Sunday, August 07, 2011

Costumes From Home

Up until Owain arrived in my classroom, I'd had a "no costumes" policy. We had classroom dress-up clothes, of course, but somehow I had the idea that allowing costumes from home would be too distracting. What an idiot I was, and Owain showed me that.

He was relentless in his desire to go through life dressed for the occasion, and to his mother Heather's credit, she let her 3-year-old wear his US Air Force flight suit to school, a gift from his grandmother as I recall, in spite of my policy. I now know she must have been thinking, It's your damn policy. You try enforcing it. 

When he walked into the room as a 3-year-old, wearing that flight suit, even his older classmates were impressed, but it was more than just the clothes, it was the way he wore them, as if he were conscious of the duty, pride and honor they implied. How could a child that young understand these things? It's crazy, but that's how it struck me.

And it wasn't just me. There were some kids for whom the day hadn't started until he arrived, full of information and ideas, a man in uniform, ready to get something going. At the time, I rationalized the involuntary flexibility in my policy by making a mental distinction between a uniform and a costume, but I lost my hiding place when he moved on to capes and his Transformer costume. I never invoked the policy because, frankly, my fear of distraction (whatever I even thought that meant) never materialized, and instead I saw nothing but good.

Owain opened my eyes to the important role costumes can play in the development of a strong self-image for some kids. A big part of the job of young children is to be "powerful" in the world, to try out the traits we ascribe to our "heroes," those to whom we associate characteristics we admire. In a very real sense, donning a flight suit, or a crown, or a cape, imbues the wearer with those traits. My own daughter Josephine wore a crown of some sort nearly every day for the better part of 2-years, even to school, and I saw not only how it made her behave like a princess, but how others treated her like a princess. When she met Sophia, another crown-wearer, it was love at first sight. (Nine years later Sophia is still a friend with whom she "plays" aspirational games with clothing, music, and make-up.)

I used to spend a lot of time monkeying around with our classroom costume collection, trying to figure out why only the princess stuff was ever used. We had cowboy hats, baseball shirts, and animal costumes, but they rarely left the hooks unless an adult sort of "forced" the issue. Naturally, we didn't have any superhero or military stuff -- my adult brain associated those with violence -- but here was this boy Owain showing me that the real power associated with these heroes was in their boldness, goodness, and fearlessness. 

It's not all superheroes and princesses in the costume world. At different times, our classroom has hosted children trying out the costumed power of dinosaurs, ballerinas, astronauts, construction workers, doctors, monster trucks, and even mommies and daddies. Often their "costumes" are little more than t-shirts with pictures allowing them to borrow that particular kind of power for a time, but the common theme is that I can't pick their meaningful costumes for them. Our classroom dress-up clothes will always, at best, be stand-ins for the important costumes they have at home.

That's what Owain (and Heather) taught me. Without their bold insistence of making me confront my idiotic policy, I might have squelched our be-caped Alex, or Charlotte, who wore her cowgirl costume almost every day for a year, or Ava, who often came dressed in her firefighter ensemble. Not to mention the super team of Ella, Josephine, and Katherine who spent their days "flying" around the classroom in the wonderful, non-commercial capes Charlie L.'s mom Shelly recently made for us, finally giving us classroom "stand-in" costumes the kids will actually wear beyond the princess gowns.

But the important costumes, the most powerful ones, will always come from home. And they're welcome at Woodland Park.

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CAK said...

Thank you Teacher Tom for seeing this okay from a child's perspective to take on new identities and personas. It is the adults who infer bagage into costume wearing. My child has a wardrobe of over 3 dozen costumes that she rotates. And quite frankly 1/4th of all her playthings are costumes & accessories.

Her favorite costume is the ice cream cone and aside from an ice cream themed event that we went to, most people do not understand her desire be one (she wants to grow up to be the neighborhood ice cream person when she grows up). Or why as a parent I'd allow her into public dressed as such.

Well whatever she may be that day (doctor, shark, cowgirl, Glenda the Good Witch, root beer, monarch butterfly, afternoon garden tea party, superhero, etc.), I know that she is a stronger person for imbibing her personality and imagination with these dress-up outfits.

ReadytoGo Preschool said...

Just love costumes in school! Some of the best come in that form. We had a power ranger who came every day for 2 years. A firefighter, who would rotate his hat to a different color, and often bring spares to share. We ended up making our fire tree just for him, and its still a permanent part of our outdoor area in school

Unknown said...

We love costumes! We have a wide variety, but I must say, I'm envious of those beautiful capes! :)

Kidlutions(tm): Solutions for Kids said...

Teacher Tom,

Thank you so much for your willingness to question your own policies...change them when necessary...and let the children "lead you".

You are a breath of fresh air. Every child needs a Teacher Tom in his/her life!


janetlansbury said...

I saw a lovely little genie in full regalia at Starbucks the other morning, and that reminds me of another thing costumes help children celebrate...magic!

But what do you think we should do if the child wants to wear something that's really uncomfortable to play in (like a long-sleeved nylon costume in the heat of summer, or high heels). Would you think it's best for the child to learn by "consequence", or the should the adult insist on a more appropriate choice? Maybe you haven't dealt with this issue?

I agree with Wendy. I love your openness to change and the way you are always learning. You are so wonderfully perceptive, a great example for all of us. Thank you!

SunnyD said...

My child is starting kindergarten this fall. We were reading the guidelines about what is appropriate for school and one of the items was that hats were not allowed. My son indicated he'd wear his fire fighter uniform without his hat... then I said that costumes probably weren't going to go over well either and it blew his mind.

He was unamused with the no costume idea. Thank goodness our kindergarten still has centers and isn't just desks...

Melissa @ The Chocolate Muffin Tree said...

Love this post! My daughter at 2 1/2 to 3 wore hats everyday: Viking, crowns, pirate, etc. Then from age 3 to 4 she wore a strawberry knit hat. These items were her comfort items (especially the strawberry hat) she would even wear it at sleep time! At preschool she had to take off her hat though! She never had a blanket she carried around so I am convinced these were comfort items to her.
Now at age 4 1/2 to 5 she wears a headband....even to sleep in!