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  • Little Investigators

What dressing up means to a young child

When children dress up as part of their pretend play, they represent themselves as someone else--a mother, a monster, a truck driver. It's an important part of their development of "transforming" one thing into another. In this case, they are transforming themselves into another role.

A toddler starts pretending the first time she picks up a set of keys and pretends to drive. Her "costume" is the set of keys, which serves as a prop for her play. The preschooler doesn't need a set of keys to pretend to be a driver. He could pick up a round plate and make it into a steering wheel. The kindergartner doesn't need any props at all; 5- and 6-year-olds can mime the actions involved in driving a car using no props.

So, to connect that to dressing up, the costume is the prop that helps young children communicate the role they are enacting both to themselves and to others.

Here are 10 developmental benefits of dress up play for kids:

1. Brain Building

Dress-up engages your child’s brain and memory. Dramatic play requires kids to remember what they’ve seen or heard. They remember how their mother behaves when performing household chores when they are imitating her. Or they recall the details of a fairy tale they’ve heard before acting it out.

2. Vocabulary Building

Dress-up play builds vocabulary as a child decides what his or her character would say. It gives them a chance to expand their vocabularies with words and phrases that they might have heard in stories but wouldn’t ordinarily use.

Children may then begin to use these new words in conversations. Dress up forces children to experiment with new language. They must anticipate what, for example, a ballerina would say, or how a space explorer would speak. This gives them chance to practice with words and phrases they wouldn’t normally use.

3. Problem-Solving

Who’s going to be the doctor? Who’s going to be the patient? Children must make decisions when they engage in dress-up play. They practice problem-solving problems when deciding on what costumes elements and props each character needs to act out a scenario.

4. Empathy

When a child is engaged in role-play, it helps her see the world through another’s eyes which increases empathy – whether pretending to be a parent nurturing a baby, a doctor taking care of an injured patient, or a firefighter putting out a fire. By “living” the life of someone else, your child has to put themselves in that person’s shoes. How do they feel? What are their motivations? How would they behave in certain situations?

This strengthens a broader skill: the ability to understand other people’s feelings. It will help them deal with and work with people in school and at their jobs.

5. Emotional Development

Children are constantly confronted with scary situations that they don’t understand – whether witnessing an accident in real life or seeing violent images on TV. Children process their fears through play, which helps them make sense of the world, and overcome their feelings of helplessness.

By allowing children to act out their fears through dress-up and role playing, we are helping their emotional development.

6. Motor Skills

Children develop fine motor skills by putting on dress-up clothes, whether buttoning a shirt, zipping up pants, or tying on a pirate’s bandana

They use their large motor skills when engaged in role-play, whether they are jumping like a superhero, running like a baseball player, or twirling like a ballerina.

7. Gender Exploration

When children choose costumes and characters to be, they can explore different gender identities and the behaviors of those characters.

While boys often want to be superheroes, firemen, or pirates, and girls often want to be fairies and princesses, it is normal and healthy for children to try on different gender roles as they learn about the world. A child should never be ridiculed for pretending to be a different gender.

8. Imitation

Children are naturally imitative creatures. They learn about the world by imitating the lives of the adults and others around them. Through dress-up and dramatic role-play, children explore the lives of other people by imitating their actions, feelings, and words.

9. Socialization

Dress-up play encourages cooperation and taking turns. Children learn how to negotiate as they agree on stories and rules. They develop interest in others and learn how to give-and-take.

10. Imagination

Children’s imaginations are limitless and have not yet been hardened and constrained by the “realities” of the world. When children play dress up, they root their imaginative stories in reality for a short while, giving them a chance to explore it more thoroughly. For example, if your child dons a fireman’s hat, he practices helping people, community service and bravery.

Children have vast, open imaginations. They aren’t constrained by what they know about the world; their minds can go anywhere. They’ll make connections you and I never would because just don’t know any better.

Is there a difference between dressing up as part of play (I'm a firefighter and I need a firefighter's hat) and dressing up for an event like Halloween?

Yes, there is a big difference. In pretend play, children use props and clothing to enact a role that promotes the story (scripts and scenarios) of their dramatic play. They make conscious decisions as to what will work for the roles they are enacting. They have power over the play, and they choose the costumes using their imaginations and resources. The props don't have to be overly detailed. A scarf can serve as a cape, or an upside-down bowl can serve as a firefighter's helmet. The important criteria are that the child has the authority to determine what she will use and how it fits into her play.

On the other hand, Halloween costumes are often predetermined and very specific in their design, so there is little room for the imagination to take over. A firefighter costume comes with all the necessary pieces--a helmet, uniform, badge, hose, and so on. It would be better for the child's imagination to engage him or her in developing the costume, using items found around the house--or making items--to represent the firefighter's props. For example, you could cover the upside-down bowl with red duct tape and convert a cardboard paper towel roll into a hose. The process of creating the costume is just as important as wearing it.


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