Halloween and the Importance of Make-Believe


An interview with Dorothy Singer

My son is totally and completely obsessed with Halloween.  Given the frequency of Halloween decorations around our house no matter the season, a food delivery guy started asking, “is this The Halloween House?”  When my son’s preschool announced the kids weren’t allowed to wear costumes on Halloween at school, we joked that it was the ONE day of the year that he wouldn’t dress up.  While I love and admire his hugely active imagination and the stories and adventures he devises daily through this kind of play, I’ve also wondered what is at the root of his deep desire to pretend to be someone else?  And what does it mean when he so often wants to play the bad guy?  We asked esteemed Yale researcher and author, Dorothy G. Singer, to shed a little light on the purpose of make-believe.  — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, TMC President

Why do children like imaginative play, make-believe and dress up?

Young kids are drawn to imaginative play because it gives them the opportunity to explore all the grown-up roles they observe all around them. This helps them to “try on” identities and get a better sense of who they are in the world. Playing other people empowers young children and gives them a sense of the real world, which makes them feel more in control of their surroundings and internal life.

Research points to children as young as 18 months playing make-believe. (For example, when they feed their teddy bear.) The peak years of this kind of imaginative play is 3-5 years old. It’s interesting to note that research also reports that most schizophrenics did not engage in imaginative play when they were children. They had less practice in differentiation of what is real  from fantasy. When children play make-believe, notice they often say,  “ Let’s pretend,” or “Let’s make-believe.”

How do young children benefit from dressing-up and playing other people?

When you try on another role, you begin to empathize with other people. Supernatural figures or royal characters are alluring to young kids because they are larger-than-life. This connects easily to a child’s inclination to see the world as big and dramatic. While pretending to be other people, they are becoming more imaginative, more creative, and expanding their vocabulary. They are getting a sense of time and place. It also helps them understand process and sequence. If a child is playing a letter carrier, the child has to sequence the actions of this profession, e.g. You have to get the letters out and put them in the bag, then you have to deliver the letters. Children get a better understanding of logistics. When playing a superhero, little kids, so accustomed to (literally) looking up at people, get the chance to tell other people what to do, or save the day. The child is then imbued with powerful characteristics — a nice change of pace for them.

Why are some kids fixated on playing villains or bad guys?

When children are scared of mean people, through the process of playing them, they get a sense of control over their fears. Puppets are an especially effective way to play villains. There’s a certain kind of mastery children need – since they tend to feel as if they’re always in a state of flux. They like to feel they are competent in a dangerous world.  Of course, they need their parents to make them feel truly safe. When children play the bad guy, it puts distance between them and their fears and offers them control. They therefore feel less frightened because they are imposing the fear, not receiving it. In general, children are really susceptible to fear, so when they choose to play mean or scary characters, they are steering themselves into the world of fantasy, navigating in and out of imagination.

How can we help our children, terrified by the scary images displayed during Halloween season, understand the difference between real and make-believe?

  • It’s important for young kids to be exposed to Halloween images before the holiday rolls around. This way, they build up a kind of immunity to the fear, and might be able to see it as fun and thrilling, instead of terrifying.
  • One way to desensitize kids to the scary Halloween images is to look through Halloween books to show how the pictures of the characters are just in costume. Libraries are great for this. Talk about how it’s fun to put on costumes or paint faces.
  • If you make your kids’ costumes, you can point out, step-by-step, the process and break down the mystery behind dressing-up.
  • Making jack-o-lanterns can assist in showing how you can control the expression by making it look happy or scary. By doing it together, the child experiences in real time the act of pretending in a safe environment. Keep repeating the concepts of pretend and real.
  • Drawing and working with clay are great mediums for kids to deal with their fears.
  • Using puppets to reenact stories allows children to control scary events.
  • Parents should use caution and not overdo the exposure. But, helping your children face their fears is better than avoiding it. When it comes to Halloween, and all those trick-or-treaters coming to the door, the less surprise the better.

What are a few games parents can play with their children to foster make-believe?

  • Have your child start out small like a balloon, and then grow her body so it’s big like a giant, or have your child roll into a ball as if he is a seed, then have him grow tall like a tree, with his branches spread out.
  • You can play magician. Find a stick for a wand, and you can use a towel for a cape. Give the child words, or have the child make up magic words (like abracadabra). Then you can take a piece of play dough and have it turn into lots of different things like a snake, or a banana, etc.
  • Hats are a great tool. A hat can be all a child needs to transport him into a pretend world… Firefighter, baseball player, farmer, or repairman.
  • A big appliance box is one of the best household objects around for imagination. It can be used for transportation – where the child can use the box for a car, submarine, rocket ship. Hang a curtain on it, and it can become a puppet theater.
  • You can play train by lining up a bunch of cushions side by side to use as seats. Put dolls on the seats for passengers. Parent or child can play conductor, by collecting tickets from “everyone”. You can pretend to look out the window to see and name what’s passing by.

What purpose, socially-emotionally, is there in imaginative play for children?

  • Positive emotions. Children tend to be happiest when playing.
  • Make-believe play actually helps children determine the difference between reality and fantasy, which is a tremendous step developmentally for children.
  • Their vocabulary develops. For example, if they’re playing a pirate, they’ll likely say words like “eye patch” or “pirate ship” or “treasure”, etc.
  • They build emotional awareness. They become very aware of their feelings and moods and the feelings of others.
  • They build compassion. By playing doctor, for example, they are taking care of others, and fixing problems.
  • By shifting from one character to another, they begin to learn how to live in different situations.
  • They learn impulse control. If a child gets too angry when she plays, friends will stop playing with her, and so they self-regulate. This enables children to learn how to channel their anger in a more socially acceptable way.
  • Sequencing. If the child is playing “birthday party”, a child learns the conventions of a party, the singing of Happy Birthday, the eating of cake and ice cream and, finally, the opening of the gifts. Or, if you play the restaurant game, they learn about what happens first when you order a meal from the waiter, the waiting for the food to be prepared, served, and then the bill that follows. All this kind of make believe helps children learn how to function in the real world.
  • Both fine and major motor skills are exercised. Playing with puppets or pretending to make a cake or rocketing to the moon — all these scenarios encourage the child to use their  muscles, in different ways.
  • Playing something that really interests them increases their attention span.

Dorothy G. Singer is Senior Research Scientist in the Psychology Department at Yale University, where she co-directs the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center. She has written several books including, The House of Make-Believe, Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination,  Imagination and Play in the Electronic Ageand Make-Believe: Games and Activities for Imaginative Play.


This article was originally published October 25, 2012.


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Posted in: Expert Advice, Holidays