Dressing Up for Unit Studies

Dressing Up

In this post I explore the benefits of dressing up to children, relating it back to our homeschool history unit studies.

Dressing up is, in many ways, the very essence of childhood. There is nothing more innocent or beguiling as a child dressing up as someone else and walking in their metaphorical shoes for a time. And the wonderful thing is that children don’t need posh ready made dress up. They will have just as much, if not more, fun using odds and ends to create their own dressing up.

I made a video reminiscing about how we used dressing up in our homeschool to go along with this post:

Dressing Up for the Adventure Box

One of the most exciting things about preparing for a unit study is curating a fun adventure box to get the children’s creative juices running. Dressing up is always one of the first things I buy. Over the years, we have collected quite the array of dressing up and I often use what we already have. Other places I look are charity shops, hand me downs freebay and eBay. As a last resort, I use amazon, but this tends to be a more expensive option.

Placing items for dressing up play into the unit study adventure box is a form of strewing. Strewing items such as these is a means of garnering interest for a particular time in history. Placing them in a fun suit case, hinting at travels through time, makes these items have even more visual appeal.

Advantages of Using Dress Up in Your Homeschool

Experiencing Life of the Times

Most of our dress up is linked to history in some way, shape or form. As such, it helps our children to grow and learn and interact with a world now past. They are able to become figures of history like Robin Hood or Queen Elizabeth, attempting to make sense of the period from which they come. Acting out the realities of life back in the day, with only the boundaries of their imagination to limit them.

Over the years we have specifically organised activities whereby the children experience what it would be like to be a Victorian maid for the day, or a slave trying to escape slavery. Although many times this is spontaneous, even organised play allows the children to imitate what they have read or seen on screen. In this way, pretend play offers very experiential learning, permitting the children to encounter and ‘live through’ some of the feelings these people would have had. And it stretches their imaginations when playing the part of someone from a different era.

This type of imitation helps the children to explore the lives of others by replicating their actions, feelings and words. This digs a bit deeper into the characters they are playing and encourages a sense of empathy towards their lives.

Pretending to be a Particular Historical Figure

Whilst I touched upon this above, it is worth mentioning that when we study an historical figure in detail, the children may choose to dress up as that particular person. Often, especially if done within the context of project-based learning, the children will create their own interview questions and answers and will video tape a ‘news report’ of a particular historical figure. This allows them to ask questions about the person, forming thoughts and opinions about their life and actions. The development of an expansive vocabulary and expressive language is another, almost accidental, benefit. And, of course, the child needs to remember what they have seen and heard from their learning in order to recall the details needed to be that person.

Over the years, the children have played more parts than I can even recall. Thomas became Saladin and Charlotte became Richard the Lion Heart. They learnt lots about each of their characters, gave a presentation on them and wrote an essay comparing each of their leadership skills.

Increasing Social Skills

Pretend play comes with all the added social benefits. Aside from the obvious ones like team work, co-operation and sharing, imaginative play also develops a child’s conversational skills. My older three were fascinating to listen to whilst they played any kind of pretend play. The three of them naturally played well together. They rarely had problems getting on. Running through every single imaginative play episode was a commentary of all they were doing. Even my son, who had a speech disorder early on, sort of forgot about himself and became very eloquent. It was an honour to have such a peek into their hearts and minds. The whole time they would be working cooperatively together towards a common goal, whether it was preparing for a long journey as Marco Polo or being interviewed as Harriet Tubman.

Learning the social skills of the period they are studying is also a great opportunity to dress up and pretend. I remember Lillie learning to flirt with a fan during our Jane Austin unit, oh, and putting on a Jane Austin Tea party and learning all the etiquette of the time:

Helpful in Bringing Literature Alive

It might be obvious by now but we used dressing up so much during those elementary years and beyond. One particularly successful way we have used dress up has been in acting out literature we have been learning about. For example, costumes brought the whole Shakespeare summer to life, especially our final performance. And we also learnt about the Grimm brothers and the children put on an impromptu performance of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Encouraging Next Level Imagination

Given our dressing up supplies were collected in a fairly ad hoc way, it wasn’t a given that we would own what a child needed for any given character. This is where higher level thinking, decision making and problem solving come into play. If they did not have a specific item, they could learn to substitute something else which could symbolically represent whatever was required.

Dressing up isn’t only about wearing a particular outfit. In fact, it is more about becoming that person in history. And looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes opens up a whole gamut worth of possibilities. Learning about slavery as a child can be very traumatic. Becoming that slave, even if only pretending, allows the child the space to process their thoughts and feelings in a healthy way.

Tips on Creating a Successful Dressing Up Box

  • Keep supplies simple. House hold items such as old fabric, card board boxes, stuffed animals, food packaging offer endless possibilities. The more open ended the better!
  • Have a special area where you keep your dressing up. We kept ours in a HUGE wicker plant pot for many years. You could use a box, a drawer under the bed, a rail in the corner…the world’s your oyster!
  • Make sure your chosen area is accessible and easy to get out and put away again. Children are much more likely to play dress up if they are able to access it without asking for help to do so. Dressing up which is on display will likely be used more frequently than those hidden away in hard to reach places.
  • Change the costumes up for extra variety. We do this naturally each time we start a new unit study and choose costumes for the adventure box. You could rotate yours, keeping some to one side. Other ideas include swapping with friends or strewing different costumes to encourage play.
  • Take your children on field trips where actors are paid to dress up and re-enact a time in history. We have been to so many different places: Hastings to watch the re-enactment of the Battle of Hasting. Medieval banquets or fairs. Anglo-Saxon or Viking villages. Jane Austin’s home. Sherlock Holmes’ fictional residence at 221b Baker’s Street…I could go on. There’s something about seeing grown ups in costume which almost gives permission to a reluctant child.

How do you use dressing up in your homeschool?