We wanted to write a tongue-in-cheek blog post about the “dangers” of costume play for kids, but had a difficult time finding anything negative on the internet. No matter how torturously we tried to manipulate the search parameters, all we got were page after page of the benefits of playing dress-up! We thought for sure we could find at least ONE fringe-group website that said, “Whatever you do, DON’T encourage costume play!” But, alas, it was not to be, and for good reason: because playing dress-up for kids is AWESOME! Dress-up is an ideal way for young children to work on so many early childhood development skills, including how to be more confident.
Wearing a costume allows kids to become someone else, a different and perhaps better version of themselves. Someone who is usually very shy may feel more freedom when talking to people while in costume. Many kids feel empowered when wearing their superhero outfit. Through their imaginations, they become the character, becoming a different person than their usual selves. Whether they know it or not, they are honoring the values and actions of a particular hero or character when they dress like them.
Benefits of Playing Dress-Up
- Mental Skills: Dress-up stretches a child’s mind and memory. Dramatic play requires kids to remember what they’ve seen or heard.
- Vocabulary: Dressing up builds vocabulary as a child decides what his or her character might say. They expand their vocabularies with words and phrases that they might have heard in stories, but wouldn’t use in everyday life.
- Empathy: Engaging in role-play helps them see their world through another’s eyes which increases empathy. Standing in the shoes of another person helps them understand the role that others play in in their lives.
- Motor Skills: Whether buttoning a shirt, zipping up pants, or tying on a pirate’s eye-patch, kids develop fine motor skills. Role-playing as their character, they use their large motor skills when they are “flying” like a superhero, twirling like a ballerina, or chasing the “bad guys.”
- Problem Solving: Where will the jail be? What’s a good substitute for a fire-truck? Kids problem solve when choosing props and costume-components for their characters.
- Emotional Development: Kids process their fears through play. This helps them make sense of the world and overcome their fears, teaching them how to be more confident. Dress-up play also requires cooperation and taking turns. Children learn how to negotiate as they agree on stories and rules.
- Sense of Self: When choosing costumes and role-playing, kids are able to stretch “normal” boundaries and explore the different behaviors and gender identities of those characters. It is normal and healthy for children to try on different ethnicities, ages, and genders as they learn about the world. Looking at the world through the lens of their opposite gender helps them know themselves better. Please don’t worry if your child pretends to be a different gender!
- Socialization: If your child wants to wear their costume in public, don’t fret! People generally respond very positively with oohs and aahs. Not only is this positive attention nurturing and validating, it gives kids a chance to practice interacting with adults.
Playing is Working
Make-believe is a very potent tool for kids. It is a way to learn how to be more confident. In our “Mission I’m Possible” series, we ask kids to carry out secret missions designed to raise their self-awareness by doing kind deeds. And when children are given a secret identity, they are also given an opportunity to alter their outlook. By getting “out of their heads,” so to speak, they make conscious choices of kindness, see the result, and develop a positive relationship with compassion. Kids explore their relationship with the world around them through their play. Every time your child dons his/her cape, think to yourself, “Yup, back to work!”
Often, parents feel the need to draw a line and discourage their kids from going overboard with costume play. A bit of escapism, the thinking goes, is fun for them and helps with learning social interaction, but too much dress-up may risk delaying social development. We have heard of very few cases where we felt like it was too much of a good thing. We believe that this type of play is the basis of empathy; it’s literally walking in another person’s shoes.
At times, though, it may not be appropriate to wear a costume, to church for instance. You can use these moments as teaching opportunities, helping them understand boundaries and their place in the larger world. Most superheroes have an alter ego. Help them understand when they should choose to be their “secret identity” and when they can be full-costume crazy. Being able to understand boundaries is a huge step in learning how to be more confident. As we grow, being able to deduce boundaries helps us be confident in our behavior in a given moment and social situation.
