Costumes All Year Round

Nate as Spiderman
Nate as Spiderman

Costumes are unique toys, if you even want to call them that. They’re playthings you don’t play with, rather, they support and inspire play – they’re play facilitators. You’ve likely seen it for yourself that there’s something very compelling for children about re-envisioning everyday objects, assembling ensembles, or pretending to be somebody else. But did you know it’s also good for their brains?

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (click here for article), playing with costumes can build imagination, help children discover new things about themselves, and can be a powerful tool for self-expression. But I wasn’t about to take NAEYC’s word for it, so I took my questions to an expert: 8-year-old costume-enthusiast Nate Hill.


Nate usually wears a costume to complement and enhance his play, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. When he puts on his hero costume, he’s ready to fight crime and save the world. The pretend play that his costume inspires is directly nurturing his imagination.

Another way for children to exercise their imaginations is by creating their own costumes. Alice Vogler, Arts Program Manager here at Boston Children’s Museum, runs programs in the Art Studio in which children design and create their own costume elements. And it’s something you can do at home. Collaging together different dress-up articles and repurposing household items are effective ways for children to practice creative thinking.

This suggests the dress-up box may be one of the cheapest playthings you can have in the house. If you’ve ever seen your child gallivanting around with a towel cape or wearing a box on her head with all the dignity of a member of the royal family at a polo match, you already know that costumes don’t have to be elaborate or expensive.

Self Discovery

Nate identifies with the characters he dresses as and aspires to be like them. His two favorite costumes to wear are Spiderman and a Star Wars Clone Trooper. When I asked about how he felt being a “bad guy” Nate assured me that his Clone Trooper is a pre-Rebellion fighter who was firmly sided with the Alliance. “It’s good to be a hero,” he said. By trying on the attributes of someone else, children are exploring their own developing personalities.

Nate also admires the Clone Trooper for being a “good hero and soldier who is loyal. In tight situations he is able to pull through even though things can be pretty bad.” He sometimes channels his inner hero to get him through challenging situations in his life like spelling tests.

As a performer and ballet dancer, Boston Children’s Museum’s Culture and Performing Arts Educator Steve Schroth understands the effect of a costume on the wearer. “People do things in costume they wouldn’t normally do,” he said. And Steve reminded me of a scene from the movie Never Been Kissed that perfectly illustrates that point. Drew Barrymore’s English teacher is talking to the class about As You Like It and he quotes, “All the world´s a stage and all the men and women, merely players.” The teacher goes on to explain that, “It´s about disguise. About playing a part. And it´s when [Rosalind] is in costume that she can finally express her love for Orlando. See, the point Shakespeare is trying to make is that when we´re in disguise, we feel freer. We do things we wouldn´t do in ordinary life.” When children wear costumes, they feel more free to take chances and try new things. The costume creates a safe space for them to explore different aspects within themselves.

Self Expression

Nate dresses up mostly at home but has been known to go out in public in costume and he notes that people recognize him. Alice identifies this as visual communication. In addition to her work at Boston Children’s Museum, she is also a performance artist and uses her clothing as a tool to communicate with her audience.

While it may not be conscious communication, when children select their own costumes they make their interests and aspirations visible and that helps adults learn more about them and their personalities. Steve suggests that choosing a costume can be an opportunity for children to express their values and help communicate a personal narrative. It shows the world something that they think is cool, or funny, or something they wish they were.

So don’t put those costumes away just yet. After this year’s holiday stress wears off, you and your child can enjoy costuming as an important opportunity to nurture her development even after Halloween has come and gone. Your family doesn’t need an excuse to create something fun to wear or need a holiday to try on a new persona for an afternoon.


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