Public Release: 

Using costumes to supplement a book helps children better remember story, research shows

Kansas State University

MANHATTAN, KAN. - Young children love to dress up in costume and "play pretend." They also love story time and being transported to magical and mythical places, or hearing a tale that comforts, inspires or amuses. Two Kansas State University researchers wondered if combining these two interests (and their own two research interests) would not only be fun for children, but also would help enhance literacy and promote language.

The ensuing studies by Linda Crowe, an assistant professor in the communication sciences and disorders program at K-State, and Sherry Haar, an assistant professor of apparel, textiles and interior design, have shown that preschoolers do recall a book better if costumes are part of their interaction with the story. They have completed one study on the topic and presently are working on a second.

"We are interested in trying to find ways to enhance children's abilities to retell stories and develop literate language use," Crowe said. "Early reading experiences and storytelling are precursors for reading and writing."

Their first study was comprised of two parts. In one, Crowe and Haar read a story to a child and had he or she retell it. In the other, the child retold the story using a costume. The two researchers compared these retellings in terms of how well the children could recall characters and the sequence of the story. Their findings?

"The costumes made a huge difference," Crowe said; the children could recall the stories with costumes present much better than without. For the second study, going on now, a couple of aspects have changed. First, the setting is more like a typical classroom - a teacher reads two stories to a preschool class, and for one, costumes are put in the dress-up area. The retelling is more delayed - the children had three days of exposure to the story and were asked to retell it on the fourth - and the children also draw pictures to illustrate their comprehension of the stories.

Their preliminary data has shown that the presence of costumes still aids the retelling of the story, Crowe said, although not as dramatically as in the first study. The children's drawings were much better when costumes were present, however.

"They were taking information from the story and elaborating and adding on to it," Crowe said. "We definitely saw benefits from the exploration time in the dress-up area."

The costumes consist of, for example, a blanket, coat, vest, tie, handkerchief and button for the story "Something from Nothing," in which a grandfather makes a blanket for his infant grandson, and subsequently recreates it into other items as the child grows.

Next up, researchers at Florida State University will begin an identical study and their data will be combined with that of Crowe and Haar. In all, they hope to involve 80 to 100 children in the study.

Crowe said this research evolved from a conversation the two had about combining their interests: Crowe's in literacy and reading, and Haar's in costumes. They began looking at other research, which combined reading with props and pictures, but found no one had thought to give children a costume with which to interact.

"Costume has been anecdotally noted as enhancing a child's fantasy play as the costume aids the child in becoming a new role," Haar said. "Props have been used to aid literacy development and since costume is used as a prop in the preschool setting, we want to see how costume as a prop can enhance play and literacy."

Crowe said many were very interested in their findings at a conference she attended recently; they also have presented the results of the first study at the International Textile and Apparel Association conference, where other experts were similarly enthralled. At this time, Crowe and Haar have one article in submission and are almost ready to submit another. A number of students also have aided in the research project, helping construct the costumes and working with the results, for example.

In the future, Crowe said they hope to see how preschoolers interact with costumes involving fantasy stories; right now, they have only used true-to-life books. Also on their radar screen: using costumes to introduce books in therapeutic settings; until now, the preschoolers studied have not been at risk for language and learning problems. Haar's previous research in developing and testing therapeutic costumes has shown the role of a costume contributed to the child's success in meeting therapy goals.

Crowe said she hopes their research findings can help early-childhood classrooms be more thematic by using books, dress-up and art projects that all go together - "building upon a theme and a topic." Haar said they want to give childcare providers evidence of how costume can be used for play and beyond play as a means to enhance literacy.

Crowe has research interests in communicative reading strategies, helping parents use books interactively with their children and using books as intervention for kids with autism. Haar's interests include developing therapeutic costumes for children with sensory dysfunctions and creating wearable art.


Additional contact: Linda Crowe, 785-532-6879,

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