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The Best Dollhouses, According to Experts

Photo-Illustration: Courtesy of the retailer

Dollhouses are part of a group of “core” toys (along with bikes and play kitchens) that are truly timeless. Christy Keating, a parenting coach and founder of the Heartful Parent Collective, says the reason they’re such a mainstay is their open-ended nature. Since dollhouses don’t necessarily do anything on their own (unlike many tech-heavy toys), children “get to explore and discover the infinite possibilities of how that toy can be used” — from serving as the backdrop for “a complex social hierarchy, like a doll ‘family’” to experimenting with the concept of gravity by dropping accessories from the roof.

And while in kids’ eyes, dollhouses are just a fun way to play make-believe, Playgarden Prep co-founder and COO Amanda Vierheller says that playing with dollhouses can be very developmentally impactful. “Pretend play encourages expressive language, which promotes asking questions, making choices, and describing events,” she says, and playing with dolls and dollhouses offers “a multifaceted way to encourage vocabulary acquisition, social etiquette, and language development.” So to find the very best dollhouses — from the classic Barbie Dreamhouse to smaller, more portable options — we spoke to Keating, Vierheller, and seven other experts about the ones they recommend.

$48

James Zahn, a senior editor at the Toy Insider, suggested this dollhouse by Hape as a solid affordable option that offers all the basic spaces of a classic dollhouse with a few extra features. Because there’s no front — it’s open-faced on both sides and features two floors divided into eight rooms — kids can just as easily play side by side with friends or solo. The 360-degree access allows for some less typical dollhouse spaces, like a music room and outdoor-pool area in addition to the more standard bathroom and kitchen. And it comes with 31 different accessories, including furniture, two dolls, and two pets. One Amazon reviewer writes that “My 4 and 5 year old were busy for hours playing with it! There’s so many different rooms and accessories for them to be creative with it!” while noting that “it’s not too big to where I can’t store it any where and it’s not too small to where it will bore the kids!” (Alternately, if you are looking for a different layout, Hape also makes a taller “all seasons” dollhouse with three stories and a roof that flips over to display wintertime snow.)

$190

Every year, Mattel, the company behind the iconic Barbie brand, releases a new Barbie Dreamhouse, and according to Zahn, it’s “still the gold standard” and “consistently ranks as the best-selling dollhouse” year after year. The latest iteration stands 43 inches high — nearly as tall as an average 7-year-old — and has ten indoor and outdoor play spaces. It also boasts a variety of lights and sounds (like mood lighting and a disco-party setting) and comes fully furnished — it even includes an adorable swinging Papasan chair. Kids can have their Barbies or other similarly sized dolls travel up and down the elevator lift, slide down to the pool, or interact with the realistic details — like the textured grass, movable décor, and transforming furniture (including a grill that becomes a dessert buffet).

Most dollhouses are fairly bulky, making the idea of traveling with one daunting, if not downright impossible — but this “Tropicool” Polly Pocket set is a shrunken, extremely portable option contained within a wearable pineapple purse. The pineapple opens up to reveal two micro dolls, a monkey, a giraffe, a tree house, and a mini-boat; Strategist senior editor and mom of two Jen Trolio says her 7-year-old daughter received it for her birthday, and it has proved just as popular with her 4-year-old daughter. “Both girls love that you can carry it like a cross-body bag,” she says, noting that they frequently pack it up to take it along when they visit their grandparents. The set comes with a sheet of special stickers that hold the two dolls in place; kids can apply these wherever they want to help the dolls stay put, making the toy a little more travel-friendly. It’s also part of a sprawling line of other Polly Pocket sets; while not all of them have the “wear it like a purse” feature, many are built around a similar fold-and-go design, and there’s a huge variety, from a Unicorn Forest to Sushi Shop to a Pet Vet.

A favorite of Vierheller and Trolio, the Surprise and Sounds dollhouse is part of Fisher-Price’s extensive Little People series and comes with three palm-size dolls that are perfect for toddler hands, as well as a movable table and three chairs. Though it’s much bigger than a Polly Pocket, it’s another portable dollhouse, thanks to a handle on top and a hinge on one side that lets it open to reveal five rooms: two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The house features 50 different sounds, songs, and phrases — like a flushing sound when the lid of the toilet is lifted. But parents who detest noise-making toys shouldn’t be too worried, especially if their kids are younger, because it at least has an off switch; Trolio’s older daughter was gifted the dollhouse when she was about 18 months old, and Trolio never even bothered turning it on. “It was one of her favorite toys for at least two years, and for a pretty long time she didn’t even know it made any noise,” Trolio says. “And now my 4-year-old still plays with it — often without the sounds.”

