Provided by the Lucy Daniels Center Staff


Halloween: such a magical time of year! Who can resist the excitement of neighborhood trick-or-treating and a bag full of sweet delights? Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Halloween is the magic of dressing up. Children of all ages are out and about in costumes ranging from little round pumpkins to creepy vampires. How do you know what kind of costume is right for your child? Considering your child’s age – and how dependent they are upon you to provide feelings of safety – may help you make a more informed choice that has your child’s best interest at heart.

Let’s first take a look at the role of dressing up in a young child’s life. Dressing up is a form of imaginative play. In play, children explore various roles (such as pretending to be a mother caring for her baby or a brave policeman capturing bad guys). In moments of true play, these roles may feel very real to young children as they attempt to conquer the good and bad that exists both in the real world (think cops and robbers) as well as their internal world (think about their moments of being a behaving child vs. a misbehaving child). Thinking about how much your child invests in this type of play, as well as how much he depends on you for feelings of safety (or reality checks), can help you determine what type of costume is right for your child.

Two years old and younger

Most children under two have not yet developed a true capacity to engage in pretend play, and therefore, dressing up has little, if any, meaning to them. Having a costume put on at this age is no different from being dressed in an everyday outfit chosen by mommy or daddy. Their play consists primarily of exploring their surroundings through their senses – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of their world. Children in this age group depend completely on their parents and caregivers for feelings of safety. Keep Halloween short and sweet for this age group – there is a lot for the senses to process on this vibrant night of the year.

Three – five years old

Children in this age group have moved beyond solely exploring and are beginning to integrate – that is, piece together – their surroundings with their expanding minds. They are organizing data and developing an understanding of why and how things work in the world. (A two-year-old looks at the sky and says, “Sky!” A four-year-old looks at the sky and asks, “Why is it blue?”) Children in this age group rely on their caregivers to help them with this data organization task, and they often take what they are learning and explore it in their imaginative play. The boundaries between play and reality can sometimes become blurred for children in this age group. (Think, for example, of the child who becomes frightened when the “bad guys” are chasing him and needs comforting or a break from the play.) Furthermore, children tend to see themselves as the character they are portraying in costume, which can make dressing up (or being praised) as a particularly evil character (such as a menacing vampire or evil Darth Vader) feel confusing or unsettling. Dressing up on Halloween is a similar experience, and therefore, helping your child choose a costume that feels good and safe will help ensure that your child feels good and safe throughout the evening. Appropriate costumes for this age group include community helpers (firefighters or policemen), fairytale characters (princesses or knights), or superheroes who are good-natured (Batman or Superman).

Six years old and older

Children six and older have developed a clearer sense of what is real and what is pretend. Around this age, you can begin to shift the costume decision – within reason, of course – to your growing child. Designing and making your own creative costumes together can become a fun and engaging pre-Halloween activity.

On a final note, be available to your young children on this exciting night of the year, repeating throughout the evening that costumes are just costumes. Talk ahead of time about whose houses you will be visiting and explain that the people answering the doors are the neighbors you know. Scary surprises may be fun for older children, but can quickly become too frightening for the young child who still has fuzzy boundaries between reality and fantasy. Remember that you are your child’s main interpreter of the world, so talk about what is going on and keep your evening simple, safe, and predictable.

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