I’m a very firm believer in the power of a dress-up box.
Putting on costumes gives a child a chance to try on more than clothes–they try on attitudes, and character traits, and situations, and silly accents. They work out the complex social dramas of their little worlds, and make sense of things. They practice being the mom, or being the dad, or the prince, or cowboy, or pirate king.
(And, since I took a grand total of one year off between my Childhood Dress-Up Phase and my continuing Adult Dress-Up Phase (in which I figured out how to get paid for dressing up and pretending to be other people–I’m clever that way), I think I’m pretty much an authority on dress-up boxes.) (And look at me go with the nested parenthetical commentary! Nerds Unite!)
If you don’t already have dress-ups at your house, add them. If you do, but they’re pretty skimpy or all store-bought, consider upgrading. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and it adds to the magic of childhood. And, you’ll find it’s rather liberating to go to the post office with the four-year-old in a super hero cape, and the two-year-old in a blue tutu… and the one in the tutu is not your daughter. It puts things into perspective.
Keeping in mind that I’m all about rebelling in small ways, these are my basic “rules” of Dress-Ups:
1: It has to be washable.
There’s really no point to non-washable dress-ups. Frankly, they’re a cruel joke. Here, have this great outfit, but don’t play in it, because it will fall apart if we get it wet. Ever.
Make sure your dress-ups are washable. There are two best ways to do this: you can either buy real clothes in small sizes on extreme clearance (which my clever sister did, and spent no more than $3 on about eight fantastic “fancy” party dresses in tiny women’s sizes for her two little girls), or you can sew at home, and use fabrics like 100% cotton, or good poly-cotton blends.
Around Halloween, there are pattern sales, and those sales include costume patterns. Those costume patterns make wonderful dress-ups, if you do them in washable fabrics. I have a very lovely and talented sister-in-law (actually, I have five lovely and talented sisters-in-law, but I’m talking about the one married to the brother just younger than me) who made one of her boys a completely amazing space guy costume. She followed the directions and used craft felt. He wore it for Halloween, was the happiest boy in the entire universe, and then didn’t want to ever, ever, ever take the costume off. Because it was craft felt, it couldn’t be washed, and it didn’t live long.
Had it been made with cotton broadcloth, the little bits and patches could have been machine-appliqued in place, and he might still be wearing it, seven years later. He’d have Space Guy Capris, but it would still be alive.
2: It must be easy to get on and off.
Part of the joy of imaginitive play is that kids can do it without Mom. I joke about parenting by benign neglect, but I’m serious about letting my kids have time to play and explore without my direct intervention. And, I sometimes like to use the bathroom without any company. So, dress-ups that do not require my assistance to get into or out of rate high on my list. I can get into something like baking bread, without needing to stop every 15 seconds and button something, or tie something else.
3: It is ideally multi-function.
Garments that are too role-specific really stifle play. It’s okay to give the suggestion of princesshood with a felt play crown, a twirly skirt, and a cape, without buying exact duplicates of every single cartoon princess costume. You don’t have to have an entire big plastic deluxe kitchen set, if you have a white cotton jacket-like garment that can be a chef coat, or a doctor coat, or a Jedi layer. A pointy cotton lace curtain valance can be a shawl, a veil, or an overskirt.
Now, I do sometimes break this rule. I’ve made pirate coats that don’t fulfill any function besides a pirate coat. I’ve made Jedi robes that don’t see any other use. But for the most part, go for a suggestion of reality, and let the child make the specific choices in how and when the piece is used.
4: Not all dress-ups are girly.
Some should be boyly. One of my brothers expressed dismay when his little guy kept swiping Sissy’s little heels and princess-wear… as soon as the little fellow was provided some basic boyly things (stuff like a plastic hard hat, a vest, a cowboy hat, a super hero cape), he got all masculine about his dress-up, and promptly kidnapped a few Barbies and held them for ransom. Boys relish imaginative play just as much as girls, and girls like to be construction workers and cowpunchers and evil magicians and cops just as much as boys.
(I also think little boys need boy dolls available, so they can practice the manly arts of being the Dad.)
5: Don’t let the dress-ups run amok.
Designate a spot for dress-ups to live, and give a certain amount of reasonable, easy-to-access storage. Make it simple to pick up everything after a good play session. A sturdy laundry basket, a big bin, a nice fat vintage suitcase, a low dresser drawer–there are many options. Make sure it’s one you can live with out in the open, because dress-ups being shut away rather defeats the purpose of having them.
Long story short: grab a pencil and piece of paper, and start brainstorming the sorts of items you need to fulfill your child’s basic dress-up box. You’ll have some ultimate gift ideas for years to come.