Dress-up play: huge benefits from a little fun

Mother and twon children play dress up in the backyard

Dress up play has loads of developmental benefits for children. Transforming into a different role allows kids to learn, grow, and explore at home. Playing pretend comes naturally to children and is vital to development. The dress-up aspect adds a bit of challenge and fun to the equation! Under the surface of their imaginary world, there is a ton of executive function going on. The benefits of dress-up play are amplified even more when you join in the fun making this a perfect at home (or anywhere) adventure with children!

Child dresses up like a fairy
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Dress up play: Benefits for kids


Dress-up play is a fantastic way to tap into your Childs creativity. From putting together their outfits and tools to acting out a scene, it is a great way to be creative.

Vocabulary and Communication

Children get the chance to experiment with both their vocabulary and communication style with dress-up pretend play. The pirate captain may use different words and even nonverbal communication methods than an astronaut.

Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are developed firstly by physically getting dressed up, doing buttons, velcro, putting on gloves, etc. Then again as they utilize tools to play out the story they create. For example, the doctor or nurse may use a stethoscope or apply a bandage.

Child wears a superhero mask in his dress up play.

Gross motor skills are also built. In their new creative world, they use muscles they typically wouldn’t. For example, the little ballerina balancing on the tips of toes and doing leaps or the Paw Patrol pup making a rescue requiring heavy lifting.

Problem-solving and Engineering 

The evil Queen has kidnapped the family cat and is holding her captive in the castle! The castle is surrounded by lava and guarded by a fire breathing dragon how on earth will your children make the rescue? What tools can they find laying around to transform into bridges or lava freezing tools? Not to mention, how do they even get into that tricky dragon costume. They will have to flex a lot of problem-solving muscles here!


Little kids have big emotions sometimes that scares them. Dress up play allows children to confront scary or undesirable feelings in a safe, non-judgmental way. They can learn better to identify them and practice ways of responding.

self-regulation and Reasoning

Studies have shown that kids who engage in frequent, pretend play have stronger self-regulation skills. Dress-up pretend play with others (sociodramatic) often involves collaborating and negotiating the pretend environment. They must agree on individual roles and commit to playing their role for the duration. That means limiting their behaviors only to those of their character which helps with self-regulation. It also helps in hypothetical reasoning. 

Girl dresses up like a fallen angel.

Identity and career exploration

Pretending to be a scientist is a great way to informally explore the career from a young age. (Side note: if you are lucky enough to have a kidzania near where you live they do this exceptionally well!!) It goes beyond that though to personal traits they may decide they want to develop after dress-up play.

Child wears a firefighter hat in dress up play


At the heart of empathy is putting oneself in another’s shoes. Putt on a pair of firefighter boots and bam, your little one transforms into a brave fire fighting hero! They may also realize that firefighters are faced with scary situations sometimes and perform a lot of manual labor. Another important part of dress-up play is transcending gender. Not only is this fun and very healthy, but it can promote empathy and relationships with members of the opposite sex later on. It can also help your child see beyond prescribed gender norms and break down negative stereotypes. 

One boy and one girl play dressed as spider man

How to join in your child’s dress-up play

Dress-up play has added benefits when you join in! You don’t even need to be the one to dress-up though it is certainly added fun! Occasionally joining in the dress-up play allows you to scaffold their play. It can help them learn mature play tactics. Children will take the lessons learned through fun with you joining into their own independent or peer group dress-up play later. Independent and even unsupervised (in a safe environment) is critically important for children so don’t feel as if you need to facilitate the dress-up all of the time. Here are a few ways that you can participate in guided dress-up play.

Mother plays dress up with her two preschool aged children

Role reversals

Role reversals are hugely beneficial in a number of ways. You have the chance to put yourself in your Childs shoes and then model a desirable response to help them grow. Maybe you want to encourage them to face fears, join in a playgroup at school, employ anger management techniques (instead of say, hitting a sibling), respond to bullies, etc.

For example, let’s say your child is terrified of visiting the dentist. Before your visit, have a role reversal dress-up play session! Your child will be the dentist and you will be the patient. Verbalize the issue. So in this case you are very afraid of the dentist. Wait for your child to intervene. Then vocalize positive self-talk. So in this example. I am still really scared but I know this will not hurt me, it will just be a bit loud. I am trying to be brave and think something nice. I am still scared but I am choosing to be brave! Then you will need to be brave in real life as your small child shines a flashlight into your mouth and checks out your teeth.

