Rethinking Halloween

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by Cathy Abraham

Twenty years ago when I was a preschool teacher, there were several things I could count on the day of our Halloween Party: No one would nap; a child would cry because his/her costume would get ripped, broken or a piece would be lost; a parent would want me to paint some elaborate facial make-up on a child that I couldn't do; I would have a headache at the end of the day; and none of the children would trade me their Snickers candy bars.

I've come to believe in many instances in working with young children, less is more. Is Halloween a horrible and damaging thing for children- no. It's not about that. It's about making the most of the opportunities we have for learning, still having fun, and doing better, more appropriate things for children. I'd like to explore ways in which we can make this holiday and time of year more appropriate and meaningful for young children - and less stressful for everyone involved.

Some ideas and things to think about:

  • Decorating for any classroom holiday should not start on the first of the month. Two weeks prior is a good rule of thumb. When we start decorating weeks in advance, we create a huge build-up, which inevitably is followed by a big let down. We also need to take into account the child's lack of ability to realistically understand the concept of time, and not make waiting even more difficult for them. Telling children "It's a month from now" is far too abstract for them to understand, and can create anxiety.
  • We do a lot of things for children based on the rationalization that "they love it." This, in and of itself, is not a valid reason to incorporate things into our curriculum. Children also "love" ice cream, and given a choice would probably eat it in place of every meal. Children do not always know what is in their best interest. We are entrusted to think in terms ofwhat is appropriate and educationally sound for them.
  • We need to respect that some families choose not to celebrate this holiday - and plan accordingly. I used to feel sorry for children that didn't celebrate Halloween. How arrogant of me to place my values onto these families and question their legitimate parenting decisions.
  • Consider shifting the focus of your party (or day) from "Halloween" to a Fall Celebration or Fall Festival. There are many, many fun activities you can do related to this that are much more developmentally appropriate and educational. (And don't the children get more than enough Halloween at home?) I have had several "Fall Celebrations" that were just as fun as Halloween parties - and much more meaningful and appropriate, with actual learning taking place. (Other than counting how many rolls of Smarties they get, how much learning is taking place at a typical Halloween party?) Also consider doing a Fall Carnival or Celebration with games, activities and treats, as an alternative for families. Many parents do not want to take their children door-to-door and look for alternative activities such as this. This can be opened up to the general public and be a great marketing tool for your center!
  • A more appropriate curriculum theme instead of "Halloween" would be "Real vs. Pretend." Children really struggle with this concept - especially now with such amazing special effects on TV and in the movies. How frightening some of this must be to them, as they cannot always make this distinction. Spiders or bats are a good theme as well, with the focus being realistic and science-based - not scary.
  • Another simple curriculum shift could be including a "Costume Shop" in the Dramatic Play area. This gives children the choice to experience dressing up, with more purposeful, experiential play.
  • Place a pumpkin in the media table for the children to scoop out the insides over several days. Obviously, this is much more meaningful and sensory than having the children sit and watch an adult carve a pumpkin - which is exactly what I did my first 5 years of teaching. Add gourds, pumpkins, fall leaves and Indian Corn to your Science Area. Incorporate fall colors into your art area, art choices, and experiences. Do leaf rubbings and paint with corn cobs. Make a leaf matching game or Bingo. Make a pumpkin seed counting game. Make apple cider with the children. Take a leaf-finding walk. Fall is a great time of year for experiencing and learning!

If you still choose to celebrate Halloween:

  • Do not allow the parents to have their children dress in costumes that are violent or are violent characters. As you are well aware, this lends itself to aggressive types of play - and we have a hard enough time with that already. Stay away from any type of "scary", gruesome, or just ugly decorations as well in your center, as these can be frightening for young children. Respect childrens' fears, and validate their feelings.
  • Think about possibly having a theme to assist you in fostering appropriate costumes. If you have parents dress their children as characters from stories, you can relate the experience to literacy and the fun of books.
  • Have a couple of extra costumes available for that parent that forgets to bring one for their child. (You will want to confirm that it is an issue of oversight, and not that they do not want their child participating.)
  • Encourage parents to bring in nutritious snacks and treats. Limit what the children eat, and be aware of how much sugar they are ingesting. Send extra treats home, or spread them over several days.
  • Be mindful of the types of candy young children can choke on. Parents may bring in things that we should not serve.
  • Less can be more. Do we not set children up to expect more and more? Keep it simple. Children do not start out expecting constant entertainment and a sack-load of candy - and they really do not benefit from either. We can over stimulate and overwhelm children fairly easily with this type of event.
  • Check with your Director and make sure what you plan on doing is okay and consistent with the other classrooms. It is extremely difficult if one sibling has a full-blown party, bringing home a bag of candy, and another doesn't.
  • Check pockets over the next few days. Children will bring things in, and again, we need to be aware of the potential for choking.
  • And lastly - have realistic expectations. Don't plan on the children napping. It is extremely difficult for them to wind down after so much excitement and sugar!