Barbies also definitely play a very significant role in playing and learning at our house.
I had almost forgotten about my little case of Barbies, but when my oldest at around 3 1/2 found my old Barbies in our storage locker, home they came. Mine have since gotten punk rock haircuts, and some of them have fallen apart, but that hasn't stopped the girls.
Since that time, now about four yrs ago, both of our daughters have been very interested in Barbies, primarily the currently released dolls and playsets, and we have amassed a collection of over 50 dolls and numerous playset pieces, including hundreds of little tiny accessories.
Our younger daughter (now 5) has a very special relationship with each new Barbie. Immediately after purchase, that new Barbie spends every waking (and sleeping) moment with her, for some period of time, and usually the first activity is a nice bath, so that she can wash and condition the Barbie's hair (unless there is a battery feature, of course!)
The Barbies are played with almost every day, and like others have written about, there is usually an elaborate process of setting up a designed environment for the dolls, which involves finding a location, finding all the pieces of furniture/accessories that they need, getting the vehicle they need, etc. Often this process includes creating or building some type of infrastructure that the Barbies need, which is very creative! Think paper with holes punched through it and strung up with yarn as a shower curtain, little tiny pieces of cloth strung up with yarn for hanging beds for the little fairy-sized Barbies, pools in the sink, chopped up real salad greens for food, specially fashioned clothing from little bits of fabric, etc.
During this time, my two daughters maintain a constant dialogue, sometimes between themselves, but often the chatter of the Barbies, deciding who's going to be married, who's going to a party, who gets to sleep in which bed or go swimming, who is who's little sister, you name it. It is creative, communicative, wonderful play to listen to - I've often thought it would be nice to tape - kind of a personal podcast sort of thing.
Once, we received two "collector" Barbies from a friend of my MIL. One of the dolls was a beautifully dressed period doll, named Mrs. P.F.E. Albee. We all wondered who she was as we opened the package (probably a mistake, as she was probably supposed to be NRFB!). It turns out, she was the very first Avon Lady, and the packaging gave us a really nice history of this woman who began an incredibly successful 25-year career defining the home cosmetic sales industry, at the age of 50! What a wonderful history lesson on so many levels - a woman, successful, starting her career at a later age - it really sparked a lot of great connections and conversations for days with lots of people.
There are Barbie connections to be made out in the larger world, too - everywhere we go, we meet women who have loved their Barbies, young babysitting-age girls, grandmas with collector editions, women at the toy store commenting how they still love to get their Barbies out. Barbie-lovers are everywhere! Who knows when this shared interest will help them connect with someone down the road?
Who would have imagined - design, construction, dramatic narrative, social skills, a little bit of history mixed in - it's really a wonderful learning experience!