6 ideas to make Hallowe’en a little less grotesque and a little more significant.
Hallowe’en… It seems nearly impossible to tackle this holiday with a Montessori approach, what with all the plastic tat, fantastical monsters, mugging neighbours for sweets and the Godawful music.
However, it’s not impossible to try to balance this Celebration of Tat with some Knowledge and Understanding of the World. There are interesting aspects of Hallowe’en to consider, namely the traditions, history and cultural interpretations. Here are six suggestions to explore Hallowe’en with young children in a non-scary, non-plastic and informative way.
Trace the roots of Hallowe’en.
On All Hallows Eve the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead are said to be at its thinnest.
Maybe avoid the idea of spirits passing into our world and wreaking havoc unless you want hysterical children refusing to ever sleep again. However, there are interesting reasons why this celebration has become part of our yearly festivities.
The customs and tradition of Hallowe’en go back hundreds of years. The festival of Samhain (pronounced sowin) was celebrated by the Celts at the start of November to mark the end of the harvest and to make predications about the harshness of the coming winter. They would wear animal heads and tell fortunes, which could make for some terrifying role play at home.
A major part of Samhain, as well as religions and cultures around the world at this time of year, is remembering our ancestors. It’s a great time to crack open the family photo albums, ask grandparents for stories of their childhood, and copy photos to stick to a family tree. We are going to have a special family dinner and toast to absent family members, and then snuggle under animal skins (faux fur blanket) by the fire to tell stories.
Samhain was incorporated into Christianity to combine with All Souls’ Day on the 2nd November. Soul cakes were baked and left on the porch with a drink for the dearly departed. On All Hallows Day (1st November) children would perform, sing or pray for the dead to earn the treat of the Soul cake, which evolved into the modern day version of trick or treating.
Soul cakes were sweet with a cross marked into the top, much like hot cross buns. They were intended to represent a spirit being freed from purgatory, which is a cheery conversation to have over mixing the dough. Recipe here.
3. Bobbing for apples.
The origins of this game is said to be the Roman festival to celebrate Pomona, the goddess of fruit. A disgustingly unsanitary game, even without the current pandemic, give each person a container of water instead of a group bucket (vom) and pop in a few apples. Set the timer, hold your hands behind your back, and see how many you can get out with your mouth. Bobbing for apples should always be played outside, and followed by a hot shower as everyone will get very wet.
4. Refine fine motor skills with pumpkins.
Once the pumpkins are cut and scooped, young children can separate the seeds from the strands for roasting, and sprinkle slices with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar for baking. Roasted slices are great for cutting and mashing. There are more activities with the humble pumpkin here at an Imperfectly Montessori Autumn
5. Refine gross motor skills with pumpkins.
A trip out pumpkin picking at a farm is a great way for children to practise manoeuvring a wheelbarrow, do some lifting and carrying, and finally washing them. Once the pumpkins have been cut and scooped out, you can have a game of toss-the-beanbag (or ping-pong balls) to see who can get the most in the hole.
6. Play a game of real or not real.
This is a good way to help children feel less spooked about Hallowe’en and learn a little about the fact and fiction behind the symbols. You can print out some pictures or look online and guess whether they are real or not real. If you print them out then they can be used for matching pairs, memory game and snap. Here are a few facts and resources about out favourite beasties.
Witches – can be nicely explored through a feminist lens. From a secular perspective, witches can be understood throughout history as non-conformist, single, wise women who relied on herbology to avoid dying, and helped other women when medicine was not accessible. They were hunted down by the church, led by men who feared women’s power. More info here https://wiki.kidzsearch.com/wiki/Witch
Werewolves – fictional creatures that originated in Greek and Roman myths with variations told around the world. Some children confuse wolves with werewolves and believe both do or don’t exist. https://wiki.kidzsearch.com/wiki/Werewolf
Ghosts – eek, this totally depends on the culture and beliefs of the family, but an easy out is to explain scientists say they don’t exist.