Store Bought vs Home-Made
It’s often difficult to steer a kid away from store-bought costumes. Try as we might, all they want to wear is THAT princess outfit or THAT Spiderman costume. That’s OK. However, we do recommend gently steering them towards more spontaneous and less structured play. Create opportunities for roleplaying and dressing up at home. Especially when they are very young, arrange playdates with friends and/or cousins and have a play pile ready. Old oversized shoes, handbags, briefcases, shawls, patterned scarves, wigs, feather boas, badges, hats, anything! Pop by the local thrift store and pick up a few funny articles of clothing to add to your play pile. Pieces of material become capes, window netting becomes a wedding dress. Encourage dress-up play that uses their imaginations and to put aside, just for a while, their favorite store-bought costume.
As they mature, they will naturally grow out of their favorite store-bought costume. They may move on to something else, or they may cling to this particular outfit. No need for a struggle! Help them alter their costume so that it fits better. Together, recreate pieces that have fallen apart. Over time, their favorite costume will morph into one that is more uniquely “them” and will create a positive relationship with sewing and crafting.
Confidence Boosting Superpowers
We suggest you urge your superhero-loving children to do good deeds out in the world. Help them think of ways to use their superpowers to help a neighbor by picking up some litter, raking their leaves, or walking their dog. Spotlight the physical aspects of their heroes, putting an emphasis on running and leaping over “tall buildings in a single bound.” It’s nearly impossible for kids to get too much exercise; they burn enough calories in an hour to boost a Saturn Rocket into orbit. But exercise in the pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way? It gives them a purpose, is a major boost to their sense of self, and is an important step in learning how to be more confident.
Another confidence boosting superpower is the ability to dress themselves. Any time our kids voluntarily do a chore we normally must do for them, even one as small as dressing themselves, it gives them a confidence boost and a sense of autonomy. Sure, four year-olds seem to have the most outlandish sense of style or tend to wear everything they own! But trust us, when kids have a sense of autonomy, you will have a lot less negotiating over other issues. And as they mature, they will naturally want to tone down their explosive self-expression. So let them wear whatever crazy costume ensemble they want. Kids who, today, obviously look like they dressed themselves, are much more likely, tomorrow, to be confident, successful, and happy!
Create Space for Creativity
A little goes a long way when it comes to make-believe. If you have a playroom, consider creating space for their costumes and accessories. If not, be sure that their supplies are clearly visible, either hanging in a closet and/or in clear plastic bins. Otherwise, out-of-sight-out-of-mind! Donate your unused clothing items as you spruce up your own wardrobe. Some things to have on hand:
- blankets, towels, and sheets for capes, togas, and turbans
- scarves, ties, feather boas
- hats (we cannot say enough about hats!)
- old clothing items: dress shirts, skirts, suit jackets
- old costumes: yesteryear’s Halloween costumes are today’s starting materials
- costume jewelry
- purses, briefcases, or bags
- glasses, with the lenses removed
- aprons, surgical scrubs, or overalls
- tutus or dance costumes
- cardboard boxes for forts, houses, vehicles, jail, cash registers, etc.
- old stuffed animals to be students, medical patients, or “bad guys”
- empty food boxes, canned goods, and an old adding-machine or calculator for playing store
- old baby gear
- scrap paper and pencils for making play money, writing prescriptions, taking restaurant orders, or writing speeding tickets
Don’t Be Shy!
Don’t be afraid to play dress-up with your little ones. Let them make up the rules and be in charge. This bonding experience builds your child’s self-esteem and teaches them how to be more confident. You may also learn something about what issues your child is working through, especially when you hear your own words coming out of their mouths!
HAPPȠis a state-of-the-art program that creates a healthy and positive outlook on life and teaches children to manage their emotions. The HAPPÉ program aims to teach children to take control of life’s unscripted side and their emotions independently, as well as live positively. Fun micro-lessons and challenges are sent to your phone or email weekly.
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