I remember as a kid having a giant chest full of dress up clothes. It was filled with my mom’s old clothes and other odds and ends she had picked up at garage sales. We even had a real wedding dress; a horribly unattractive wedding dress, but to us it turned us into a princess. Despite it being the age of hundreds of costumes to choose from for Halloween, sometimes I wonder if the art of the dress up box has been lost. Costumes seem to be relegated to Halloween and then tucked nicely away until the next child can fit into it or sold. The Christmas my son was just shy of 3 years old, I was trying to come up with a wish list for family members. We did not need any more toys but I also knew asking for grocery store gift cards wasn’t going to excite anyone but me. So I began to think about what my son seemed to enjoy doing the most. Overwhelmingly, he enjoyed pretend play. His Halloween costume from that year, a Melissa & Doug Firefighter coat, was getting more playtime than most of his other toys. So I filled the list with costumes of characters and jobs he was interested in. And thus set off our love for dress up play.
Dress up play is open-ended which encourages both independence and creative thinking. When a child puts on a costume, they enter into a world of imagination. There is no right or wrong way to wear a costume nor is there a script; just an invitation to play and create. If a child is not used to open-ended play and primarily participates in more rule based activities, costumes may be the needed spark to get their imagination rolling. Watching my boys create new worlds while wearing costumes is one of my favorite things. Because there is no limit to the number of stories that can be told, they rarely get bored with costumes making them some of our most lasting options for playtime.
Costumes and role play also encourage social skills. When children enter into a world of imagination together they quickly learn that they have to work together to keep the story going. If all of the kids playing want to “write” the story, the game devolves into arguments. When this happens, rather than immediately trying to intervene, I wait. Often, kids start to learn about compromise, listening to someone else’s idea, and work out the disagreement together. For my boys, their games usually involve some kind of problem that needs to be solved and coming up with the solution allows them to practice teamwork. When in costume, kids also feel more comfortable testing out new ways of behaving and acting. They are the superhero rescuing the city, the helping doctor, the fireman who saves the person in danger. Yes, sometimes they are also the “bad guy” or the dangerous lion, but getting the opportunity to play out the scenario of being scary or pretending to do mean things lets them see how others may react to these actions and learn about cause and effect without displaying these behaviors outside of the story.
Costumes also encourage kids to explore new interests and activities. When I first started asking my oldest to help me cook, he expressed little interest. But then I pulled out the chef costume and the next thing you know, he was putting on cooking shows for me with his brother. And he was more willing to try different foods as we prepped together! Different costumes spark an interest in different occupations, literature, and moments in history and can all be used as a catalyst to explore these in other ways through things like books, museums, or other activities. Want to go outside and explore? “No.” Want to dress up like an archeologist and go outside to look for dinosaur bones? “Yes!” Do you want to build blocks? “No.” Do you want to dress up like a construction worker and build a house? “Yes!” Same activities, but adding in the costume takes it to a new level of fun and interest. Allowing them to wear costumes outside of the house makes mundane tasks like grocery shopping seem like a superhero mission they have been sent to complete.
More than each of these other aspects, my favorite thing about costumes is the confidence my kids seem to have while wearing them. Do you remember that scene from Big Daddy where Adam Sandler’s character gives the little boy a pair of sunglasses that make him invisible? The boy goes from being afraid to meet the girlfriend to feeling confident enough to start talking to her. This is definitely my experience with costumes. My five year old with cerebral palsy often holds back at the playground with climbing activities because he is afraid of his hand not being able to hold on. However, when he wears a superhero cape or a knight costume his self confidence blooms. Even though he may still fall, he climbs with more confidence and gets back up with less fear. If my boys want to wear their capes or other costumes out of the house I do not hesitate to say yes (unless we are going somewhere like church). They carry themselves with such pride when dressed up as their favorite occupation or character. And when else but when you are a child is it acceptable to wear a mask outside of the house? On that note, don’t hesitate to join in on the costume wearing fun every once in a while, you may notice a hike in your own confidence and willingness to be silly as well.
Playing dress up can be as simple as a mask or as elaborate as a full astronaut outfit. Next time you’re creating a gift list or thinking about getting rid of last year’s Halloween costume, consider costumes as a way to encourage pretend play and skill development.
Rebecca, originally from Texas, migrated to Michigan with her husband and two boys aged 2 and 5 years old. Rebecca is currently a stay-at-home mom but has a background is psychology with a special interest in early childhood development and parenting. She keeps up to date in the latests techniques in both areas whenever she can!