Madison Children's Museum's blog: news and musings about the museum, issues in the field, and the American Girl Benefit Sale.
Halloween is a popular holiday, but its significance for children goes beyond the sugar buzz. Halloween touches directly on two concepts that are particularly important for healthy growth and development: confronting fear and playing pretend.
Playing pretend is more than just fun and games — it is absolutely critical to children’s development. From mimicking the adults around them to creating elaborate stories, children are hard-wired to play pretend.
Pretending to be someone else reinforces the critical lesson that there are other people in the world with different perspectives, different ways of acting, and different lives than the child’s own. Children have to learn to “put themselves in another’s shoes.” Playing pretend helps develop a child’s empathy, which is crucial for every aspect of social interaction.
Imaginary play also lets a child try on different personas and learn more about themselves in the process. Different costumes open up varying avenues for self-exploration. Pretending to be a grown-up lets children try on careers and identities as a rehearsal for what they can do in later life. And, as every parent knows, testing limits is an inescapable part of child development; pretending to be a “bad guy” lets children play with societal rules in a way that won’t get them into real trouble. Or pretending to be an animal or an object like a truck opens up a whole world of potential behavior that isn’t part of daily life; parrots are flashy and loud, monkeys are silly and active, dinosaurs are intimidating. When children pretend to be different characters they can “test drive” aspects of their own personality and persona. What would it be like if I were braver? Sillier? More outgoing? Quieter? Becoming a different character, both through practice and contrast, helps children develop their own sense of self, and who they are in the world.
Halloween isn’t just about playing dress-up, it’s often spooky and scary. For children, this provides a perfect opportunity for a critical developmental process: assessing risk. As adults, we are so used to assessing risk that we hardly notice it. Children have to learn what parts of their world they are right to be scared of, and which fears they can work to overcome. The same child might run screaming from the vacuum cleaner but think nothing of climbing perilously up a bookshelf. Kids learn through playing, so giving them the opportunity to assess risk and overcome their fears in play is critical to their growth and development.
At Madison Children’s Museum, many of our exhibits are deliberately built to give children the feeling of doing something that seems a little risky, like crossing the bridge in the Wildernest, which wobbles when you walk on it. The first time they encounter that situation they might be too scared to even attempt it, and that’s okay. They can watch and see other children crossing the bridge safely. Then they may cross slowly, putting their feet down carefully and holding onto the side. Eventually, they realize that they’re okay and start crossing quickly, even enjoying the wobbly sensation. Sometimes this process happens over the course of a few minutes, sometimes it takes many repeat visits. But the end result is that children learn they can overcome a situation that once intimidated them and learn from that experience.
Halloween provides a wonderful opportunity for that same kind of “risky” play. Goofy looking bats and silly spiders can spook kids just the right amount, letting them experience something a little unnerving and teaching them that they don’t have to be controlled by their fears. An astronaut couldn’t get to the space station if they never learned how to conquer their fear of heights. A great surgeon couldn’t save lives if they never learned to get over their “icky” reaction to seeing blood or body parts. When a child comes to one of our science events and sees a real brain, brought by the UW Neuroscience Training Program, they get more than a chance to learn about the human body: when they put on a glove and hold that brain themselves, they learn that they don’t have to be ruled by their initial aversions. Fear is an essential human emotion, but learning to accept it and even play with it will help children better navigate their world.
The museum is decorated for Halloween and kids are encouraged to wear their costumes to the museum when they visit. On a daily basis, our staff introduce Halloween themes into our regular education programs.