“Be Aware” of Halloween

Hedda SharapanWhen I was growing up, I loved dressing up in costumes for Halloween. But my Halloween memories don’t go back much earlier than when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and I’ll bet yours don’t either. We have to remember that for very young children, Halloween can take on very different meanings than for older children. And depending on their temperament and developmental needs, some children might think of Halloween as fun, while others may find it frightening. You probably have children in your child care who are all along that spectrum.

Whether you avoid or celebrate Halloween in your work with children, it can help to understand costumes and masks from a child’s perspective, as Fred Rogers did. All through the Neighborhood series, Fred made a point of encouraging pretending – both with and without costumes. He often talked about pretend play as a way for children to work on their feelings and try things out, like trying out what it’s like to be a mother, father or baby, a doctor or firefighter.

But Fred also understood that children can be confused about what’s real and what’s just pretend. A costume can seem so real that children, because they’re still developing a secure sense of self, may think that dressing up as someone else could change the person inside the costume. Fred wanted them to know that, although we can put on masks or costumes, that doesn’t change who we are inside.

If you can be more aware of children’s fears, you can open the door for the fun and lots of learning opportunities.

WHAT’S FRIGHTENING FOR CHILDREN?

Children have trouble sorting out what’s real and what’s pretend.

Dress-up play gives you a great opportunity to assure children that “it’s just pretend.” Children can easily get carried away with their pretending, and that’s frightening for them. You can help them by letting them know that they can stop -- or say “stop” to other children -- when the pretending gets scary for them.

Costumes of aggressive characters may be too close to children’s own aggressive impulses.

Fred Rogers used to tell the story of his preschool-age son who was very excited about the scary monster costume he chose. But when he put it on and took a look at himself in the mirror, he pulled the costume off and refused to wear it. It seemed that he himself had become the aggressive monster, and that was too scary at a time when developmentally he was working hard at controlling his own aggression. (Isn’t it interesting that so many boy costumes involve some form of aggression or power…and so many girl costumes involve some aspect of being feminine or cute.)

Young children sometimes think that changing outward appearances changes who they are.

Very young children don’t yet have a secure sense of self. They can be confused and even scared when caregivers or parents change their outside appearance by putting on glasses or changing hair styles. You might want to do something like Mister Rogers did on the video – show a mask, put it on while you’re talking so the children can hear your voice and come to realize it’s still you. Then take off the mask, so they can see that it is still you underneath the mask.

Children feel “safe” when they can see our eyes and read facial cues.

It’s so important for children to be able to see your eyes and face. That’s how they connect with you and how you build a relationship with them. But most masks hide our eyes and many cover our face. And when children wear masks, the small eye holes don’t give them full vision and may make it harder for them to see as they walk around. If you are celebrating Halloween with costumes, it might be a good idea to discourage masks – unless you are certain the children are comfortable wearing them.

WHAT’S FUN AND IMPORTANT FOR CHILDREN?

Children can play about being in charge – without being in charge.

When children dress up in costumes as grownups or other powerful characters, they're playing about being in charge. While children often argue about wanting to be in charge, they don’t really want to be in charge because that might be too scary for them. But it does help them to feel powerful some of the time, like in their play, where they can be in charge, without the responsibility.

Imaginative play leads to higher thinking skills.

Dress-up play often requires imagination – moving beyond the bounds of reality. So when you encourage dress-up play, you’re stretching children’s abstract thinking skills, and that’s essential for learning in school and for creative problem-solving.

Dress-up play can help children master feelings.

Fred used to tell us a story about a boy who insisted on wearing his superhero cape to the doctor’s office because it helped him feel braver. Much of children’s pretending and play comes out of their inner needs and feelings. I’ll bet you’ve seen some interesting doll play from children who have a new baby at home – or who have had a doctor’s appointment and a “shot” recently! Fred liked to say that play allows them to work on what’s close to their hearts, but from a safe distance.

Role play can help children develop self-regulation.

I always appreciate hearing Elena Bedrova and Deborah Leong (“Tools of the Mind”) at NAEYC conferences talk about the benefits of role play for developing self-regulation. Their great example is that a child probably won’t be able to stand still for even a minute, but if that child is pretending to be a guard at a castle, he or she can stand still a long time! In role play, especially with props to help them stay in character, children practice self-control in order to regulate their behavior and act appropriately for the role.

It’s no wonder Fred often said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

P.S. If you’re going to NAEYC in Anaheim, look for us at these sessions:

Wednesday, Nov. 3 (8:30 a.m. – 11:30) What Do You Do with the Stress that You Feel? What we can learn from Fred Rogers’ approach to stress reduction – for ourselves and for the children.

Thursday, Nov. 4 (10:00 a.m. – 11:30) What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel? Helping children deal with their angry feelings

Friday, Nov. 5 (9:00 a.m. – 10:00) I was honored to be named one of this year’s two “NAEYC Heroes on the Horizon,” along with Betty Jones of Pacific Oaks who has been one of my heroes! Come to this first session of the History day seminars, and you’ll hear us talk about how we became involved in our work – and why we’ve stayed in the field.

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