What is the value of Halloween for children?

Some things are spooky. Some are scary. Even so, some are fun and silly. There is candy to beg for, maybe some tricks, too. There is dress-up and imagination. There is nighttime and darkness to consider. There is a sense of mystique and magic.

One of the children I work with in therapy said Halloween is his favorite holiday because he can dress up and be whatever he wants to be that he can’t be in real life. I remember dreaming I could be like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn so I could get into mischief that sounded like fun without ever having to worry about real-life consequences.

That is the similar purpose of play therapy. In play therapy, a child gets to pretend, imagine, create, fantasize as s/he develops identity and a better sense of self. It affords children the opportunity to be anonymous and experiment with what it might feel like to be a certain personality. In doing so, they can add to the repertoire of what makes them unique or overcome fears and feelings of powerlessness.

According to Garry Landreth, Ed.D., LPC, RPT-S, “A major function of play is the changing of what may be unmanageable in reality to manageable situations through symbolic play.”

How does dress-up support a child’s development?

1. Brain building: Dressing up actually helps brain building. Dramatic play draws on recall of what they have seen, heard, wonder about, worry about, fear and enjoy. Children can “try on” different personalities and learn what they feel like.
2. Vocabulary building: Dress-up encourages vocabulary building. Children can use phrases and voice intonations that they ordinarily hadn’t used. In turn, this can foster conversational skills.
3. Problem-solving: Children can practice problem-solving. Which costume should they select? Do they want extra props? Should they wear a mask or makeup? Do they want to make something for their costume? Do they want to coordinate their costume with a sibling or friend? How do they decide? Is there a wrong decision? Hopefully, they will learn that their decisions are okay, but some children take costume selection VERY seriously.
4. Empathy: Viewing the world through a character, helps children develop empathy and understanding of others as well as themselves. That is why dramatic play is so integral to play therapy.
5. Emotional development: Halloween is an occasion for children to enhance their emotional development by acting out fears and overcoming feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. Whether they witnessed something violent in person or on TV, were involved in an accident, or had the real experience of being bullied, children face situations daily that they may not understand.
6. Socialization: Trick-or-treating or simply fun with family, friends, and neighbors practices social rules, conversational skills, and manners.
7. Imagination: How natural it is for children to play out their fantasies and realities. It is through self-expression and exploration of possibilities that they develop their self-concept.

Children seem so fascinated by costumes. Parents may have some limits based on cost, religious beliefs, gore and macabre, gender preferences, heroes or villains. This could be a good time to practice negotiation, compromise, problem-solving and values clarification.

Remember, though, that children express themselves through their costume selection and appreciate parent approval that recognizes this is pretend. Whenever parents feel able, it is best to allow their children to select “what they want to be.”

Most important at Halloween is to stay safe and have fun!