A parent friend recently asked me how to prepare for a playdate. She wanted to know whether she should put out a basket of dress-up clothes for her daughter and her daughter’s friend. She said, “I wasn’t sure if that would be too girly –– too, you know, gender-y. Maybe I should just put out some magna tiles?” I encouraged her to put out both.

It got me thinking about my own efforts to empower my girls to explore, what are now considered to be, early STEM activities: blocks, making slime, building catapults and slingshots, lighting up structures with flashlights, etc. These activities used to just be considered “play.” We’ve been told girls need this sort of play –– which they do, because ALL kids do –– so we are encouraging our girls to play this way. And, if you have children, you know what happens when you suggest they try something or do something… They won’t want to do it. So, just set things out for them to explore. 

How to set out play materials

Instead of verbally suggesting things, just make a variety of open-ended play materials available and see what takes. Even with lots of options, the princess dresses and Fancy Nancy-ing will likely persist despite efforts to gently encourage other things. It begs the question: what needs are being fulfilled by princess dresses and dress-up in general? 

Photo of how to set out play materials

Benefits of pretend play and dress-up

Why do children naturally trend towards playing dress-up, making up imaginary worlds, and engaging in pretend play? What benefits are they gaining from pretend play and dress-up?

  1. Dress-up allows children to explore current interests, strengthen language skills, practice self-care skills, and even gets them doing some helpful fine motor work while attempting to tie capes and fasten buttons. 
  2. More importantly, or at least more broadly, it allows them to explore their own sense of self and reflect what it feels like to be someone else, which is called perspective taking.
  3. Playing pretend encourages them to role play, imagine, and empathize. It gives them a safe space to work through tricky social scenarios in the safety of it being a “pretend scenario.”
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Is it still ok for girls to play dress-up?

Now that we’ve gone over the benefits of pretend play, let’s return to our original question. Is it still ok for girls to play dress-up?

The short answer is: yes

We have to bear in mind that children do not carry the same socio-cultural context that adults do. They have not lived our lives and seen what our eyes have seen. They haven’t lived our media experience. Princesses, to them, are not symbols of female oppression. 

Instead, we can assume that the reason why so many children (girls and boys) gravitate towards princess dresses is because playing dress-up makes them feel happy, beautiful, and empowered. The princesses that they relate to are empowered characters who represent positive and wonderful feelings for little ones. Playing dress-up helps children explore healthy ideals and gives them the opportunity to become beautiful heroines of their own stories.

I’ve spent many thousands of hours in nursery school classrooms, both supporting children’s play and observing teachers who are supporting children’s play. When it comes to dress up, pretend play, and dramatic play, the best teachers I have observed do the following.

  1. Understand the ratio. They know the right amount of pretend play items and open-ended themed items to have as options for the children (ie. firefighter costumes, poofy dresses, chef hats as well as plain pieces of fabric, clothes pins, and craft materials to create imaginary props and accessories). 
  2. Match the developmental level. The amount of imaginative play props and materials are always well matched to the developmental level of the children in the room. In other words, they know how much it will take to inspire without overwhelming a child.
  3. Respect the children. They respect the children’s need for uninterrupted play and don’t overly “scaffold” (support) them.
  4. Avoid gender stereotypes. They encourage exposure to all sorts of roles, such as boys who are nurses and princesses and girls who are superheroes and kings. They allow for fluid gender play.
  5. Stay aware. They ask the right questions and know when and how to step in. They support but don’t necessarily steer them in any one direction. 
Photo of is playing dress-up still ok?

So, to my friend, and any other parent asking the same questions, I say, Yes! Dress-up is more than OK. In fact, it is nothing to shy away from for both girls and boys. Just make sure you always provide a wide array of materials and toys and then be supportive of whatever they are playing.