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What Your Child Learns Through Dress-Up Play

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Dress-up play is one of the most exciting parts of being a small child. Their big imaginations are on display, trying out new roles and ideas. We hear often that the work of children is play, and it’s so true. When your child is dressing up for make-believe, there is more learning and brain development going on than meets the eye!

As Halloween approaches and costumes make their way through the sewing machine (or through your mail slot, who are we to judge?), we’re thinking a lot about dress-up play, and how in the preschool setting it’s an everyday thing that’s not necessarily relegated to October.

“Dress-up play allows children to dream and use their imagination,” explains Rachel Duda, VP of Learning. “They can pretend to be someone or something they see everyday, like a firefighter, a dog or a mom – or something they find extraordinary, like a storybook character, a princess or a unicorn. Dress-up play reflects children’s current interests and areas they want to try out.”

This kind of pretend play is essential for little brains. Pretending to be a mama or a baby or a store clerk helps your child understand the roles of those figures in their life.

Think about that for a second: that in itself is a huge deal for a little person. Your child is figuring out how the world works, through dress-up play.

And it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all they’re learning through the magic of make-believe. Here are eight ways your child is learning through dress-up.

  • Imagination / trying on adult roles

    Whether it’s a firefighter’s jacket, a chef’s hat or a baby carrier, pretending with dress-up clothes gives your child the opportunity to try another role– and nothing is more intriguing than the roles of the grownups in their lives.

    Dress-up materials act as a visual cue that your child is taking on this new pretend role, and gives them a sense of ownership over their character.
  • Express feelings and ideas using verbal and nonverbal communication

    In your child’s make-believe game, they’re able to explore different parts of themselves. Maybe one day they want to be a bad guy, but the next a superhero. Their dress-up play can be self-reflective based on how they’re feeling. Their dress-up play can also bolster confidence. Reserved children may discover courage in putting on a pair of butterfly wings and taking on a new role.

    Pretend play requires a lot of verbal communication for little minds to get on the same page about the story they’re building. Children have to be able to explain their ideas and vision for the play. You’ll see this first in nonverbal ways, like children passing a plastic bottle to the child pretending to be the mama. As verbal communication advances, you’ll hear children initiate and direct their own pretend play: “Tomas is the doctor, who needs a checkup?”
  • Solving problems through negotiation with friends

    Learning to cooperate is a very tough skill that many adults have yet to master, but in Make-Believe Land, little children must find a way to do exactly that if they want to advance the story and continue having fun. Maybe two friends want to be puppies, but two other friends really want to play family. Someone will have to be flexible.

    Learning to solve problems, especially socially with friends, is a skill that can actually be learned at this young tiny age.
  • Abstract thinking and improvisation.

    Through dress-up play with open-ended toys (think: silk scarves, yarn, paper bags), your child is learning to improvise. Learning to use one thing in a symbolic way to represent something else is a big leap for their brains. Today the silk scarf is a cape, but tomorrow it’ll be a sling for a babydoll.
  • Participating in role dynamics

    Learning to participate in make-believe leader / follower roles really helps in understanding how those roles work. Dressing up as a teacher and playing school requires the child being the teacher to take on that leadership role and the other children to listen and participate as students. Similarly, when playing restaurant, a child seated at a table can’t go into the kitchen where the cook is working. They’re learning what their role is in each situation.
  • Understanding socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior

    Children learn so much about how to interact with each other through dress-up and pretend play. Socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviors are heightened in make-believe roles where children are often more comfortable asserting their preferences. That often means they won’t stand for anything they deem unfair, like knocking over towers, ignoring role dynamics or any type of behavior outside of the pretend play at hand that will be disruptive to the game going on.
  • Sharing and taking turns

    Learning to share and take turns are crucial life skills your young children are honing during dress-up time. There’s always a favorite dress-up outfit, and figuring out how to be flexible while another child takes their turn isn’t easy – but it is essential for development.
  • Making choices and decisions

    If you’ve ever felt decision fatigue, you know what a skillset it is to have the ability to make choices and decisions. The building blocks of this skill can be found right here in pretend play. Each time your child steps up to the dress-up rack, they’re forced to decide what role to take on for this playtime session. Will they be a butterfly or a police officer? And what does that role entail? It’s up to your child. They are learning to make choices and decisions.

Want to get started? Here’s Vivvi tips for starting your own dress-up play box:

Choose a box or bin to fill with a variety of dress-up items. While many of these pieces will have a specific way it must be used (like a firefighter’s hat or a tool belt), you should be sure to include plenty of open-ended pieces that children can use their imagination to bring to life, as well. A scarf can become a cape, a baby sling or the roof to a fort. 

This is the time for them to exercise those abstract thinking muscles! Dress-up play is also a great time for practicing self help skills like putting clothes on and off, zippering, buttoning and snapping.

Try some of our favorite items! We suggest sunglasses, hats, scarves, costume jewelry, aprons, mismatched socks, bags, glasses, boxes, paper bags, rope or yarn and fabric.  

Experience the Vivvi™ difference for yourself.

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