Pint-size ghosts, two-foot goblins, and more Elsas from Frozen than you could shake an icicle at—plus all that candy! Who doesn’t love Halloween? Actually, lots of people, and many of them are under the age of seven.
Halloween can actually be a terrifying time for small children, especially toddlers who don’t yet know the difference between “real” and “pretend.” As Halloween costumes and decorations get more and more elaborate (and, frankly, ever more gross), it can sometimes seem that the entire month of October is set up to cause your child nightmares. And it’s very important to take that fear seriously, without judgment or shame. But you don’t have to keep your small children locked safely inside the house for 31 days. There are plenty of ways to celebrate the season and even to find the fun in fright-night.
Focus on Fall. October isn’t just about Halloween. There’s plenty for kids to enjoy about this beautiful month: collecting colorful leaves, going apple-picking, exploring corn mazes (with an adult close by!), picking out a pumpkin at a pumpkin patch. There’s also plenty to teach—in fun, interactive ways, of course—about changes of season, farms and harvests, and seasonal traditions in different places.
Activate the Artistry. Decorating your house and carving the pumpkin are great family activities that can bring out the artiste in little kids. Help them cut out construction-paper pumpkins and string them together to hang on the front door. Ask them to design a face for the jack-o-lantern. Let them make a collage of their fall leaves.
Collaborate in the Kitchen. Most children love to help out with cooking projects, especially when there’s a sweet treat at the end of it! There are lots of good options this time of year: pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread and pumpkin seeds; apple cake and decorated caramel apples (just be very careful if making your own caramel—it gets super hot!); chocolate cake and chocolate chip cookies. What, chocolate’s not a seasonal ingredient? It is in my house...every season.
Celebrate the Silly. There are ways to get into the Halloween spirit without going to “the dark side.” Use paper plates, crayons, ribbons, and sequins or glitter to make masks that are lighthearted and fun. Create inexpensive costumes based on your child’s favorite character or hero (the name of the game here is to create a suggestion of the character, not a photo-likeness!). But keep in mind that some children don’t like to wear costumes or masks at all, and if that’s the case with your child, don’t force it on them. Chances are that in the next year or two, they’ll be excited about the whole Halloween experience.
Emphasize treats, not tricks. There’s no requirement that little children go trick-or-treating, and if your child doesn’t want to, no sweat! When trick-or-treaters come to the door, you can either keep your child at a distance, or perhaps ask the visitors to lift up scary masks so your child can understand that they’re “just pretend.”
And in between groups of trick-or-treaters, you can snuggle with your kids on the couch, eating popcorn and reading funny Halloween books or watching a DVD of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! This way, you’ll create warm and memorable Halloween memories your child will treasure for years to come.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.