By Suzan L. Jackson
Issue 106, May-June 2001
"Queen Falee! The bad guys are approaching! Don't worry--we'll protect you!" my six-year-old son, Jamie, yells to me as he runs through the kitchen wearing rain boots, a blanket tied as a cape, and a hat from an old Oktoberfest.
"Queen Falee! Bad guys! We protect you!" Two-year-old Craig is right behind him, dressed in his own cape along with a bandanna tied around his waist, a firefighter's hat, and his brother's old shin guards.
This is a typical scene in our house, as our two boys dress up in assorted items and act out all kinds of imaginative scenes. One minute they're pirates, the next they're knights. A quick costume change and they're space captains. They spend most of their playtime together pretending, which is just fine with my husband and me as we watch them continuously expanding their imaginations and vocabularies. The source of all this creative play is the costume box, a fixture in our home for the last four years. Since its inception, it has taken on a life of its own.
By the time Jamie was two, our home was already filled with more toys than the average preschool. There had not been a child in our extended family since my sister and I were young, and my well-meaning but overindulgent family had crammed our house with colorful plastic. I worried that our son would be jaded by all this material excess; he already had the full Brio train set, a motorized two-seater Jeep, and boxes filled with little cars, toy animals, blocks, and other toys.
As Christmas rolled around that year, my husband and I tried to think of gift ideas for the child who had everything. We knew that the holiday would bring another avalanche of new toys from family and Santa. What could Mommy and Daddy possibly give their adored son without further overwhelming his young senses? The costume box was born.
We had noticed that, like all two- and three year olds, our son was beginning to enjoy dressing up and playing pretend. He loved to shuffle around in Mommy's shoes or wear Daddy's hat. So instead of buying yet another expensive toy, we purchased a plastic storage box and foraged through closets and the basement for dress-up supplies.
We found plenty of fodder for our son's imagination. I contributed some scarves, a pair of worn-out oxford shoes, and an old vest. My husband found a gaudy tie he'd never worn, several old hats, and some bandannas. We looked through bags of old Halloween costumes and found animal noses, silly hats, and other potential dress-up accoutrements. To top it off, we bought an inexpensive set of five pretend hats, including such essentials as a firefighter hat and a hard hat.
Our son was thrilled on Christmas morning, but that gift was only the beginning. The costume box has lived on--and grown--over the past four years to become the most revered plaything in our home. Both boys typically run to the costume box as soon as they jump out of bed each morning. When their friends come to visit, they are drawn to the box and its contents almost immediately.
The other day, Jamie's friend Danny came over to play after school. After the requisite Pokémon card trading session, I suggested the boys find something to play that would include Jamie's sibling, Craig. Instead of the typical groans you might expect from an older brother, Jamie's face lit up as he exclaimed, "Hey, let's get stuff from the costume box!"
For the next hour, the three boys ran through the house, teaming up to fend off the bad guys, overcoming imaginary obstacles, and having a blast. Craig wore a firefighter’s jacket and baseball cap, Jamie donned a homemade tunic and headband, and normally reserved Danny wore a cowboy vest and a wide red ribbon tied around his waist. “Cool!” Jamie exclaimed to his friend. “You look like a karate guy!”
I completely understand their enthusiasm. Dressing up was, hands down, the favorite activity for my best friend, Michelle, and me when we were children. My mother let us play with her old prom dresses, and my grandmother donated a closetful of outdated garments that lived a new life in our playroom. Michelle and I would carefully select our outfits and play pretend and even parade around the neighborhood in our garb, much to the amusement of our neighbors. To this day, both of us vividly remember every dress and accessory. The most coveted item was a fake leopard-print hat, the orange shift and matching kerchief a close second. That discarded clothing gave us hours of pleasure and wonderful memories. It is gratifying to see my boys creating the same kinds of memories now.
In our house, playing pretend is a family affair; our boys often include my husband and me in their scenarios, feeding us lines and providing direction. “Mommy, you be Queen Falee and wear this cape. Daddy, you’re the King—here’s your hat. Now let’s hurry up Jawa Mountain before the monsters wake up!” With a quick dive into the costume box, we have entered their imaginary world and are on our way up Jawa Mountain (the stairs). They love the opportunity to tell us what to do for a change.
