Picking Age-Appropriate Halloween Costumes

A guide for different stages
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On Halloween night, children of all ages dress up in costumes ranging from cute characters to scary monsters of all sorts. How do you know what kind of costume is right for your child? Considering your child’s age and how dependent he is upon you to help him feel safe may help you make that decision — or set a limit — that has your child’s best interest at heart. 

Dressing up is a form of imaginative play. In play, children explore various roles, including “good guys” and “bad guys.” In moments of true play, these roles may feel real to young children as they attempt to conquer the good and bad that exists both in the real world and in their internal world (e.g., their moments of behaving versus misbehaving). Thinking about how much your child invests in this type of play, as well as how much she depends on you for feelings of safety (or reality checks), can help you determine what type of costume is appropriate for her.


Ages 2 and Younger

Most children under age 2 have not developed a capacity to fully engage in pretend play, so dressing up likely has little meaning to them. Their play consists primarily of exploring their surroundings through senses. Children in this age group depend on parents and caregivers for feelings of safety. Keep Halloween short and sweet for them — there is already a lot for their senses to process during this busy night.


Ages 3-5

Children in this age group have moved beyond solely exploring and are beginning to make sense of their world. They are developing an understanding of why and how things work. This age group relies on caregivers to help them organize this kind of data, and they often take what they are learning and explore it in their imaginative play. 

The boundaries between play and reality can sometimes become blurred for children in this age group. Think, for example, of a child who becomes frightened or overstimulated when the “bad guys” are chasing him. Dressing up on Halloween is a similar experience, so helping your child choose a costume that feels good and safe will help ensure that he has a positive experience throughout the evening. Appropriate costumes for this age group include community helpers, fairytale characters or good-natured superheroes. 


Ages 6 and Older

Children in this age group have developed a clearer sense of what is real and what is pretend. Once a child reaches age 6, you can begin to allow her to choose her costume — within reason, of course. Designing and making creative costumes together becomes a fun and engaging pre-Halloween activity. 

As children grow into their early teen years, wearing costumes on Halloween moves beyond the simple fun of dressing up and turns into an outlet for individual expression. The balance between healthy expression of individuality and what is appropriate for your family will be rooted in ongoing discussions about your values, and may involve compromises on both parts.

Overall, be available to your young children during this exciting night of the year, repeating throughout the evening that costumes are just costumes. Talk ahead of time about whose houses they will be visiting and explain that the people answering the doors are neighbors they already know. Scary surprises may be fun for older children, but they can quickly become frightening for a young child who still has fuzzy boundaries between reality and fantasy.

Remember: You are your child’s main interpreter of the world, so talk to him about what is going on, and keep your evening simple, safe and predictable.

Jennifer Reid, who has a master’s degree in early childhood education from New York University, is director of the early school at Lucy Daniels Center. She began teaching in 2001 and has worked at the Lucy Daniels School since 2005. The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.