little girl playing dress up

How to Foster Child Development Through Dress Up Play

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Fairies. Dragons. Princesses. Firefighters. No matter what a kid chooses for dress up play, their imaginations can run wild. And playing dress up isn’t just for fun either! Role playing and imaginary dress up play is beneficial to child development in a variety of ways.

Benefits of Playing Dress Up


Kids learn new vocabulary when they dress up as different characters. Doctors have stethoscopes and thermometers. Knights have swords and shields. Princesses have tiaras. Chefs have aprons and whisks.

Think of all the terminology your child will learn from talking with you while they play. They will also get the opportunity to practice new words they have learned from books, movies, and even ones they’ve heard mom and dad say.


When a child is role-playing as a parent or a medical caregiver, he or she must see the baby or patient’s needs through a caregiver’s eyes. Moms and dads who soothe a “crying” baby doll or tiny firefighters who rescue stuffed kittens from trees learn and develop emotions. Understanding the feelings of another person is a great way to develop empathy.

toddler looking at dress up clothes

Emotional Growth and Development

Beyond empathy, children also advance their emotional growth in other ways through playing dress up. They learn to process emotions such as fears when they pretend to fight dragons or imaginary monsters. They even learn to process their own emotions that they may have experienced with real life traumatic events such as their parents’ divorce or the loss of a family member.

Children also experience emotional growth when they practice nurturing others such as a “pet” stuffed animal or a baby doll. By allowing kids to pretend while their imaginations run wild, they essentially have the opportunity to practice how to handle their emotions so they are better equipped to regulate their emotions in real situations.

Academic Growth

Dress up play can contain a variety of brain building activities, even if it doesn’t seem like traditional academic learning is taking place. Children have to problem solve through various pretend situations, such as needing to prepare dinner or finding a way to perform surgery on an imaginary patient. Imitating the actions and feelings of a character from a story involves their memory and emotional centers of their brains.

Children also have to remember patterns and expected actions and roles of the characters that they are pretending to be.

little girl playing dress up

Physical/Motor Skills Development

Playing dress up provides a great deal of opportunities for motor skills development. Kids use their whole bodies with pretend play, which improves ability with both fine and gross motor skills.

Fine motor skills:

  • zipping zippers
  • tying shoes or ribbons
  • pulling clothes on and off
  • buttoning buttons
  • fastening jewelry
  • putting rings on fingers
  • using tools to perform “surgery” on stuffed animals

Large/Gross motor skills:

  • jumping over a raging river
  • flapping arms like a bird or plane
  • climbing over a tall mountain
  • twirling like a ballerina
  • swinging a pretend sword to fight a fiery dragon


The sky’s the limit when it comes to a child’s imagination. Children who pretend to take on other roles not only increase their natural creativity, but learn to think of new solutions to problems that benefit them beyond role playing scenarios. By increasing creative thinking ability, children are better able to problem solve as adults and can take their ideas to new heights as they learn and grow.


With dress up and pretend play, there is really no right or wrong way to use your imagination. Children can create scenarios where they succeed at whatever obstacle they’ve imagined – or they may even imagine not being successful. By controlling these situations, they are able to learn to handle how to win and how to lose.

Gaining confidence in these controlled situations can help children to feel more confident in other situations in everyday life.

Social Skills

Children learn social interaction while pretending to be someone else. Even if they talk to their stuffed animals or baby dolls while pretending to be a mommy or doctor, they mimic the social interactions they’ve experienced.

Children can experience different role play scenarios such as doctor/patient, employer/employee, parent/child, and even good/evil characters.

Children are also able to work on important social skills such as cooperating with others, taking turns, and negotiating to come to an agreement. Role play can also give children the chance to understand when/how they are comfortable with letting someone else make a choice versus when they need to assert a “no” for safety.

mirror image of toddler girl in princess dress


Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage one’s own behavior. With dress up play, children can improve self-regulation skills by focusing on a single task, redirecting their attention after interruption, controlling their impulses, and talking about their emotions.

Parents can help their children by talking through their own feelings (such as “it makes me sad when you don’t share your toy”) and role-modeling how they process their own emotions or remind themselves to stay focused on tasks.

Gender Exploration

Gender roles are also explored through dress up play, and kids are able to try out various identities in a safe environment. Boys can safely dress up in heels and jewelry, and girls can wear camouflage and pretend to take on masculine roles. Allowing children to play with a variety of roles and costumes helps them to be more secure in who they are.

Ultimately, kids’ creativity and problem solving skills are able to grow and flourish through dress-up play. Letting their imaginations run wild can set the stage for future inventors and leaders of our world.

How to Encourage Dress Up Play

Parents can encourage children to explore their creativity and imaginations by providing opportunities for dress up play at home. Additionally, parents can foster these dress up play sessions in the following ways:

  • Play along and dress up with your child
  • Encourage children to act out different scenes, both realistic and fictional
  • Encourage details by asking questions – What will happen next? What are you cooking for dinner? What drink will we have? Am I going to like what you serve?
  • Ask your child what they want to be when they grow up, and what that looks like. For higher level thinking, ask what dolly wants to be when she grows up.
  • Encourage advanced thinking by asking “What would this character do if…” types of questions
how to foster child development through dress up play

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Best Dress Up Clothes and Costumes

Having a variety of dress up costumes and clothes options is best, so that children can explore different imaginary scenarios.

The most budget friendly option is simply collecting second-hand clothes from mom, dad, and other family members for children to play with. Garage sales and thrift stores are also great places to find fun and funky dress up clothes.

Some things to include in your dress up area:

Dress Up Accessories

While kids seem to have hours of fun with a cardboard box and an empty paper towel tube, a few toy accessories can make dress up and role play time even more fun.

Pretend Play Dress Up Clothes Storage

No parents wants their child’s dress up clothes strewn all over the house! Having a designated space or storage device will help the child be able to clean up independently.

Storage trunks are perfect for containing pretend play clothing and keeping everything out of sight when the lid is closed.

There are also more decorative furniture options, such as a storage center or dress up carousel.

This carousel type storage center takes up very little room, yet holds quite a lot! It swivels around to make it easy for your child to find what she wants. It also has two mirrors attached to the sides for her to see herself after she’s all dressed up.

Some storage centers are more of a clothing rack style, to allow children to hang their clothes up on hangers.

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