We’ve added to the box throughout the last several years. Parts of each year’s Halloween costumes usually end up there, as well as plastic swords, binoculars, doctor’s kits, and other accessories the kids have received over time. For Christmas last year, Santa added two sparkly capes to the collection. Often, imagination transforms the simple items in the box into things my husband and I could never have predicted. The boys’ favorite dress-up articles are old flannel receiving blankets, which they tie around their necks for capes. Bandannas are worn on heads, tied around waists, and wrapped around legs. An old elastic strap from a camping mattress has become a coveted headband—though I’m sure our neighbors wonder why our son has “Coleman” emblazoned across his forehead as he runs around the yard!
The boys have added things themselves as well. Last Fourth of July, each of them got a thin, flexible glow stick at the town fireworks display. The next day, Jamie wrapped his around his forehead and said excitedly, “Mom! This looks just like the headband that Superman’s father, Jor-El, wears in my video. Can we make a costume like he wears?” We spent an enjoyable afternoon drawing the costume, then crafting it from an old T-shirt of mine with some scissors, glue, and felt. That tunic is now one of Jamie’s favorite dress-up items, made extra special because of his role in creating it.
With all of these additions, the costume collection almost immediately outgrew its original storage box and is now housed in a plastic footlocker with a hinged lid. Yes, it’s another piece of colorful plastic in our family room (the excessive gift flow from family has not abated), but what is inside transforms our boys’ playtime. We are currently on the lookout for a wood chest or wardrobe that would look less garish, but our children do not care what kind of container we use to keep their treasured costumes.
While on vacation this summer, our older son lamented being away from his costumes for so long. “I miss the costume box, Mommy,” he said to me one morning during our stay at his grandparents’ house. “I need my cape.”
Fortunately, a visit to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City during the trip revealed an unexpected treat: a children’s area, complete with cowboy garments for dressing up. We watched other children come and go from the area as our boys, thrilled to have a vacation version of their costume box, dressed up and played pretend for over an hour. Our two year old, sporting an apron and cowboy boots, pretended to cook beans over the fire; his older brother, in a vest, chaps, and boots, came to the chuck wagon for a meal again and again. A few weeks later, when Grandma and Granddad in Oklahoma sent suede cowboy vests for Jamie’s birthday, the boys were thrilled. Pulling on the vests, they immediately jumped into the world of cowboys. “Hey, Mom! We can keep these in the costume box,” Jamie called as they ran off.
What started as an inexpensive, less commercial Christmas gift has become the source of endless hours of fun and creative play for our sons. Rather than the sounds of a television and video games, our home is usually filled with the sounds of imagination. I suppose that some day Jamie and Craig will outgrow all this pretend play, but, for now, they are having a ball, enjoying each other’s company and stretching their imaginations. What more could parents want?
What Do You Put in a Costume Box?
Although you can purchase all sorts of accessories (see For More Information), many wonderful dress-up items can be found in your home right now. Look for outdated or worn-out things you no longer use, such as:
• scarves and ties
• baby blankets
• worn-out or outgrown shoes or boots
• hats of all kinds
• toys that inspire pretend play
• costume jewelry
• vests or shirts
• purses and bags
• bits and pieces of Halloween costumes
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Where to Find Dress-Up Items
Although the most imaginative pretend play materials can be found in your own home, a few well-chosen purchased items can enhance a costume collection. Keep an eye out for clearance items and sales. Some catalogs, stores, and websites to try:
• ?Zany Brainy (stores nationwide) and www.zanybrainy.com—our source for the shiny capes men-tioned in the article
• ?Birthday Express, 800-424-7843 and www.birth-day-express.com—specializes in party supplies but offers many costumes
• ?local party-supply stores
• ?discount stores just after Halloween
Suzan L. Jackson lives in Delaware with her husband, Ken, and their sons, Jamie (6) and Craig (2). She recently left her management career to be a full-time mom. She writes frequently about family and the outdoors. You can look up some of her essays and articles at www. suzan jackson.homestead.com/home.html.
Photo by Mika Manninen