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The Importance of Playing Dress Up for Your Child’s Development

Have you ever seen the magic transformation that occurs when a child puts on a “cowboy” hat or your scarf becomes a superhero cape?

Playing dress up is a fun, but also essential part of your child’s healthy development. Let’s take a look at why children do it, how they learn and how you can easily encourage this play at home or school.

What Does It Mean to Play Dress Up?

Dress up play – a type of fantasy play – happens when a child dresses up with the intention of acting out a role or life situation, through play.

Dress up clothing can include any clothing or props, whether large or child-sized, as long as the intention is to be someone or something else, for example, a grown up, a fireman, a lion, a mother, a baby or a teacher.

The only limit to what a child can pretend to be is their own imagination.

the amazing benefits of playing dress up pinterest image

Why Do Children Play Dress Up?

During dress up play, children are able to become what they cannot become yet (or ever – in the case of a lion) in real life. 

By putting on props or items of clothing that represent others, they are able to make some sense of their world by acting out the realities they see and experience around them.

Since children spontaneously engage in this type of play, often without prompting, it shows that they are naturally inclined to try and figure out people and roles, by turning into them for a while.

Dressing up while playing provides solutions to problems that children might be trying to make sense of internally. 

While they work through and process troubling situations – often by repeating the scenarios – it tends to dilute the seriousness of them and make them more manageable for children to deal with. [Hendrick: 1990: 177]

Children also express their positive emotions or curiosity about the future, even if they’re unrealistic, such as when pretending to be a grown up going to work, or looking after a baby.

What Children Learn From Dress Up

Children learn many things during dress up play, as they do with all types of play, especially with regard to their emotional and social development.

Emotional Skills

During dress-up play, children imitate what they see around them and replicate it. They try to make sense of real life situations as they expand their play in new directions and act out various scenarios.

This allows children to fully experience all emotions, even strong ones like fear or sorrow, by feeling them in a safe, non-threatening space.

Only emotions that are expressed and felt can be dealt with and accepted. This makes this type of play crucial for progressing through the stages of emotional development.

Children pretend to be grown-ups arguing, a doctor dealing with a high-pressure situation, or a distressed baby who needs comforting. They might even take on a new gender.

If children are dealing with their own specific problems – such as being disciplined, or the arrival of a new sibling – they can sort out their own feelings about these issues.

As they try out all these roles, their sense of self identity grows.

Here are more social-emotional activities to get your kids involved in.

little boy dressing up as a doctor

Social Skills

While children sometimes engage in dress up play independently, they often play together with other children, making it a great way for them to work on their people skills. 

This type of play develops high level social skills, such as:

  • Developing conversational skills such as listening and maintaining eye-contact.
  • Learning to take turns and share.
  • Learning to work cooperatively towards a common goal.
  • Negotiating with others as different roles are assigned and clothes and props are shared.
  • Respecting the decisions and following the rules that were agreed upon by the group.
  • Asserting their own views and persuading others to their opinions.
  • Being tolerant of others’ needs and seeing things from their point of view.

Cognitive Skills

Though dress up play has a huge positive impact on social and emotional skills, children are also building cognitive skills at the same time.

  • As they role-play with others they are developing their vocabulary and expressive language.
  • Learning to substitute items and use them as symbols for playing out a reality (such as using a scarf or sheet to make a cape) exercises the intellect.
  • As children play out different roles in their “disguises,” they practise thinking skills, decision making and problem solving, amongst other skills.
boy playing dress up with a cape and hat

Props and Clothes for Dress Up Play

While it’s ok to use store-bought costume clothes, it is not really necessary and often the greatest learning happens when children are using their creative minds to find ways to use props and clothes.

Here are just a few examples of clothes to offer:

  • Scarves
  • Hats
  • Gloves
  • Clothing items – jackets, pants, dresses (adults’ and kids)
  • Ties 
  • Shoes of all kinds
  • Leggings, socks, etc.
  • Big pieces of fabric
little girl trying on her mom's shoes

Here are some extra props to offer:

  • Handbags
  • Masks
  • Clipboards with paper
  • Jewelry
  • Telephones
  • Tools – a thermometre, a wand, a magic broom, etc.
  • Headbands with ears or horns (unicorn or rhino)
  • Theme specific props – a hosepipe for a fireman, an iron for someone pretending to do housework

Some of these can be found in thrift stores or party shops and many can be made. However, offering your own adult clothes can sometimes be the best fun and provide many opportunities to improvise.

little girl dressing up as a princess

How to Encourage Dress Up Play

Children will often stumble upon this play independently, but there are small things you can do to encourage it:

  • Provide a basket or area specifically for dress up clothes and props. Make them easily accessible at all times.
  • Change the items regularly to avoid boredom and keep it fun and challenging.
  • Take children on outings and let them experience different situations, such as going to the dentist for a check-up.
  • Cut some of the adult clothing to size so children can move in them without tripping or being too uncomfortable.
  • Provide clothing for both sexes.
  • Try including multi-ethnic clothing.
  • Help your child when necessary but don’t dominate or try to guide the play. Let children’s imaginations run wild.
  • Make the play area visually appealing, or try to arrange the items unusually, to stimulate curiosity and encourage play.

These are just a few tips for making dress-up play a routine part of your child’s play.

The importance of play cannot be overemphasised during the early years. It’s a special time of learning and exploring and children should be free to play, with an environment that supports learning.

Would you like a year of done-for-you, ten-minute activities to teach your 3-5-year-old through play? Get your copy of the Learning Through Play Activity Pack for only $27.

Activity Pack for preschoolers

Hendrick, H. 1990. Total Learning: Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child. Third Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York.

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