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Pretend Play: How 'Dress-Up' can help with Children's Development

“The most beautiful world is always entered through imagination” – Helen Keller.

In the following article, I will discuss the benefits that arise from a simple game of dress-up, including those who are on the autistic spectrum. I will conclude with different ways in which you can incorporate pretend play and have the same experience, but with the absence of clothing, for those children who do not find the idea of dressing up appealing.

Brain Building:

This activity improves brain stimulation as well as expanding their memory skills. Their natural creative juices often flow and are endless just like their imagination. A child may incorporate a memory or event into their play sequence.

They learn from others and during the developmental stages, their mind is like a sponge and absorbs every detail as well as every piece of verbalised information. This is often why we are informed to be careful of the actions and words we use around children.

Though, a prime example of using a daily activity in pretend play would be if they witnessed an adult using their mobile phone to conduct a conversation and the child then proceeds to mimic the phrases and actions through a toy mobile phone of their own or even an object that looks similar.

A child may even love to play one of the following games: checkout assistant, a doctor/nurse, a joiner and/or a cleaner. The list of possible occupations is endless but each one provides a form of brain activity, one in which allows them to flourish. This is also sometimes where a child may get the idea for a dream job.

Most of us would have had aspirations as children, some dreamt of becoming astronauts, others veterinary nurses, or mechanics. The options were endless, and not impossible to achieve once grown up! The key to the development of these dreams often stemmed from passion, enthusiasm and most importantly through pretend play!

Children often watch a form of moving picture and those influence their actions, vocabulary and memory absorption. They will often hear and/or visualise a specific scene and then re-enact this. It can even include something they have seen in a movie, cartoon or on YouTube (children’s channels of course).

Technology has advanced and now there are ways in which we can protect our children from the dangers of the internet, through the ability to lock specific apps and I was recently informed of the variation on YouTube which is specifically designed and focused on child-friendly content.

Those with autism may not understand the concept of a specific cartoon or the reasons behind the character’s costume but they will often still enjoy the concept of pretend play. For example, they may love the idea of wearing a cape and running around whilst it flaps in the wind, but the reason behind superhero’s wearing capes may not be clearly understood.

Finding Their Voice:

A child’s vocabulary can increase through pretend play, especially if they incorporate specific lines and catchphrases from influential people or sources. It can be as something as simple as a few lines or a couple of words that their favourite character airs. Nevertheless, this phrase usually encourages the child to speak up or an attempt to mimic their favourite’s actions too.

It also goes hand in hand with the memory absorption as they are accurately able to recollect the vocabulary.

Though these words are often not used in reality or in generalised conversation as a whole, it can give the child a new sense of confidence and the ability to try and use them in conversation. A positive reaction to these new catchphrases can help their self-esteem, as well as encourage them to talk and engage with others more often too.

Motor Skills:

Children often love to dress up as their favourite character, but this comes with the challenge of putting on that specific outfit. Fasteners can be difficult to do, especially for children and this activity allows them to be able to learn how to fasten the attire.

Those with autism may struggle to understand how a zipper may fasten for example but incorporating this with dressing up makes it more fun and definitely less daunting. Though, there are those who do not like dressing up and that’s also perfectly okay.

If this happens to be the case, I have included alternatives at the end of the article to help. *

We often hear the horror stories from parents/carers about their children who did not want to wear clothes that particular morning. It can often be interpreted as a mission and a half whilst the clock continues to tick away. I once heard a tale from a friend of how her child became as stiff as a board when she tried to place their legs into a pair of trousers. Though, with the use of pretend play and dress up, it can often encourage them that the necessity is not as mundane as it appears. Sometimes children wear their fancy attire to parties, the walk to school/nursery and even in the local supermarket.

Once they are dressed head to toe in their chosen outfit the child can then mimic their favourite character’s actions and phrases too. They may incorporate multiple abilities such as: memory absorption, vocabulary skills and/or motor skills. Each of these play an important role in terms of pretend play and go hand in hand with each other.

Emotional Development:

As previously mentioned, children love to partake in occupational roles, including veterinary roles and even doctorial or nursing too. Each of these positions require a definitive level of passion, empathy and understanding. Therefore, encouraging a child to demonstrate these factors in pretend play can improve their emotional development.

For example, the child may be a nurse/doctor and they would need to perhaps take care of you and provide advice for how to become as fit as a butcher’s dog, metaphorically speaking. On the other hand, they may use a stuffed animal and a figurine/doll to practice their empathy, skills and knowledge on.

A child may have a passion for animals and caring for them, to which incorporating veterinary care into pretend play can be highly beneficial. Using toys and first-class enthusiasms can automatically pique their interest and this is the first step to including the emotional aspect into their everyday world.

This developmental skill can help when interacting with others too, through the use of inclusivity, imagination and even vocabulary wise.


Children often choose an outfit they wish to wear, and this allows room for exploration and a difference in terms of gender identities too. In terms of social normalisation, it is perceived that, girls should choose princess, fairies and female-based character’s outfits whilst boys on the other hand should choose pirates, fireman and superhero’s.

Though in some aspect this has changed, and it is becoming more acceptable for there to be gender equality in terms of occupation and therefore it should be acceptable in a younger age too, including pretend play.

A child should never be ridiculed for pretending to be a different gender and this aspect of pretend play allows them to dress up and enter a world in which they feel comfortable, safe and can be happy.

Socialising With Others:

The concept of pretend play allows children to freely express themselves and this encourages self-belief which then transpires into engaging with others. It can help them expand their vocabulary, memory muscle and even their imagination.

Interaction is beneficial for us all, we are classified as social beings and therefore including this early on can help reduce social anxiety. It is important for a child’s emotional welfare too as they can feel less secluded in a classroom or friendship circle. Children will feel more relaxed and able to communicate freely with others once they are made aware of how to do so.

Granted, it has been difficult for us, as adults, to interact and be sociable creatures due to the pressures of lockdown, never mind children. Therefore, due to the influx of a desire to communicate and mix with others it has brought to our attention just how vital it is to talk and engage with likeminded folk.

Children learn through social interactions with similar aged friends as well as adults and this goes hand in hand with how their mind works like a sponge. It is almost like a snowballing effect, because the more words they learn, the more their muscle memory expands, and this then links with the concept of recalling events and memories which are already embedded in their mind. These memories can then be incorporated into pretend play.

*What if my child doesn’t like to dress up?

Some children like to partake in the concept of pretend play and mimic their favourite characters without the need for the outfit and that’s perfectly okay too.

It can arise in those with autism due to the sensory stimulus. They may dislike a specific fabric, and this can have a negative impact on the idea of pretend play. Their brain processes the clothing with negative connotations, and this creates deep disengagement in the beneficial activity. If you’re aware of what they like and dislike in terms of clothing wise, you could make your own if you’re quite the seamstress.

If not, there is always the option to locate sellers and entrepreneurs who thrive on making personalised products. Some even explain the fabrics they use and allow room for adaptation. So, if your child loves a particular fabric, why not log on to the likes of ‘Etsy’ and find that suitable material to print their logo or pattern onto.

An example would be if say your child loves superman and they can then advertise the well-known logo on a fabric the child prefers.

If they struggle with getting dressed as a whole, then you can make stuffed animals or buy toys that are linked to their favourite character, and they can still interact with them on the same level. This way, their introduction to pretend play is accessible despite the alterations required to make it possible.

‘Dress-up’ is fun and creates a sense of alternate reality but it is not for every child. Yet, pretend play is for every child and it benefits them in multiple ways.

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