Do you remember playing dress-up as a child? Maybe you spent afternoons and weekends dressed up as a cowboy, a princess, a superhero, or a character from your favorite book. Now that you’re a parent, it’s easy to see how enjoyable this pastime is. Children put on their costumes, take on the role of different characters, have fun, and don’t give it much thought. But, if you dig beyond the surface of imaginative play, you realize that children are practicing subtle emotional and cognitive skills while playing this way. What looks like just “child’s play” takes on a much greater significance when we observe closely and see it through the eyes of a child.

Learning Through Dress-Up Play

When you think about how children learn the complex yet subtle details of human interaction, dress-up play probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, through playful interactions like these, children learn so much about what it means to be social. 

And it’s not just about costumes. Costumes are just props to help further childrens’ pretend play. When a child takes on a character, whether a firefighter or a princess, they are essentially suspending their innate reactions or language to take on those of the character, this requires quite a lot of self-control for a young child. To stay “in character” a child must temporarily “forget” their agenda and take on the agenda of their character. Children consider how the character would feel in a situation instead of how they would feel. Additionally, by taking on the role of another character, children learn to interact with other children as that character. In reality, these are complex social-emotional skills all rehearsed during dress-up pretend play.

It’s been shown that the idea that dress-up play really does benefit children’s development, particularly social-emotional development. Scholars typically study children’s dramatic play, which consists of pretending to be a character (which often involves dress-up) or interacting with others in a pretend scenario. These studies find that this type of play is associated with more positive social behaviors, increased empathy, and better executive functioning skills. Furthermore, when children engage in this type of play with friends, the

social-emotional benefits only increase. Through working together to play out a plot, children must learn how to cooperate, work through differences and take turns. 

Beyond social-emotional skills, is it possible that dress-up pretend play could help children learn other cognitive skills as well? Although research on this topic is lacking, there does seem to be some evidence that dress-up play or dramatic play has real cognitive benefits. One study showed that preschoolers who participated in sociodramatic play had gains in language and verbal skills—many experts, like Karen Aronian, Ed. D., agree that dramatic play (often with costumes) can expose children to new vocabulary and more verbal interaction with playmates.

Observe Closely: Activity-Based Learning Happening

Although much of children’s play can be fascinating to watch, perhaps dress-up pretend play is the most engaging for parents. By carefully observing our children playing in this way, we can gain valuable insights into many aspects of their development and psyche. 

Dress-up pretend play is often the forum where children literally “play out” many of their fears or excitement. Among young children, in particular, you might see them playing out themes of “good versus evil” or “hero versus villain.” Themes like this are common among preschool-aged children because they are just beginning to understand these distinctions. Similarly, suppose your child has recently experienced a traumatic event like an illness, natural disaster, or death of a loved one. In that case, you might see these themes illustrated in their dress-up pretend play as well. This process of “playing out” fears and worries is a very healthy way for children to process their emotions. Unlike adults, children do not have the language or life experience to talk through difficult topics with a parent. What they have is play. Through play, they can work through some of their fears and release some of those worries. 

Carefully observing children’s dress-up pretend play is also an excellent way to get “inside their head” a bit to uncover what cognitive or physical skills they may be trying to master. If your child is pretending to be the same character repeatedly or playing out the same plot over and over, it might be a sign they are trying to master a particular skill. For example, if they are 

repeatedly playing firefighter, they might be working on physical skills like climbing. If they repeatedly pretend to be characters that use print text like a reporter or waiter, they might learn about letters, numbers, or different uses of text. 

In general, dress-up pretend play (also called dramatic play) can help children “practice” adult skills. A child can practice pouring and writing while pretending to be a waiter/waitress. While pretending to be a postal worker, they might be practicing sorting and identifying differences. Through all these subtle interactions and themes, children learn skills and how the world around them works. As a whole, dress-up pretend play (like all play) is never “wasted” time.

What looks like simple “child’s play” on the surface is really the intuitive way children learn about social interaction and emotional regulation. Dress-up play illustrates the lovely way

in which children utilize the world around them to develop new skills. By encouraging dress-up pretend play, we are not only encouraging children’s imaginations but helping them build valuable lifelong skills.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
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