Bats – likely became associated with Hallowe’en via the Celtic celebration of Samhain. When they sat around the fire at night to appease their ancestors and spirits from the otherworld, midges and mosquitos would be attracted to the light and so the bats would swoop around to eat them. In Central and South America, vampire bats cemented the association with their bloodthirsty nocturnal hunting. https://holidappy.com/holidays/the-history-of-halloween-bats
Black Cats – a superstition that arose in the middle ages in Europe, when cats were bigger and a whole lot scarier than they are now. The fear snowballed into a belief that black cats in particular were witches’ familiars, evil and bad luck. https://www.historicmysteries.com/black-cat-superstition/
Autumn is a wonderful time with young children, unless it’s raining, and here it is usually raining. Nonetheless that makes for jumping in muddy puddles (or lying in them and rolling around like a hippo in a mud-bath while you weep silently under the stony judgement of strangers.)
When they are one, they will eat the colourful leaves and you will forever be unfurling determined fingers clasped around acorns and berries before they get near mouths.
When they are two, they will spend hours dropping tiny pebbles and acorns through drain covers while icy rain drips down your neck.
You will attempt to make pumpkin baked goods and things with cinnamon and all-spice. Most of which will end up in toddler’s mouth, nothing will rise, and the mess will be up the walls and on the ceiling. But there will be a warm autumnal glow for a few minutes there.
Then they are three and the time for different activities has arrived! This is where the fun begins, as they are probably no longer trying to put conkers up their nose or licking toadstools. Now is the time for long nature walks in the woods, collecting interesting things to use at home.
Here we have an interest table with some things we collected on our walk. We have conkers, acorns, chestnuts, pine-cones and (gasp) some decorative leaves I ordered on Amazon. We could use real leaves but they were really wet and my pockets where full of disintegrating mulchy bits five minutes into the walk.
My four-year-old is interested in sorting at the moment, so I found a sorting game and removed the plastic fruit. She chose tongs to sort the items we had found into the different compartments, but she found them too stiff to use. We hunted for other things we could find for transferring and tried children’s chopsticks, a small scoop, a spoon and randomly a candle snuffer she is rather taken with for some reason.
I am going to leave this activity out on her interest table as she is enjoying returning to it, and next we will see how many we can fit in each section using number cards, estimation and counting. We can use the kitchen scales to weigh them and see which is heaviest. Then can play sink or float in a vase of water. Finally she will want to use them to decorate the house, and they will end up covered in glitter and so will we.
Everyday over the next month we will paint, draw, thread and stick things we find and make to hang around the house. Husband will hit his head on garlands and wreaths and will grumble incessantly.
10 ways to kick of an imperfectly Montessori autumn.
Set up an autumn storage box that you can add to each year with decorations, arts and crafts, stencils, activity books, and anything that doesn’t rot. If like us, you don’t have the space to lay out trays of appealing activities on perfectly curated shelves, then this is a way of ‘following the child’ by seeing what s/he is drawn to.
Ours is full of artificial coloured leaves, pegs and twine (for making garlands), printables, pictures, books, Hallowe’en colouring and activity books, pumpkin buckets, and lots of tissue paper and craft paper in gold, orange, red, yellow, black and brown. These are often dirt cheap after Hallowe’en when the stores start bringing out their Christmas stock, so it’s worth picking up then and keeping for the following year.
Having seasonal boxes lets the children get excited about ‘new’ things to use creatively, and lets you store the things you don’t need the rest of the year. A tip that worked for us is to have a cheap magnifying glass in each seasonal box so you can easily create an investigation tray/table without having to hunt for the one you bought last summer which is buried under a hundred soft toys.
Let him/her have a good look and sort through the box, picking out the things s/he finds most interesting and let activities develop from that.
2. Fill a display folder with print outs and pictures and let your child choose an activity. This is another way to give your child autonomy over their choice of work without turning your living room into a Montessori classroom. Most importantly it works like a ready meal for kids – when you’re tired and your brain doesn’t work just chuck the folder at them and have coffee.
Here are some ideas for an autumn folder:
Printouts of autumn-themed cutting, tracing, colouring and threading activities from those really organised people that make you feel bad on Pinterest. They have free printables and it’s worth signing up to a few of them for fantastic resources.
