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What did you pretend to be when you were a child? A doctor? An astronaut? A parent? Perhaps you pretended to be a paleontologist, wearing a camouflage vest and digging up “dinosaur bones”?

Playing dress-up as a child is something of a rite of passage. This childhood pastime is very common. But did you know there are social and emotional benefits to dressing up? It’s true. Dress-up play can help children grow and learn.

“Dress-up is an ideal way for young children to work on so many early childhood development skills: literacies, life skills, and creative play,” according to Dr. Karen Aronian, a longtime schoolteacher, college professor, and the founder of Aronian Education Design. But that’s not all.

As previously mentioned, there are numerous benefits to playing dress-up. Play in general is essential for children. It’s how they learn and interact with the world. It helps them to manage stress and to build positive relationships.

Dressing up is a form of imaginative play — and imaginative play boosts problem-solving and self-regulation skills. Kids create situations and scenes and act out social events. They’re able to test out new ideas and behaviors in a comfortable environment.

Dress-up encourages creative thinking and communication skills. It also helps kids practice language development and their social skills. Playing with another child or adult requires teamwork, cooperation, and sharing.

The act of putting on and taking off costumes or outfits also has physical benefits. The buttons, zippers, and snaps on clothing encourage the development of fine motor skills.

“Children are stretching their imaginations through different identities and occupations in dress up and practicing their gross and fine motor skills,” Aronian says.

Further, she points out the variety of physical, emotional, cognitive, and sensory exercises involved in play. From buttoning a jacket to negotiating roles and engaging in teamwork, learning opportunities abound. And they can be further developed with a little extra effort.

As Aronian suggests, “There are many opportunities to expand literacies by talking about the dress-up scenarios that children fashion.”

Asking questions about the characters or scenes they’ve created and encouraging them to talk through their play helps them to build conversational skills. She also encourages writing down and posting their new vocabulary in their play space.

While fancy, pre-made costumes representing specific characters are great, they are not necessary for dress-up play. In fact, some of the best costumes are created using household objects — and your child’s imagination.

Scarves, for example, make great capes or mummy costumes or long hair. Old jackets can be a doctor’s coat or fireman’s gear, and a plastic bowl or colander makes a great helmet.

“You should keep things simple, open ended, and accessible,” says Dr. Laura Froyen, whose doctorate degree is in human development and family studies. “Having fewer options will allow for deeper play and using open-ended objects, like play scarves and silks, will allow your child to use them in endless ways, which leads to greater creativity.”.

Ready to stock up on supplies for playing dress-up? Here are a few items you may want to have on hand:

Supplies for playing dress-up

  • blankets
  • towels
  • scarves
  • hats
  • mittens
  • gloves
  • old clothing items (like dress shirts, skirts, or jackets)
  • old costumes
  • costume jewelry
  • purses, briefcases, or bags
  • glasses, with or without the lenses removed
  • aprons
  • scrubs
  • tutus or dance costumes

Note: Always consider your child’s age and development when providing items. Avoid choking hazards or sharp objects for young children.

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Items that can be used to supplement play are also helpful, allowing kids to build out their imaginary worlds.

  • Cardboard boxes can be used as boats, cars, buildings, or even a house.
  • Stuffed animals can be used as patients at your little one’s vet clinic or students at their school.
  • Empty food boxes or canned goods and a calculator can be used to play store.
  • Old baby gear can be used to play family or day care.
  • Scrap paper and pencils are helpful for writing notes, making play money, or taking restaurant orders.

In addition to having clothing and play items on hand, there are a few other ways you can support dress-up play.

Keep supplies readily accessible

Children tend to play with what they have in front of them. As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.

So make a costume trunk, basket, or bin and leave it in your child’s room or playroom. “Displaying your child’s dress-up gear in a closet, on a mini clothing rack, or in a clear, transparent bin is best,” Aronian says. “That way your kids can easily find what they desire to festoon themselves.”

Rotate items frequently

Rotating items keeps things fresh, which is particularly important for children. If they get bored, for example, said clothing basket or bin will be overlooked.

Change items out frequently, perhaps each season. Add previously used Halloween attire and dance costumes and “donate” unworn garments from your closet to your child’s dress-up bin.

Play with your children, when possible

There are numerous benefits to playing with your children. Parents are able to offer insight and guidance, but can also learn from stepping back and allowing their little one to direct the play. The act serves as a bonding experience and builds your child’s self-confidence.

Children feel a special connection to their parents when they play in this way.

You may recognize your own mannerisms or habits in their pretend game (when they dress as a parent and sip their pretend coffee while they tell their doll, “Please give mommy a minute to think!”). You may also discover new interests or skills that they’re working on through play.

Remember dressing up doesn’t need to break the bank

Costumes can be expensive, but dressing up doesn’t have to be.

Use items found in your closet, kitchen, dresser, and armoire. Make play environments using boxes, bowls, blocks, and other objects already in your home.

And if you chose to purchase costumes, do so at thrift stores or discount stores or nab leftover outfits, goods, and accessories the day after Halloween or through resale or hand-me-downs.

Try to let go of worries about allowing your children to wear their costumes in public. Let them pick what they wear and, if appropriate, wear it wherever you’re headed, whether it’s a walk around the neighborhood or the library.

“Encourage your kids to wear their creations wherever they go,” Aronian says. “They will generally get positive feedback and this will give them an opportunity to practice their social skills in the community: at the grocery store, post office, and restaurants.”

From hats and scarves to tutus and tights, there are many ways your child can engage in dress-up play. In fact, the possibilities are endless.

What’s more, from social and emotional development to the fine tuning of gross motor skills, there are numerous benefits to role playing and dressing up.

So let your little one don costumes frequently and play dress-up often. It will teach them to express themselves and have fun.