Playing dress-up is an activity that separates humans from other animals. Unless those humans are furries, in which case it makes them closer to other animals. Best not to read too much into it.
For your kid, dressing up is less about some kind of wild escapism. They’re not practicing for Carnival or the Marquis’ masquerade ball. Instead, dress-up is actually an important developmental check-point that leads to becoming a smart, well put together person. Here’s why that cape is crucial and how to encourage your kid to put it on.
The Great Pretenders
At some point in your kid’s first year they started mimicking you. Often this occurred side-by-side with you as you were doing chores (or maybe just sitting on your ass). This play was an important part of your kid building both a sense of empathy and independence. It helped them walk in your shoes (literally) while understanding there were some things grown-ups do that actually aren’t that much of a big whoop.
As they progress, this play becomes more imaginative. Your kid will move on from mimicking you, to building play worlds out of thin air. By the time they’re 2, they’ll start entering imaginative worlds and taking on roles. It’ll start by using play objects that have a relation to the real world (play kitchens and toy tools) and eventually expand to the point where a cardboard box can become anything their heart desires. Which wasn’t the expensive gift that actually came inside it, apparently.
Dressing up goes hand in hand with this kind of pretend play. The cape allows your kid to assume a persona, and with that persona a new set of behaviors, skills and emotions to learn about. Kinda like when you dressed up as a “naughty fireman” for Halloween.
The Benefits Of Dress-Up
It’s not like you really need another benefit aside from the fact that it’s hella fun (and they look totes adorbs — as your millennial partner might say). Still, child development experts can’t leave well enough alone. So here are more (less fun) benefits:
You can’t pretend to tell someone you’re a cook (and the rocks you’ve put in the bowl are a tasty stew) unless you communicate. In other words, it’ll help your kid talk right-good.
The older your kid gets, the more representational they’ll get. So suddenly the cape doesn’t actually have to be a cape. It can a towel. And the helmet can be a pot. And the stick of dynamite can be a … oh, dear lord, that’s a personal thing only for mommies and why didn’t you put a lock on the feminine hygiene supplies, Linda!?
Your kid is developing essential problem-solving skills as they’re figuring out just what they need to do in order to get that bad guy. This should come in handy if you’re ever abducted by Mayor Humdinger and the Kitten Catastrophe Crew.
When a playdate turns into a super soft-core version of Game Of Thrones, the knights and queens and princesses have to figure out how to get along. This requires the ability to compromise, empathize and cooperate (and eventually out maneuver your opponent with machiavellian subterfuge).
The thing about your kid donning another outfit and entering their own world is that it is their world entirely. This complete control helps them build their sense of self and gives them a taste of their personal power. Luckily they don’t have the ability to actually build a death ray.
How To Support Dress-Up And Pretend
As your toddler becomes interested in pretend play, make sure you provide them with plenty of representational toys. These will be the ones that look like the actual object (toy cell phones, wooden cutlery, and branded character costumes).
As they grow and become more sophisticated about their play, introduce those cardboard boxes and start putting away the more representational costumes to give their imaginations a chance to shine. Build a costume box that’s full of objects and more open ended dress-up items. Old glasses (without the lenses), sunglasses, hats, and pocketbooks make great additions. So do bandanas, towels, and wallets.
The important part is that you play along with whatever they get into. Don’t try to steer things too much. Not even if they assure you that the wolf hat makes them an actual wolf. This doesn’t signify a life lived as a full-time pseudo-mascot at random convention halls across the United States. And anyway, you’d still love them, even if it did.