TODDLERS attending playgroups and nurseries now have some electronic playmates.

Dewsbury College has introduced so-called “empathy dolls” as part of its childcare courses to train students in the development of social skills in very young children.

The dolls are used to help students in their careers and build up their confidence and understanding of the emotional and social needs in infants and children aged up to three.

The “empathy dolls” are used in playgroups and nurseries to support very young children in their emotional and social development.

The dolls look and feel almost identical to real babies. They come from different ethnic backgrounds and are given names and basic traits such as likes and dislikes.

As well as being used in childcare settings, where they are used at meal-times, at play and change times, the dolls are also given to parents for use at home to help their child’s development.

Claire Wales, co-ordinator of the Cache Diploma in Childcare and Education at Dewsbury College, said: “The empathy dolls have been absolutely invaluable as a teaching aid.

“They help in the teaching of emotional and social development in children, but you can also use them when teaching a group on issues such as bullying or racism.

“One of the most amazing things is the calming effect they have on groups.

“Looking and feeling so similar to babies they encourage a nurturing instinct and give students the confidence they might have been lacking in a teaching environment.”

As part of the project, students on the Level 2 certificate in childcare and education course took the “empathy dolls” on a shopping trip to Dewsbury to buy pyjamas, toothbrushes and an overnight bag for “sleepovers” for experience of using the dolls in real-life settings.

Level 3 students on the college’s diploma in childcare and education have taken the dolls on week-long placements.

The dolls were developed by a Swedish mother grieving for the death of her own son. Her dolls stimulated world-wide interested and have been developed by Leeds-based firm Asco as a teaching aid.

Students on Dewsbury College’s entry level childcare course are already using electronic “babies” to help in their training.

The babies, which cry when they need attention, feeding or changing, were introduced by the college’s health, social care and child studies department, which has won Centre of Vocational Excellence status in partnership with Harrogate and Doncaster colleges.