Classroom practice - Costumes can bring drama to any subject

Dressing up is an established feature of early-years classrooms, but this powerful tool can also be used to engage older children
28th November 2014, 12:00am


Classroom practice - Costumes can bring drama to any subject

There is a kerfuffle by the dressing-up box. There are no crowns left and one budding drama queen simply cannot be a princess without one (although the foot-stamping and entourage of fawning attendants, outraged on her behalf, suggest otherwise). Elsewhere, a doctor is insisting that everyone will be "up and about in no time" after a nice injection and a go on the stethoscope. Later on, the doctor can be found studiously scribbling out prescriptions as the princesses write invitations to a royal ball.

In the early years of schooling, we use role play as a tool to meet numerous learning objectives, but what do we actually know about its impact on learning?

Dr Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist based in New York State, uses role play in her practice. "It fosters the imaginative processes and allows for play without rules or script," she says. "Dressing up allows for experimentation and fantasy."

All of which is fun for the child, but how does imaginative play make for a more positive learning experience?

A 2010 literature review by academics at Queen's University Belfast found numerous studies suggesting that role play had benefits far beyond simple enjoyment.

One study concluded that "playful activity can be cognitively challenging, involving complex uses of language, as well as promoting sociability and cooperation".

Its authors also noted: "Role play is considered important because it contributes to the development of children's self-regulation. For example, as children act out their roles, they monitor how others play by the rules and, at the same time, respond to directions and expectations of their peers.

"In addition, children must inhibit behaviours and desires that are not associated with the role. This degree of regulation demonstrates complex social understanding."

Character building

Teachers report numerous other benefits, too. "Dressing up helps less confident children to engage in activities, releasing many linguistic and dramatic possibilities," says music and drama teacher, and education author, Judith Harries.

Giving children the chance to be somebody else for a short time allows them to converse as that character, thereby stretching their vocabulary. I once left a box of fairy-tale costumes out for my seven- and eight-year-old pupils. We soon had knights rescuing fair maidens, wicked queens casting spells and Cinderella saving a handsome prince from the jaws of a dragon, as the traditional tales that we'd been reading all week were acted out and subverted. Later, my students wrote dialogue for their own fairy tales, rich in the language that they had used during play.

But it's not just the imagination that is boosted by dressing up. "Children are able to cast off their natural personas," says Diana Smith, a retired primary teacher. "The joy of being some meaningful other self was an emotion that I witnessed repeatedly. That kick to the adrenaline often encourages better creative writing, more active involvement in discussion and a boost to confidence, which invariably results in more effective learning."

And it seems that dressing-up play can assist with pastoral care, too. "Dressing up and role play can tell us about possible inner conflicts or trauma, based upon the child's expression of the role they play," Zelinger says.

I witnessed this first-hand with a child who had lost her mother in a car accident. She would often take on the role of someone who could help - a policewoman, a doctor or a vet. She liked to play that she was rescuing others. It seemed to soothe her anxieties about helplessness.

Awkward encounters

But are there any pitfalls to utilising this sort of activity in the classroom?

"Some children do not enjoy dressing up and should never be forced to join in," Harries says. "They may be uncomfortable wearing clothes that other children have worn, or may just be unhappy because the costumes don't fit them."

This is an important point, but it need not be an issue if reluctant pupils are given the opportunity to observe and join in when they feel more confident.

Considering the many advantages of play, I wonder why we are so reluctant to get the costumes out once pupils are of secondary-school age. Why not continue with this engaging, fun and effective learning technique?

A 2013 study about the emergence of self-conscious emotion in adolescence may hold the answer. Children and young adults were monitored while being exposed to situations designed to make them feel self-conscious. The results showed that the age of peak response was 14 - they got sweaty at the very idea that someone might be watching them.

It is perhaps this typical teenage embarrassment that makes older pupils less willing to try dressing up, especially when you take bullying and concerns about body image into consideration. But does this really hold them back as much as we think it does? I spoke to teachers who had tried dressing up with older classes and they had many positive things to say about the experience.

"There was no hint of embarrassment from the girls that I taught," says Louise Bailey, a former head of drama. "In fact, they relished the opportunity to wear some skanky old bridesmaid dress and don a wig that looked like roadkill. Hey presto! The best melodrama those 12-year-olds had ever seen."

And the technique need not be limited to the drama studio.

Jennifer Guilliard, a languages teacher, says: "One of my favourite French lesson activities is to ask the students to bring in their own items to suggest a nationality from anywhere in the world. In French, each pupil has to say where they came from and what their home is like, then describe what they are wearing and do a twirl on the catwalk if they wish.

"Their confidence increases to the extent that they ask me to film these sessions so they can listen to the sound of their French during playback."

Kate Hare, an English teacher, is equally enthusiastic: "I love using costumes, especially when reading a novel. It helps us to get into character and it really helps the pupils with context."

History teacher Helena Griffiths also uses costumes to enhance learning. "Only yesterday, I whacked on a bowler hat, did a bad accent and turned into Winston Churchill," she says. "It helps [students] to remember key facts and empathise with characters from the past."

Perhaps there is even a place for dressing up in science or geography. Maths might be pushing it, although a quick Google image search reveals that Pythagoras had a rather natty beard and an interesting selection of headgear, so you never know.

I've come away from my research rather excited about the potential for learning through dress-up play - I am convinced it can have a valuable role within schools.

"We live in a world of processed information and computer screens," Guilliard says. "Imaginary situations and creative role play, at any age, teach us to respond to the unknown and the world beyond the classroom. Education isn't just about a standardised hierarchy of school subjects. It's about life in all its richness."

So it is. Bring on the funny hats.

Lisa Jarmin is a primary teacher in North West England


Walsh, G, Sproule, L, McGuinness, C, et al (2010) "Developmentally appropriate practice and play-based pedagogy in early years education", Queen's University Belfast.

Somerville, L, Jones, R, Ruberry, E et al (2013) "Medial prefrontal cortex and the emergence of self-conscious emotion in adolescence", Psychological Science, 24: 1554-1562.

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