Halloween lets children use their imagination and engage in pretend play

Many parents of young children wonder what level of Halloween fun is safe and appropriate.

Jane and Owen Maesel used two paper napkins to create chef and waiter costumes. A good imagination can turn any object into a great, inexpensive costume. Photo courtesy of Courtney Maesel.

Many parents struggle with the concept of Halloween. While young children look forward to dressing up, parents worry about what is considered “too scary” for their child. Some feel that children can differentiate between fantasy and reality while others feel it is best to shield them from scary costumes and frightful settings. What is considered “too scary” actually varies from child to child.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends watching out for the child’s reactions to potentially scary images and situations. Pay attention to what they seem worried about, avoid or talk about, which can be clues that something is scary. Parents are often surprised by what frightens their child.

Managing fears is a way for young children to develop important emotional regulation skills. With the support of a caring adult, children learn to manage their reactions to emotions. It is helpful for a child to draw pictures or be able to talk about their fears with a trusted adult. Picture books that show characters fearful of something but then are able to find ways to deal with their fear can be very helpful to young children. It is important that a child’s fear and worries are acknowledged and respected, no matter how irrational they may seem.

Michigan State University Extension offers the following ideas to celebrating Halloween with young children:

  • Tell children what to expect when visiting a potentially scary setting. Avoid protecting them too much and providing too much information. This can take the element of surprise out of the adventure, which is part of the fun.
  • Let kids use their own imaginations to design and make their own costumes.
  • When you see potentially spooky things, gently remind your child that it is not real, only imaginary.
  • Discuss how Halloween used to mark the end of the harvest season. Gather an assortment of autumn vegetables and have a harvest feast together as a family.
  • Visit a pumpkin patch. Once home, allow children to design their pumpkin carving and have an adult carve for them.
  • Allow little fingers to get slimy and remove the insides of the pumpkin, as this will strengthen the small muscles of the fingers (fine motor muscles) and the large muscles of the arm (gross motor muscles). In addition, exploring with their senses (smelling, feeling, seeing and even tasting pumpkin) is how young children learn.
  • Roast pumpkin seeds together. Scooping, measuring and counting are all great activities that build towards a strong math foundation for the future.
  • As you are exploring all aspects of the pumpkin together, tell them the history of the Jack-o-Lantern.
  • Let children see people putting their costumes on.

Young children do have the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, some more than others. They can tell whether an apple is real or plastic, and they can distinguish between a crocodile that is real and one that is wooden. Even so, they still may need gentle reminders that what they are seeing is not real.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2017 impact report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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