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Why Your Kid Needs a Dress-Up Chest (and What to Put in It)

Little boy dressed up as a doctor or vet taking care of his teddy bear patient.

by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist

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“Mum, come quick. My polar bear hurt its knee, and I’m going to fix it!” My daughter has a wonderfully vivid imagination. As I watched her playing doctors with her stuffed toys, it got me thinking about the purpose of playing dress-up in childhood. Most children will instinctively role-play or use their imaginations to project themselves as a wide range of characters during their early years. Although we as adults see it as a bit of fun and make-believe, it also serves a few other purposes for our kids. When our children dress up, it engages many different facets of their development: emotional, cognitive, sensory, motor skills (gross… Read More

“Mum, come quick. My polar bear hurt its knee, and I’m going to fix it!” My daughter has a wonderfully vivid imagination. As I watched her playing doctors with her stuffed toys, it got me thinking about the purpose of playing dress-up in childhood.

Most children will instinctively role-play or use their imaginations to project themselves as a wide range of characters during their early years. Although we as adults see it as a bit of fun and make-believe, it also serves a few other purposes for our kids. When our children dress up, it engages many different facets of their development: emotional, cognitive, sensory, motor skills (gross and fine), and language/communication skills. So, if we can set up the right opportunities and resources in our children’s dress-up chest, we can also offer them ample opportunities to grow and learn.

Why Your Child Needs a Dress-Up Chest

So how does dressing up have such a significant impact?

They are processing their day.

When our children play, they use their own lived experience as a reference point. It sounds kind of fancy, but simply put, they play what they know. So, they are likely to give you big clues about their day or how they see their world when they play. Kids also use play as a way of thinking about and processing their day. They go over the challenging bits, work through conflict, and practice skills or new ideas also.

They are exploring their personalities.

Because open-ended play, or free play (not a structured game or activity), has no particular goal, our children are free to explore their inner workings without judgment. So, when they play dress ups, they can access different parts of their personality to create characters. It helps them get a feel for what makes them comfortable in terms of attitudes, behaviors, etc. by taking on different personas.

It helps their language development.

When our children take on characters in play, they also modulate their words and communication styles to “fit” better with their idea of who the character is. Without it being a formal lesson, their character development leads them to experiment with new phrasing or speech patterns. This practice can help them with overall increased skills in using language.

They’re practicing motor skills.

While dressing up is fun, our kids don’t realize they are also exercising (using gross motor skills) while they play. They are also strengthening their fine motor skills when they grapple with zips, buttons, Velcro, and ties on their dress-up clothes.

It helps them learn empathy.

Our kids learn empathy by practicing being someone else. They immerse themselves in another person’s experience. This ability to consider what it might be like in “someone else’s shoes” is the building block of empathy.

How can I set up my child’s dress-up chest to maximize the benefits during play?

Setting up a dress-up chest doesn’t have to be expensive. Get creative and use alternative materials or imagination to create props. For example, cut and glue cardboard to create a crown. Or use old clothes from your closet. You can also ask family or friends to donate old jewelry (of the costume variety, of course!). Finally, visit a local second-hand store for materials or outfits.

Include costumes and props that help them complete their character.

What I mean by this, include a simple white coat and a stethoscope (you can find some great craft instructions online to make a set at home). Then add some Band-Aids or gauze pads to replicate the character of a doctor.

Make the dress-up box/chest visible and easy to access or your child. If they can see it, they are more likely to spontaneously choose to play.

To support empathy, ensure that you include costumes associated with “helping” professions, such as:

If you choose to have some of these character costumes, it encourages your child to get into the mindset of someone who helps others for a living. It allows them to practice nurturing and providing care for others.

Some dress-ups may be gendered (either by colors or societal expectations). This can stop our kids from exploring different roles because of expectations about what “boys versus girls do.” We want to avoid this because our kids don’t get to try out different skills or stretch their empathy and emotional intelligence. So, try and provide an extensive range of costumes for your child to select from. Use real clothes, different professions (empathic ones as listed above, construction workers, hairdressers, shops/shop assistants, scientists, etc.), and imaginative/make-believe characters (superheroes, unicorns, witches, etc.).

However you do it, your kid will love the opportunity to use their imagination in wildly creative ways. And you will be helping him or her to develop a wide range of important life skills.

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Resources
Blanco , P. J., Holliman, R. P., Muro, J. H., Tolan, S., & Farnam, J. L. (2017). Long Term Child-Centered Play Therapy Effects on Academic Achievement with Normal Functioning Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(7), 1915-1922.
Bratton, S. C., Ray, D., Rhine, T., & Jones, L. (2005). The Efficacy of Play Therapy With Children: A Meta-Analytic Review of Treatment Outcomes. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 376-390.
Stagnitti K. A Growing Brain – A growing imagination. In: Howard J, Prendiville E, editors. Creative PsychotherapyLondon: Routledge; (in press). p. 185-200.
Wilson , B. J., & Dee, R. (2018). Child‐Centered Play Therapy: Aggression, Empathy, and Self‐Regulation. Journal of Counselling and Development, 96(4), 399-409.