Children have glorious imaginations that can be absolute poetry in action. They can put on a simple hat and transform into a butterfly, a teacher, a construction worker, a member of royalty, or a ballet dancer – sometimes a mixture of several at once! As hard as it is for adults to transport themselves into the lives of another person or thing, children do it almost effortlessly with just a few supplies.
Playing dress-up—even in its simplest form—touches many areas in a child’s life and can help with a full spectrum of growth and development.
Gross Motor and Fine Motor Skills
Probably the most obvious physical benefit of playing dress-up is that it gives your child lots of opportunities to develop fine and gross motor skills necessary for everyday life. Children strengthen their fine motor skills by zippering, buttoning, velcroing, tying laces, and undoing clasps. In the gross motor department, you’ve got pulling on a shirt or pants, donning a jacket or vest, and putting on shoes or a hat. When dress-up clothes are easily accessible, younger kids get significant practice with these skills as they try to decide which character they want to be (and even then, chances are good that they will switch again in a few minutes).
Having a literacy-rich home has countless benefits, and playing dress-up can help improve your child’s literacy even more. When you read books, you give your children ideas to jump off during their pretend play sessions. By having dress-up materials readily available, you give your children a chance to reenact their favorite stories in a way that cements characters, plot, language, and sequencing – all vital literacy skills necessary for success in comprehension, reading, and fluency later on.
Starting around age 2, children begin developing an imagination that includes both real and make-believe aspects. Playing dress-up lets them explore all the possibilities that come with combining the fanciful and physical in a safe way. For example, the doctor’s office can be a scary place, but by becoming the doctor and helping patients that are their stuffed animals, children can explore how doctors are helpers (even if they give shots sometimes). Similarly, construction workers, firefighters, and other community helpers can be loud (and perhaps scary) in real life, but they can be less so during imaginary play.
There is a lot of communication involved with playing dress-up – both verbal and non-verbal – so your child gets the opportunity to experiment with a lot of language. How they stand, gesture, and talk impacts how the story progresses, especially if other children are involved. Additionally, dress-up time is an excellent opportunity for children to incorporate new words and phrases that they hear around the house, on TV, or in a bedtime story.
Emotional and Social Skills
During pretend play with dress-up clothes, children get to work on their emotional and social skills as well. It works a little bit better when there are multiple children involved, but even a single child can tell a story, rewind, and then tell it again with a different outcome.
When children act out a situation, they have to put themselves in another person’s shoes and suspend belief for a little while. This can help develop feelings of empathy, but it also facilitates cooperation, collaboration, and patience – all vital social skills.
How to Acquire Dress-Up Supplies
Dress-up materials can be as simple or elaborate as you want them to be. Sometimes a mixture of well-made dress-up clothes and everyday household materials work together to make the best pretend play. An adorable lion mane or bunny costume from the Meri Meri dress-up line makes an excellent addition to any dress-up box. You can also find new costumes around Halloween time and gently used dress-up clothes at consignment events or thrift stores.
You should also include some everyday items in your dress-up stash. Colanders, empty yogurt containers, spatulas, and a kid-sized apron can help a pretend chef whip up a nice meal during kitchen play. Similarly, scarves, hats, belts, costume jewelry, and old clothes from your family’s everyday closet can be great additions.
How to Encourage Dress-Up
One of the best ways to encourage your children to dress up is to go along with it. Whether that means you play with them or just go along with who they say they are, a little adult belief goes a long way to encourage play. Additionally, resist the urge to make them change clothes before going back out into public – it is okay to let the pretend stretch into other areas in their lives.
Another thing is to keep the clothing accessible and fluid. Have the dress-up clothes hanging on accessible hooks or in a clear bin that reminds them to use it often. You might have the favorites always available, but it’s also a good idea to rotate through other dress-up clothes on a weekly or monthly basis to keep ideas fresh.
Playing dress-up isn’t just frivolous fun—it has real implications for your child’s ongoing development. So go ahead and encourage that babysitter, veterinarian, alien, or astronaut in your life, and maybe jump on in and play along for a bit.