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Helping Our Community Raise Curious, Creative, and Confident Children
The Benefits to Dressing Up
We Should Dress Up All Year! 

Gina Moreland
Executive Director, Habitot
A wonderful form of play occurs when children dress up. They put on fire fighter costumes, space suits or doctor’s lab coats and it's so much more than a great photo opportunity. Dressing up in costumes powerfully enriches the play of young children and lights up their imaginations. 
Costumes help children "become" someone else. They can toy with what it means to be “good,” “bad,” “brave” or “inquisitive.” Dressing up gives children permission to explore their own personalities and find out about themselves. It also helps them learn about the points of view of others.
Sometimes children in costume are able to confront fears and work through stressful situations because they are reliving time as someone else. By pretending to be a doctor or a monster, a child gains a sense of power over the unknown. We’ve seen children impacted by medical trauma, who have played in our Medical Center exhibit, initially from a place of fear or anxiety and later from a place of mastery and control over their past experiences.
At the Children's Museum of Sonoma, parents watched their child begin to process the trauma he felt after the Tubbs fire burned the family's home. He acted out what it meant to be a firefighter using costumes and a firetruck on loan from Habitot Children's Museum.

Standing in the shoes of others - literally - helps young children develop empathy. When your child is in costume and is acting out roles of others’, she’s not only imitating the actions of the people around her, she’s actually coming to understand at a deeper level what it’s like to be that other person. This is the beginning of empathy. Nurturing baby dolls – for both boys and girls, for example – reinforces good parenting skills for when they are older. For both boys and girls, it is beneficial to allow a wide and unrestricted costuming to let young children imagine the widest a range of human experiences.

By all means, snap that cute photo. But also take the opportunity to watch your children in costume acting out the stories of their lives. Look closely and you can see how your child perceives the world. You can glean clues as to what has happened to them during the day and what they might be thinking about or being impacted by.

Here are some tips on providing rich dress up experiences for your child:
1. As much as possible, provide real materials, rather than store-bought toys. A broken or discarded cell phone is better than a toy telephone. Real, but safe, kitchen items are better than plastic play sets. Using items from around the house is also cheaper for you and better for the environment.
2. Kids get ideas from play about what they can do, and what they can aspire to. Offering a wide range of costumes and props will help open their minds about what their dreams are and who they might become. If you're looking for an extra special costume check in with your local children's museum. They understand the power of costumes!
4. Periodically add new props to expand play and encourage new challenges.
5. Try not to limit your child by limiting their costumes. Often boys will wear dresses or girls might put on a necktie. These are learning experiences that help children explore what it means to be a boy or girl, and that our gender does not change simply because of what we are wearing.
6. Don your own costume and join in the play! You can model more complex ways of using materials, ask kids questions to extend the play, and add additional materials to go deeper into the play.
Next time you see your child in a fireman’s hat running off to save the day, put down your camera and let her save you from the burning building. Not only will it help her imagination soar, it will be more fun for both of you!
1) 5-year-old Isaac donned a firefighting suit and something seemed to click. Chris Smith, The Press Democrat. July 9, 2018.

2) How Playing Dress-Up Shapes Your Child. Sue Douglass Fliess. 2012.

3) 7 Ways to Foster Creativity in Your Kids. Christine Carter. September 16, 2008.

4) The Importance of Dress Up Play. Amanda Rock. 2012.

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