Discovering the World by Playing Dress-Up

Costumes sparks children's imagination, self-exploration, and social skills

Discovering the World by Playing Dress-Up
Playing dress-up taps into kids' inquisitive nature. (Severin Schweiger/Getty)

Children are naturally curious; they learn by observing people and the world, imitating what they see, and experimenting by instinctively mixing in their thoughts, ideas, and feelings to create new scenarios.

The wonderful world of playing dress-up taps into your child's boundlessly inquisitive nature and sets the stage for discovery. Let’s look at some of the benefits of dress-up play, how to encourage your kids to give it a try, and how to create an irresistible dress-up play center.

The Benefits of Dress-Up Play

Dress-up play opens up whole new worlds of adventure. This type of pretend play sparks creativity and stretches the imagination. Your kids can soar like Superman and swoop in to save people in distress, roam the jungle and roar like a lion, or impersonate their favorite singer and put on a solo concert. The possibilities are endless.

Playing dress-up also encourages self-exploration. Children are free to explore myriad identities, personalities, and behaviors, and to discover new things about themselves such as their likes and dislikes. It’s a healthy, safe, and creative way to experiment and try new things. It’s common to see kids acting out their dreams and passions—trying them on for size, so to speak.

Children’s brains are highly stimulated during dress-up play; it requires thinking and remembering what they’ve seen and heard, and using this information to work out the details of the different personas and scenes in their minds as they play.

Dress-up play can also really strengthen communication skills and expand your kids’ vocabulary. You’ll often hear a running commentary as your kids dress and change outfits. They may make up new dialogue and carry on lively conversations; either playing by themselves or with others, these scenarios are ideal opportunities for kids to practice basic social skills.

For many kids, dress-up play offers an opportunity to immerse themselves wholeheartedly in the moment. Just think about the powerful concentration going on.

Encourage Dress-Up Play

When you’re getting dressed up to go out to a party, to work, or to play in a tennis match, or simply donning an apron to bake cookies, be dramatic and exaggerate the motions. Talk about how much fun it is to play these different roles. To encourage them further, create a dress-up center to arouse your kids' curiosity.

Creating the ultimate dress-up play center doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant. In fact, thrift and vintage stores should be your first stop. They get new items in daily, so if you visit regularly, it’s quite possible that you’ll discover some one-of-a-kind treasures. Some of my kids’ all-time favorite finds were a mink stole, a poofy pink tutu, an old suitcase, and a gentleman’s hat from the 1920s. Your next stop should be neighborhood yard sales where you can also find great bargains for incredible stuff.

Don’t forget about the hidden gems in your closet and your spouse’s. Items you haven’t worn for a long time or no longer care for make perfect additions to your children's dress-up collection.

Right about now, you may be wondering where you’re going to set up all this stuff. Well, we housed our dress-up collection in my old college trunk in the spare bedroom, which doubled as the playroom. I loved the authentic feel and look of the trunk; it was kind of like rummaging around in Grandma’s attic. You don’t need a lot of space, but if your kids have a playroom, that’s a perfect fit. Otherwise, a corner in the sunroom or family room will do nicely. Attach a few nice hooks on the wall, store some baskets on a low bookshelf, or designate a freestanding coat rack, and you’re good to go.

Must-Have Items

The most important must-have is a full-length mirror, whether it’s a standing mirror or one hung on the door or wall. Kids can try on all manner of combinations and assortments, admire their handiwork in the mirror, and better visualize their characters' wardrobes.

Halloween costumes and sport uniforms that still fit are a great addition. Large rolls of fabric can be fashioned into capes, apparel from other cultures, tents, royalty trains, and anything your child’s imagination can dream up.

Don’t forget about props. Do your kids have a play kitchen set? If not, give them some rubber cooking utensils such as a spatula, a pancake flipper, a spoon, and some plastic bowls. Our daughter loved to play “business,” so I equipped her with a calculator, pencils, and paper, and she happily attended to business for hours at a time. Playing teacher and doctor are popular with many young kids, so you could attach a chalkboard or whiteboard to the wall and put some one-dollar workbooks and picture books in a basket or bin. Look for a doctor kit at a yard sale, or pick up an inexpensive one at a dollar store.

Add a little style with accessories such as shoes, scarves, gloves, handbags, ties, hats, jewelry, aprons, belts, and vests for the perfect finishing touch.

Karen Doll is a freelance writer and homeschooling consultant based in the small village of Wassergass, Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about homeschooling, gardening, food and culture, family life, and the joys of chicken keeping. Visit her at
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