TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Whether or not you embrace the pageantry of Halloween, the parent-child activities associated with the holiday incorporate core developmental exercises for children, according to a psychology professor at The University of Alabama.
The buildup to Halloween lasts nearly the entire month of October, from visiting the local pumpkin patch, to “trunk or treat,” to designing costumes and participating in neighborhood trick-or-treats. The fall weather that usually accompanies this month provides added motivation to enjoy the outdoor activities associated with Halloween.
While Halloween has evolved from an annual remembrance of the deceased to a commercialized holiday for both children and adults, parents should seize the opportunity to be creative, get outside and spend time with their children, said Dr. Ansley Gilpin, UA associate professor of psychology and lead researcher at UA’s “Knowledge in Development Lab.”
“Halloween is age-scalable, too,” Gilpin said. “A baby is happy to go out and see things, touch a pumpkin, crumble leaves in their hands – it’s an enriching experience. For toddlers, they get to taste things they haven’t eaten before, experience a new art project, get to dress up and pretend.
“Preschoolers and early elementary-aged children are in the height of the pretending stage, where they learn to take other people’s perspectives, which is the basis for empathy. As silly as it sounds, dressing up and pretending to be someone else helps them learn to take another person’s perspective and be more empathetic.”
Gilpin said the most beneficial aspect Halloween provides for children is the time spent with parents, which can help form positive family connections and serve as a reward for good behavior and a substitute for typical rewards, like toys.
“And, it doesn’t have to be expensive,” Gilpin said. “You can play at a local pumpkin patch. You go walk around in the park and pick different colored leaves for a craft. It doesn’t have to be related to spookiness or a Halloween theme. Simply enjoying the nice weather together is a healthy, fun and enriching family activity.”
Older children benefit from Halloween activities, too, particularly in peer development. School is highly structured, but playtime with friends provides opportunities to learn how to be a good friend, Gilpin said.
“Learning how to socialize with friends is really important for kids as they enter high school and college,” Gilpin said. “Fall activities are a good opportunity for parents to help arrange a fun time with friends.”
Just over a year ago, Gilpin received a $200,000 grant from the Imagination Institute, based at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, to advance our understanding of the benefits of imaginative play for children.
The study will determine if engaging in imaginative play boosts cognitive functioning, which is vital between the ages of 3 and 5 because children rely on these skills in school. Gilpin hypothesizes that imaginative play helps children learn to pay attention, have self-control, and remember information better to facilitate learning.
The study could have an impact on preschool and early elementary curriculum for both typically developing children as well as those who are delayed.
“The good news is that exercising cognitive function through imaginative play may be an easy, fun, and virtually cost-free way to help children be ready for school,” Gilpin said.