Instigate empathy

Feeling a bit overwhelmed and want to drum up some empathy from your little one? Trade roles! Have your child become mummy or daddy while you become a fictitious child (not necessarily your child so give yourself a new name). Then, ask for snacks constantly, spill your water, use your whiney voice, or throw a temper tantrum. Then, watch your child spring into action to try to settle you. Playing bedtime is another great way to take a breath. If you are feeling overwhelmed. Get in your jammies and have your child(ren) read you a story, sing to you, play with your hair, give you a hand massage, etc. and just enjoy the treatment! Both of these activities strengthen empathy and nurturing characteristics. 

Toddler dresses up like mommy, wearing a baby carrier.

Parallel play

This is for if you have a young toddler not quite ready for dramatic play yet. Sit beside your child with the same materials that they have and simply play next to them. They should notice what you are doing and may model your behavior, elevating their independent play, and get them ready for social pretend play down the road.

Guided Play

Motor skill development can be aided by some guided play here. For example in the doctor scenario above, instead of applying a bandaid, maybe you pretend to suddenly break your leg while climbing a pretend mountain in your backyard. Urge your child(ren) to make you a leg brace so you can make it back down. Encourage them to look around and see what they can use to stabilize your leg (see there is another word they probably don’t hear every day).

Modeling emotional regulation 

let’s face it, no one is perfect. Sometimes our children and ourselves react in ways we shouldn’t. In the world of pretend, you can have a do-over. Talk through the perfect ideal emotional responses when things go horribly wrong. Maybe you are frustrated and lost and the mean troll you found is yelling at you. Do you yell back or do you take a deep breath? Ask your children what they think you should do? Later, give them the chance to encounter a very stressful pretend environment and see what they do. Even if you are perfect in your own emotional regulation modeling (hats off to you, I am certainly not). It is still super helpful for children to hear your thought process. It normalizes negative emotions and gives them practice in dealing with them outside of a heightened emotional state.

Children enter a world of pretend through dress up play.

Offer alternative behaviors

Observe your child(ren) engaging in dress-up play independently. If you notice a constant pattern of behavior you find concerning you can make note of it to address later with guided play. For example, if you notice your child is always playing the damsel in distress in need of rescue you can later assign yourself that role and have your child in charge of the rescue. Then instead of waiting to be rescued, verbalize positive self-talk. Like “I am strong, maybe I can find a way out of here myself” then do it! Now they see alternate ways they could choose to play in the future if they choose. Note that there are 

Settle and create disputes

Disputes seem to arise in imaginary worlds about as much as they do in the real world. You can help your children practice for the real world by helping resolve conflicts as they come up or even by creating a conflict in the imaginary world and watch how the kids respond.

Benefits to YOU!

Aside from great bonding time and helping your child grow, you are able to exercise your own creativity and problem-solving skills as well!

Building a Dress-up play closet

Child plays dress up with her fathers work hat. You do not need an expensive closet full of fancy dress-up clothes. Everything you really need is probably already in your house. A towel or old bedsheet, parents’ shoes, buttons, gloves, hats, etc can all be used for Dres up play. For the tools and accessories, you can use pots, pans, old boxes, flashlights, sticks, rocks, empty toilet paper rolls, garden plants, bowls, couch cushions, etc can all be transformed into something extraordinary.

If you did however want to invest in some Dress-up play items I would suggest silk scarfs, lab coats, chef apron and/or hatdresses, construction vests, firefighter outfit, capes, and various masks. Play medical kits and kitchen sets tend to get a lot of mileage as well (go for wooden ones) and would be great choices for tools. Remember to add in your child’s Halloween costume each year as well!

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The power of possibility: causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B3672202–2212

    Supporting Young Children’s Learning in a Dramatic Play Environment. Scharer, Janine. (2017). Journal of Childhood Studies. 42. 62. 10.18357/jcs.v42i3.17895.


Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.

Lewis P, Boucher J, Lupton L and Watson S. 2000. Relationships between symbolic play, functional play, verbal and non-verbal ability in young children. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 35(1):117-27.


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