doll House.
ASSEMBLY & MATERIALS
Let’s get real: how much sweat, frustration, and (ahem) wine is it going to take to get this dollhouse up and running? Cue the soundtrack to memories of all-night assembly sessions on Christmas Eve’s past…
That said, while many dollhouses require a little elbow grease, there are also models that come nearly fully assembled (or where assembling the dollhouse is part of the fun, as with the modular dollhouses that your kiddo can build and rearrange on his or her own).
On a related note, give a little thought to whether you care about what the dollhouse is made of. Do you have strong feelings about plastics? Or do wooden products drive you batty? Prefer a unique, fabric dollhouse, or maybe even a pop-up paper version?
Dollhouses come in a variety of materials these days, so if this is a factor that’s important to you, keep it in mind as you make your purchasing decision.
Are you sure you really want a dollhouse?
We primarily focused on dollhouses that are actually, well, houses. But if you’re looking for a castle, a fire station, or a space station, there are plenty of options out there.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Is your child a fanatic for a particular character? Again, this wasn’t our focus for this particular review. But from Belle to Big Bird to Peppa Pig, there are plenty of character-themed playsets. If this is what you’re in the market for, here are a few options to get you started: KidKraft Belle Enchanted Dollhouse; Peppa Pig Deluxe House; Crate&kids Sesame Street Carry Home Brownstone.