Let's pretend: How playing dress up can strengthen relationships and support language development
Children adore to play dress up - not only is it fun, it also strengthens relationships and supports language development
Children are naturally imitative and love role play and dressing up
Dressing up is one of the joys of childhood as it is simply great fun to dress up in any kind of costume and let the imagination flow - often the more ridiculous or extreme the superhero, or the more 'princessy', floaty and fun, the better. Today your child may be a cowboy, tomorrow a superhero and the following day a firefighter as children really love pretending to be someone else. They are naturally imitative and dressing up is a way to learn about the world around them, often pretending to be a parent or someone else close to them who is influential in their lives, copying their actions, feelings and words. While many younger children love trying on shoes, hats or dresses, they quickly move to more elaborate role play from about three-years-old onwards as they recall the details of a fairy tale or story they have heard before acting it out, linking costumes to various role types. Dressing up or role play is an important element of children's play that every child loves; they seek it out naturally as it allows them to experiment with new ideas and behaviours and they can explore the elements of a new identity. It has many developmental benefits and is an easy activity to organise at home with your child.
Role play fosters the imagination
Children have vast, open imaginations that are not constrained by the world around them. When they engage in dressing up and role play, they can be whoever they want to be and their minds can go anywhere. Their play may initially stem from real life but will then flow to wherever their imagination wants it to go. This imagination is given free rein and there is no limit to who, where or what they can be.
It is also normal and healthy for them to explore different gender roles and the behaviours of those characters and it is often part of this type of play, so it's important not to over react when they pretend to be a different gender.
Role play supports communication and language development
It is one of the most effective ways of acquiring language as children can repeat what they have heard around them, what they have heard in a story or simply make up their own sentences. Words they have heard in stories come to life as they use them to support their play. As well as extending their vocabulary, they learn to communicate with their peers as they play and act out a scenario.
Being social and strengthening relationships
Dressing up is a wonderful way for children to play together. Children learn to co-operate, listen to each other and to take turns as they interact. They negotiate as they cannot all take on the same identity or wear the same costume at the same time, so they become more aware of turn-taking and sharing while they play. Role play encourages team work although it may take some time for younger children to realise this!
Dressing up at home
You don't have to buy expensive costumes for your child. Keep it real and use adult clothes where possible and cut the sleeves off shirts. Use old sheets cut into panels so that they can wrap them around themselves and add small waistcoats, skirts, capes and old shoes. Custom-made outfits have their place but can cramp and limit your child's imagination as they force your child in to a particular role. Take a trip to the charity shop where you can often find more exotic items from different parts of the world - the brighter and more colourful the better.
Children love when their parents join in. Ask what they want you to be and if you have an older child, they may want to join in too, so it's fun for all the family. Allow your child to direct the play as this is a positive sign that your child is making a plan and thinking about how they want to play. It builds their self-confidence as they lead their play and it is important that you go with the flow and allow yourself to be directed. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, believed that imaginative play in early childhood is the key to creative thinking during adult years, so role play is a great way to learn at any age.
Dearbhala Cox-Giffin is the Director of Childcare at Giraffe Childcare, giraffe.ie