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Imaginative Play in Action: It’s Scary How Educational Halloween Can Be!

Anna Housley Juster, Ph.D., Senior Director, Child Development & Community Engagement, Boston Children’s Museum
By Anna Housley Juster, Ph.D., Senior Director, Child Development & Community Engagement, Boston Children’s Museum

Photo: Children and adults imagine, play, and learn together every day at Boston Children’s Museum. Photo by Joel Haskell

With Halloween just around the corner, your home might be filled with the excitement of costumes and playing make believe. It is a fun time of year for children, especially when it comes to choosing costumes and dressing up.

Imaginative play is such an important part of children's development – it supports their language skills, social and emotional learning, and encourages their creativity and problem solving. We sat down with Dr. Anna Housley Juster, Senior Director of Child Development & Community Engagement at Boston Children’s Museum and asked her questions about Halloween, imaginative play and why it all matters when it comes to child development. 

1. How can Halloween be a fun time for parents to play and share language-rich conversations together?

Halloween is such a great time to play, imagine, and talk with our kids! For example, when my daughter Alex was 3 years old, she announced, “Mommy, I want to be mac-n-cheese sauce for Halloween.” Not a witch. Not a princess. Not a superhero. Mac-n-cheese…sauce.

In Alex’s 3-year-old mind she must have been thinking: I like mac-n-cheese; I really like the sauce. Why not become this food for Halloween? In my adult mind I was thinking: Wow that sounds like a lot of work. But Alex was so excited, I thought we’d give it a try.

We looked at a box of mac-n-cheese together. “What color is the sauce?” I asked. “Orange….really orange,” Alex answered. We talked about the shape of the macaroni in the picture. We realized that maybe we could get orange poster board (to be the sauce) and attach uncooked macaroni to it. “What can we use to make sure the macaroni sticks?” I asked.

“Tape!” Alex said, but then we tried sticking a piece of macaroni to the poster board with tape and learned that we could no longer see the macaroni. “Glue!” Alex said.  

Alex helped glue several pieces of macaroni onto the orange poster board, and I used a black marker to write MAC-N-CHEESE on the front of her costume and SAUCE on the back – just in case anyone was confused. She got a lot of compliments on that costume, and we had a lot of fun creating it and talking about it together!

No matter what Halloween costumes your children pick this year, ask them questions to help them think about what they are becoming: “What sounds do you make?” “What colors are in your costume?” “How do you move?” “How do you feel as a scary ______?” “Can I pretend to be a ______ too?”

Really listen to what your children say and play along or share a story about a Halloween memory of your own. Tell them about what you liked to imagine when you were a child.  

2. What is imaginative play?

Imaginative play is what happens when children make up their own stories, pretend and find new ways to use objects.

A building block can become a truck, a sandwich and a telephone all in the space of a few minutes depending on the child’s imagination and what she needs in her play. A cardboard box can be just about anything! Children often pretend to be moms, dads, and grandparents to “try on” what it’s like to be a grown up, to be in charge. Toddlers and preschoolers may pretend to be babies again to explore what it feels like to be “really little.” Kids will pretend to be bad, angry monsters or pirates to feel more powerful than they usually feel in everyday life.

In imaginative play, children go beyond the reality of their everyday lives; they invent challenges for themselves and then conquer these challenges and they talk. They may talk out loud, whisper to themselves or think through the language of their play in their own minds. Kids work through a lot of their most unique thoughts and ideas when they are imagining in their play; they develop new curiosities and new ways to think about the world and how it works.

3. How does imaginative play benefit young children's language development?  

Because imaginative play can sometimes seem strange or goofy to adults, it’s easy to think this type of play is just something our kids need to go through or a stage they will outgrow. This is not true!

The truth is this: Imaginative play is one of the very best tools children have to help them get ready for success in school and in life. When adults support children’s imaginative play, we actually boost their brain development.

When we play with our children, we directly support their language development starting when they are tiny babies. Even in the classic game of peek-a-boo we see the back and forth of conversation.

We cover our faces with our hands and for a moment, we pretend we’re not there. Then…peek-a-boo! We are back! Baby smiles because this is funny, surprising, and in some way, he knew we were pretending all along. Believe it or not, this back-and-forth exchange—adult does something playful, baby smiles, adult responds to the baby’s smile, the baby reacts again—is critical for babies’ future language development. It’s like we are in a ping pong game, taking turns communicating back and forth with our babies, and this is one of the first critical steps in getting children ready to talk.

As children get older, their imaginative play becomes more and more complex with more details, more rules, and more vocabulary. If we listen carefully to what our kids are saying when they play and watch them closely, we will find that they spend a lot of their time going back and forth between their imaginary worlds and their reality. This is completely normal, and it’s one of most important ways children learn about the world.

4. What are some fun, everyday ways for parents to boost children’s language skills while engaging in imaginative play this Halloween?

Children are experts in their own play, but they need our support.  It’s not always easy when dealing with the reality of work, home responsibilities, and the business of everyday life. When we find the time and patience to support little “moments of play” for our kids, we show that we care about their creativity, their personal ideas and interests. We can directly help boost their language development.

Here are just a couple of ideas for free, easy ways to support children’s language skills during Halloween or any time!:

  • New Ways to Use Everyday Stuff:
    • Hold a paper towel tube up to your eye, and act like a pirate with a telescope. Hand the tube to your child!
    • Put a cardboard box on the floor with some crayons, and ask your child what she wants to do with the box. 
  • Time to Make a Rhyme:
    • Make up fun rhymes for Halloween words: What rhymes with “boo”? Zoo! Moo! Through!
    • What rhymes with “ghost”? TOAST!
  • Guess my Costume:
    • For older children (3 and up), play an imaginative guessing game:
      • I’m imagining my own costume. It’s going to be red. I am going to wear a hat. I will carry a hose. I will ride on a red truck. What am I? Let kids guess or ask additional questions to figure it out.
      • Now see if your child can give you clues so you can guess the costume she is imagining!

My daughter Alex is now 9 years old. I think I might play this guessing game with her: Alex, guess my costume. I am imagining being orange and loaded with macaroni. My ingredients are milk and cheese, and I’m something kids might eat for lunch.

We’ll see if she remembers!

Happy Halloween!