The Culture of Costumes on Creative Learning Experiences

Two young children wearing costumes | early childhood education lafayette louisville boulder county
Dressing up in costumes is a rich learning opportunity for creativity, imagination, and whole-child development

Here we are in the glorious week of parenting between Halloween and Daylight Savings. The time change is certainly a double whammy on top of a week full of extra stimulation, extra sugar, and extra activities- all of which probably coincided with later-than-usual bedtimes and probably a few extra meltdowns (trust us, your children aren’t the only ones!). For all of the challenges and inconveniences to adult that this week created for adults, we’d also like to point out some of the amazing benefits of Halloween from a child development perspective!

  • Daily opportunities for creativity and dramatic play– “becoming” a character fosters the growth of imagination- a necessary ingredient to innovative thinking, an existential requirement that our world will depend on!
  • Dramatic play supports language development, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. Children must stretch their curiosity capacity to negotiate a social setting together- have you ever wondered what Wonderwoman, a pirate, Elsa, and a dragon might all talk about if they all met on the playground? How would they play and freely move? What heroic deeds might they be called to serve, and in the face of what challenges or foes? We’ve all been honored to witness the rich language, humor,  and movement-oriented play emerge out of dress-up opportunities. We also notice children cooperating to help one another with zippers and accessories.
  • Dressing in character lays the foundational skills for empathy: For us to be able to see another person and move towards them with kindness and compassion requires practicing perspective-taking- this organically arises out of imagination-led activities like dressing in costume. We’ve also observed a similar phenomenon of empathy or “other-sight” skills emerging through the storytelling process. Like costumes, books also act as mirrors, windows, and doorways to other-focused perspectives.
  • Costumes engage movement and fine motor skills. While costumes that inhibit movement or pose hazards are problematic, moving a body in a costume is a brain-and-balance opportunity for children to experiment with spacial awareness and orientation (trust me- last summer I once played soccer in an inflatable T-Rex costume. Also, costumes inspire practicing the fine motor skills necessary for velcro, buttons, zippers, or accessories. Costume play for younger children supports practical life skills of independence and dressing.
  • Community building opportunities based on inclusion: Halloween, as it exists in our community, has more to it than simply the glorification of gore, candy, and capitalism. This fall holiday also contains a community-based ritual of the door-to-door procession. Many neighborhoods put on parades, where families gather in costume, and then parade around the block past the homes, where people stand in front of their homes and decorations, waving to neighbors, parents, and children alike. Neighbors welcome strangers to their doors, and open their doors, repeatedly! Adults and children have short conversations, practicing greetings and words of gratitude. Children love to talk about their costumes! We believe this has a positive benefit for a community every time human beings see one another and interact with intention.
  • Social-emotional learning opportunities to talk about emotions and perspectives: Some people have gigantic skeletons on their lawns. On the way to Treehouse Learning, each of us traveled past the severed head dangling from the mailbox on 96th St. and probably experienced different emotions as adults related to our views on the appropriateness of a dangling head. Naming our fears, or articulating things that maybe look scary to some people is actually an incredibly pro-social skill that supports children to move into whole-brain integration where they can face, and find resilience, in things that feel scary. This also allows children to hold space that while they might not personally view something as scary, other people might have a different perspective, which is also a skill that ties into empathy.
  • Movement with a purpose: I watched my nearly-5-year-old hurdling over bushes, skipping at full throttle down sidewalks, and climbing up porch stairs two at a time, fully unaware that many people might consider this type of strenuous physical activity exercise. Healthy movement naturally arises from internally-motivated children.
  • Literacy and Math skills: Trick-or-treating is full of opportunities for counting houses, pieces of candy, or dancing skeletons. A bowl left on a front porch with a sign saying “Please take 3 pieces” gives even pre-literate children an opportunity to connect words and symbols to meaning. I witnessed my child deliberately investigating and selecting her 3 pieces, and then informing newly arrived kids, “the sign says you can take 3”, showing that she recognized something was being communicated.
  • Creativity + movement + connection leads to whole-brain integration. When our Brain, Body, and Self are fully integrated, our nervous system regulated and we’re operating out of the Green Zone, we actually exercise our brain’s capacity for creative thinking. In a bit of chicken-or-the-egg reasoning, laughing, playing, and joyful creativity both supports the process of whole-brain integration and is also the organic and inevitable result of green-zone regulation and whole-brain integration. Joyful, playful learning is cyclical and self-perpetuating for all.
The community-based rituals of trick-or-treating are blank canvases for children’s learning experiences and whole-person development

Our Takeaway: Costumes are absolutely wonderful learning opportunities. We love incorporating this imagination-skill-building activity into our curriculum on a regular basis and has inspired us to implement a monthly “Wear Your Imagination Day.” Most children would instinctively do this Monday-Sunday anyway if they had the opportunity, so the invitation is primarily for adults to feel more competent in empowering children’s creative costume imagination.

A few values we’d like to suggest for “Wear Your Imagination” Days:

  • How much of the costume can be “discovered” through items you can make, already own, can repurpose, or recycle? Can you, alongside your child, create a costume without spending any money, or creating waste? With that, we are big fans of a costume exchange. To the extent possible, we can keep the abundance of generally inexpensively-made costumes in circulation as long as possible to prolong the inevitable time before they ultimately end up in a landfill by exchanging them with others.
  • How can we partner together (center and home) to support the relationship-based learning activities associated with the planning, preparation, and pretending involved in a child dressing in costume? How can each of us accept the invitation into the kind of vulnerable creativity that emerges out of whole-brain integration? Relationship-building creative play-based learning opportunities are positive for adults and positive for children.

Imagination Practice

And yes- you also read that right- imagination is a skill that can be developed through practice. We believe all children are born artists, writers, scientists, and explorers, wired to learn about the world through all of their senses. Our role in quality early childhood education is to foster, nourish, and cultivate the innate, connected creativity that each of us is born with.

While Halloween is a distinctly American phenomenon with specific marketing, connotations, and rituals, we also recognize the opportunity to dig a little deeper into some of the learning opportunities through this widely recognized cultural phenomenon. As individual parents and educators, while we do not control the “big picture” details associated with the holiday as expressed publicly, we always retain the ability to respond intentionally and to shape the experience to better align with our values. When we take the curious perspective of recognizing the opportunities for learning, self-discovery, and imagination-based play, Halloween itself becomes an entirely different kind of experience.

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