Play is not a departure from learning – learning is at the heart of play. When your little one engages in dress-up play, he represents himself as someone else. He might be a policeman, a baker, a father or a dog. He puts on clothing, shoes and a hat and uses props to act out a role or tell a story. Create a dress-up box for your child that includes everything from a doctor’s jacket to a police officer’s badge, and his imagination will kick into high gear.
“Even though play is often underestimated, children develop ideas about the world around them when they engage in dramatic dress-up play,” says Christina Mullen, a teacher and counseling intern at Lincoln-Edison Elementary School in North Las Vegas, Nevada. When a child puts on a tool belt, he’s trying to figure out what “going to work” is like. Children grow and develop in a variety of ways through dress-up play.
Your little one develops physical strength as he connects with his character. Gross motor skills come into play when a child uses large muscles to push a vehicle, cast a line like a fisherman, run like a football player or leap like a dancer. These movements are typically not ones he uses in everyday life.
Dramatic play also enhances fine motor coordination, which takes lots of practice for toddlers and preschoolers. Your child uses small muscles of the hands and fingers when she makes a cape from a piece of material, dresses a doll, buttons her jacket or ties her baker’s apron . She’ll add to the role each time, engaging even more muscle groups as she reaches, grasps, balances and zips.
Your little guy learns about himself and also learns from others in socio-dramatic play. He’ll move toward cooperative-stage play as he interacts and communicates about what he’s doing. Dress-up play encourages teamwork and an interest in peers. Kids learn to negotiate. “All of us can be firefighters, if we have enough hats.” They take turns, cooperate, agree on topics and play by the rules.
“One important part of dress-up play is that kids learn about skills for different careers and jobs. As adults, we sometimes mistakenly assume children know these things. I’ve especially noticed the benefits of dramatic play with second-language learners and underprivileged children whose parents don’t always realize their kids need these experiences,” notes Mullen.
When a child puts herself in another person’s shoes, her sensitivity toward that person increases. As your little one dresses like a mom, rocks her baby and gives her doll a bottle, she learns how a mother nurtures an infant. When a child picks up a hose and “puts out a fire” to save people, she recognizes the hard work of community helpers and begins to understand how they think and feel.
If one playmate acts as an upset child who wonders why his dad is late, the “teacher” comforts him and tells him not to worry, because his dad will arrive soon. If the “patient” is afraid of the “dentist,” helping to calm his fears can reduce a child’s own fears of going to the dentist.
Children expand their vocabulary base in dress-up play, says Mullen. Words they might have heard in stories come to life as they use them to enhance and extend their re-enactments. Eventually, they create their own scenarios rather than using ones they’ve seen on television or in books. They begin to use these new-found words in conversations.
Kids use specific words to ask and answer questions to fit the roles they’re playing. They have to listen carefully to their playmates so they can respond and be understood.
The stimulating environment of dress-up play pushes a child toward higher levels of thinking. He’ll use his brain but won’t realize how much he’s learning. “To engage in dramatic play, kids first depend on recalling what they’ve seen. They remember how Mom looks when she washes dishes or sets the table. Then they move toward abstract thinking as they create these situations on their own,” notes Mullen.
Literacy skills are enhanced as children incorporate colors, numbers, sizes and shapes into their dress-up play and make up their own stories about what's happening. They solve problems when they decide such things as how to put together a doctor’s kit.
Who’s going to be the nurse? Who’s going to be the patient? Children learn to make decisions when they engage in dress-up play. They determine the tools a gardener needs or the utensils a baker needs. They decide which costumes and props fit each character.
Kids guide one another’s decision making. They learn to have power over choices. Should Dad take a briefcase to work or wear a tool belt? Would the dancer wear tap shoes or ballet shoes?