Dress-up Play

Hedda SharapanHowever you’re dealing (or not dealing) with Halloween in your work with children, this holiday reminds us how much dress-up play means to children. Of course part of the concern about Halloween is children’s fear that costumes or masks change us or can be scary, and in a past newsletter I wrote about how Fred addressed that. This year I want to focus on the benefits of “costumes,” especially because of what I saw last week in a child care center where the children were totally engaged in draping themselves in gowns and capes – becoming princesses, vampires and superheroes.

One of Fred’s favorite stories was about a boy who insisted on wearing his superhero cape when he went to the doctor for a checkup. I always thought that was a great message about how much pretending means to children – especially when they’re wearing a costume – or even something that represents a costume, like a crown, a cape or a purse.

That’s also why Fred worked so hard to help children know what’s real and what’s pretend. Children can easily get so “lost” in their pretending that they lose sight of reality. Of course that’s a problem if they’re doing things that aren’t safe, like pretending to be a superhero and jumping off a high place. But don’t forget that getting “lost” in their pretending also has great benefits because it can give them the opportunity to explore some of their feelings, develop empathy and build self-regulation.

Here are some reasons for us to applaud, appreciate and encourage dressup-up play:

An opportunity to explore some feelings

Children often feel powerless, so no wonder they like to put on symbols of power, like a superhero cape, a mommy’s purse or a daddy’s vest. Or maybe they feel pressured to be bigger or jealous of attention given to the new baby or younger sibling, so in their play, with a bib and a blanket, they might use babytalk or cry – and enjoy the feeling of being taken care of and comforted by “mommy” or “daddy.”

A vehicle for developing empathy

Through pretending, children are literally “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Dress-up play gives them a chance to see what it feels like to be somebody else...to feel somebody else’s feelings and needs…to think of situations from other people’s perspectives. What an interesting way for us to be nurturing empathy -- through dress-up play.

A way to support self-regulation

I’ve often heard Deborah Leong and Elena Bedrova in their “Tools of the Mind“ workshops talk about the connection between role play and self-regulation. I love their story about the preschooler pretending to be a customer in a restaurant. She was supposed to sit in her chair and wait for her food to be served. Instead, she kept going into the “kitchen,” which annoyed the “chef.” But the teacher gave her a purse and a hat, and that was all she needed to help her to stay in her role, sitting and waiting for her meal. Children do know the rules and expectations that go with the role they’re playing, and a prop or costume may be all they need to remind them to regulate their behavior to stay in that role.

When you give children the opportunity to put on different kinds of costumes (simple or elaborate), you’ll be giving them wonderful opportunities to develop some of these important social-emotional skills that come with dress-up play.

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