As a kid I loved to play dress-up. I had a whole costume bin and suitcase full of all kinds of sparkly dresses, scarves, satin gloves, and my mom's old communion dress. I remember having playdates with my friends and we'd all dress up and get lost in our own little world of mermaids, princesses, and genies. But why do kids love wearing costumes? Is it because of the clothes, or is there some deeper meaning? It's not hard to imagine that pretend play actually benefits kids, so I spoke with experts to see what is it about costumes specifically that gets kids so excited.
According to an article on the Moon Child blog written by early childhood educator and mom Sarah Baldwin, there are a lot of developmental benefits from playing dress-up. Some of those benefits include imagination, empathy, and emotional development. Former K-12 teacher, author, and counselor Yocheved Golani of e-counseling.com agrees, and tells Romper in an email, "vicarious thrills can be a fun and safe way to find out what it's like to be someone or something else. Imaginary playtime allows children of all ages, especially younger ones, to learn about life. It gives them the chance to learn about other ways of functioning and thinking than they would normally behave and think." So dressing up and engaging in imaginary play is not only one of the most beloved pastimes for kids, but it's actually really great for their emotional and social development. Better yet — the benefits are long lasting.
As it turns out, playtime can be one of the best things kids can do to learn some of life's greatest skills like empathy, negotiating, and perseverance. "Trying on other mindsets and character traits lets the pretender experience feelings that they might not experience otherwise," Golani says. "Inhibitions disappear when you're being someone else. That leads to new behaviors and insights which can be helpful for the rest of the pretender's life." Golani also mentions a phenomenon called The Batman Effect which, according to an article in Psychology Today, states that "telling your child to pretend to be Batman, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, or another hardworking character could increase her ability to persevere." In another article on the website Understood — a free resource for parents with children who have attention and behavioral challenges— the authors write about using the The Batman Effect for children with ADHD and dyslexia. Their research found that pretend play helps children with skills such as flexible thinking by teaching them to "adjust to the unexpected and thinking about things in multiple ways." Pretend play also helps children with their working memory so they can "hold information in mind and work with it," as well as impulse control by helping them ignore distractions and controlling urges.
To this day, I still remember playing dress-up with my cousins and friends. The negotiating skills (or lack thereof) and patience it took to play nicely and make sure everyone had a turn being the character they wanted to be took practice. I remember specifically always playing "wedding" with my cousin Kitty who was younger than me because it was easy to talk her into being the groom every time. There was never any fighting because she was always happy just to be included in my game. Golani points out that kids love playing dress-up because "there's no potential for losing at the game. If the child gets tired or dislikes the activity, they can stop it at any moment and do something else without negative consequences."
So how can parents help sharpen these amazing long-lasting life skills in kids? You can help nourish creativity and developing imaginations by "asking open-ended questions such as 'What if we...' 'How could you/we...' 'Who would be the best X, Y, or Z...' 'When is it possible to....' and 'Why would...' The classic example of that is to play with old-fashioned or trendy items and use them in new ways. A stethoscope can become a nose-like trunk for a medically-inclined pretend creature, a frilly dress can be the gateway to a bygone era, and a box of tools can become the property of the world's most important magician, scientist, or sales executive," says Golani. What better way to spend quality time with your kids than by helping them sharpen their creativity, imagination, and skills that will last a lifetime.