Zahn, who is also a dad to two tween girls, says this extra-large dollhouse is one of his favorite new releases from this year. “Had it come out a few years ago, I would’ve bought one for my daughters. It’s a two-story estate built for 18-inch dolls and it comes packed with accessories. It would be a truly wow gift,” he says. The dollhouse is a collaboration between KidKraft, which is known for its wooden dollhouses and play kitchens, and American Girl, a classic doll brand. Designed to accommodate American Girl dolls in particular, the house can be used with any 18-inch doll and features all sorts of realistic bells and whistles, like a spinning fan and lights that can be turned on and off. And because it’s 4.5 feet tall, it has a giant feel — even for older kids. This luxury setup is a decidedly splurgy dollhouse that will elicit oohs and ahhs on its own — but if you want to go full Monty, you can add a two-floor walk-in closet for an extra $298.

Between the heirloom-quality construction and the neutral colors, there is an air of timelessness when it comes to wooden dollhouses. Vox Media engineer manager and dad Nikolas Wise says that, while the sustainably made rubberwood PlanToys dollhouse isn’t in constant rotation at his house, “it does get pulled out intentionally and played with. The super-abstract nature of it works” for Ro, his almost-4-year-old. It’s even more of an open-ended toy than most other dollhouses, as it’s not only neutral in color, but the four rooms inside don’t have any predefined uses (like “kitchen” or “bedroom”). Wise says he and Ro like to shuffle around the dolls and furniture to try out different interior-design setups while playing pretend. (All of PlanToys’ dollhouse accessories are sold separately, with dozens of figures and furniture items available, from a living -room set to a playground for the yard). This approach allows preschoolers to lean on their own imagination, which Keating says is critical for encouraging other developmental skills. “Not only does imaginative play have benefits for social and cognitive development, it also fosters creativity in childhood and lays the foundation for it later in adulthood,” she explains, teaching kids to “generate stories, develop divergent thinking, and explore emotions.”

This petite Cozy Cottage from the Calico Critters line of toys can be enjoyed on its own or as an add-on to the brand’s larger Red Roof Country Home. Lots of online reviewers note that even with its lower price point, you’re not sacrificing quality: “The attention to detail is truly remarkable,” says one. “I can tell you, Calico Critters does not disappoint when it comes to detail and craftsmanship.” The brand (which you may also recognize as Sylvanian Families, as the toys are known in some parts of the world) is well-known for its wide variety of animal dolls dressed in elaborate, changeable outfits. The dolls are one of our favorite gifts for 3-year-olds, as recommended by Leigh Plessner, the co–creative director of jewelry brand Catbird, who told us that she and her toddler loved bringing the dolls to life through made-up conversations. This Cozy Cottage set comes with one bunny doll and ten pieces of furniture and accessories, including a bed and a dining set.

Young fans of the hit TV show Bluey will instantly recognize the interior of this folding dollhouse, which is based on the Heeler family’s home. Kids will love reenacting favorite episodes like “Flatpack” and “Rug Island” in the interactive “lights and sounds” playhouse, which will be a top toy this year, according to both Zahn and Kristin Morency Goldman, a senior adviser at the Toy Association, thanks to the popularity of the show. It comes with Bluey and Bingo figurines and 15 accessories — and even features a rotating dance floor that lets the characters dance to the show’s opening theme music. Just take note that we’ve named this dollhouse one of this year’s top holiday toys to buy before they sell out, so if you know a kid who’s always singing “Poor Little Bug on the Wall” or talking about the “Grannies” and who would love to receive this dollhouse as a gift, don’t dillydally.

Dana Olkkonen, vice-president of TV and film at Vox Media Studios, says her nieces “are obsessed with their Encanto dollhouse,” and it’s easy to see why. The vibrantly colored, triple-decker casita has seven rooms (including two “magical” doors that trigger lights and sounds), and the stairs transform into a slide, just like in the movie. While the set only comes with a Mirabel doll, you can purchase the entire cast separately — including Bruno.

If you don’t have the square footage to spare for a large dollhouse, Alexis Swerdloff, New York deputy editor and mom to a toddler and infant, says this foldable wooden one from Strat-favorite toy-maker Melissa & Doug gets the job done without taking up too much space. “It’s small enough to tuck away, when it’s out you hardly notice it, and it’s the perfect dollhouse for those who might be dollhouse-curious — like if you’re not sure your kid will even like it,” she says. The dollhouse comes with 11 pieces of furniture and two little doll figures. It’s also on the subtle side, design-wise, which should appeal to any parents who’ve reached their limit of brightly colored plastic.

Morency Goldman tells us that dollhouses allow kids “to really immerse themselves in their dolls’ worlds” by acting out different scenarios and stories — which is exactly what Kathy Palughi, a mom to a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, says she appreciates the most about this 53-inch-tall country estate. “We love it because it has an outdoor porch and my oldest and I do everything on our actual porch. Plus it’s big enough so we can literally re-create real events while playing,” she tells us. With four levels, ten rooms, 31 accessories, and interactive features like opening garage doors and a gliding elevator, it provides countless ways for kids to play.

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The Best Dollhouses, According to Experts