Dressing Up To Learn: The Batman Effect

Can dressing up help children learn more effectively?

You are what you wear.

When you put on certain clothes they can make you think and act differently. You’ll have ‘work’ clothes that give you an identity and shape what you do and what you say. Compare these to your ‘mufti’ and how you feel and behave then.

What about dressing-up as a fictional character? What would that do? Role-play enables you to adopt another persona and mindset and by integrating this ‘person’ into your world so you become that world can how powerful effects. ‘Dressing up’ fosters the imagination.

White et al (2016) investigated the benefits of self-distancing (i.e., taking an outsider’s view of one’s own situation) on young children’s perseverance. They found that when children who impersonated an exemplar other (e.g. Batman) it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused.

The researchers placed 180 children between the ages of four and six into three different groups, including one where they were allowed to dress up as Batman, Rapunzel, Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder.

Each group was then given 10 minutes to complete a ‘boring task’ on a computer. The group dressing up were told to think of themselves as their character when completing the task and the other children were asked to act like themselves. They were told that they could play a fun game in nearby room whenever they wanted to.

55 per cent of 6-year-olds who engaged in pretend play spent the most time on the boring task, as did 32 per cent of 4-year-olds. This is compared to just 35 per cent of 6-year-olds, and 20 per cent of 4-year-olds who did not dress up.

In short, assuming another identity can make you work harder and dressing-up gives you space to learn.

This research found that “pretending to be another character had large effects on children’s perseverance” although plenty of other factors enter the mix too.

Okay, it didn’t say whether Batman did better than Rapunzel but we get the picture: dressing up matters as it generates a different kind of self-belief.

In a sense, the research tells us what we already know: children benefit cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally through dress-up play. Slipping into a new character enables us to perform differently and better.

This therefore begs the question: if dressing up can help young children persevere for longer, why don’t we encourage older children to dress up too? We often use role-play with older learners but how often do we combine this with dressing-up? Is the expectation that “they are too old for that”?

Child development doesn’t stop at 6 years old. Imagination and creativity is for all.

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