Recipes with pictures
Pictures of arts and crafts ideas. Those infernal children’s magazines filled with plastic tat that grandparents buy for them actually serve a purpose here if you cut out the activities.
Scavenger hunt and nature trail sheets.
3. Collect conkers and acorns on a nature walk for sorting.
Make an easy sorting game by dividing a plate into a few sections with a market, and collect leaves, acorns, conkers, chestnuts, and pinecones on a walk. While making sure little ones aren’t stuffing them up noses and in mouths, encourage transferring skills by providing a spoon, tongs, or chopsticks to sort them from a bowl to the sections on the plate.
4. Set up an autumn interest table.
In the classroom this will be a carefully curated and artistic collection of natural world objects designed to inform and educate the senses. At home you will enjoy creating it with your child and adding interesting things collected on nature walks. Your child will add any old plastic tat they find lying around, 80 crayons and half the contents of the craft box. They will refuse to tidy it and you will be too tired and still have to do the laundry, call the plumber and return six overdue library books. It may get sorted out at the weekend only to start the cycle all over again next week.
5. Make autumn decorations.
This work helps fine motor control, develops muscles in the hand, uses pincer grip and furthers coordination.
Use twine, leaves and pegs to string up garlands, which you can add to with pictures and other creative masterpieces.
Make suncatchers with clear sticky paper and coloured tissue for the windows, cut out leaf shapes to colour.
Make wreaths with old wire hangers bent into a circle and covered in tissue paper, leaves and pinecones.
Paint some little pumpkins and pine cones. Even if you ardently opposed to glitter, somehow it will magically appear and explode everywhere.
6. Sensorial work with spices.
Spices are fun for young children to explore as they practice opening and closing, pouring and transferring, differentiating by smell, and making a mess if you turn your back for a millisecond. It does feel nice and autumnal though and can lead into different extension activities.
Avoiding pepper (unless you are feeling particularly wicked), set out a few identically shaped jars with traditional autumnal spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Try to find the spice in its original whole form and place next to the jars so they understand how ground spices are made. Use a pestle and mortar to grind them, or a mini nutmeg grater.
Line them up and encourage her to open the jars (strengthening muscles in the hand, development of fine motor skills, independence, and pincer grip.) Pour some out and match the spice to the jar. Try to differentiate between them by the strength of smell or preference, and guess which lid matches the jar based on matching the smell.
Make fragrances with the spices by adding a teaspoon into a jar of warm carrier oil. This can be dabbed on radiators with cotton wool, or onto pieces of dried bark and pinecones to gently scent the home.
Explore the origin of spices, the spice trade, the merchants, and the old silk road. Use the continents globe and maps to place the spices and show the routes of merchants and ships in the spice trade. Roleplay buying and selling spices, using little bowls, spoons, scales, and money.
Use the spices in baking and cooking. Find recipes in books or online, try making different cookies, tarts, pies, soups, and teas.
Use a dustpan and brush, cloth, and hoover to clean up, while you relax.
7. Feed local wildlife and set up a camera.
Although there is plenty of food around early autumn with nuts, seeds, berries and mushrooms, now is the right time to set up a wildlife watching station for the winter. Helping to care for wildlife can encourage a love of nature in young children and show them how everyone has a responsibility to care for our environment and the animals who live there.
Set up a bird table, bird feeders, and water bowls in your garden, provided it isn’t a cat’s hunting ground. Encourage your children to change the water frequently, top it up, and crack the ice when it is cold. Rub bread crusts into crumbs over the table, and add chopped up leftover fruit and veg, cold cooked rice (never raw), and cereal. The RSPB has a list of what you can and can’t feed wild birds here.
Hang pinecones smeared with peanut butter, or lard/suet and seeds, and thread orange slices with string on tree branches.
Collect fallen apples and slice them to freeze ready to defrost for the birds during the winter. If there is an overabundance of acorns and chestnuts locally, save a few bags worth for the squirrels in winter which you can spread around when it’s snowy or the ground is too hard to dig for their hidden stash.
If you set up a wildlife camera you may see a variety of wildlife, particularly at dusk and dawn though make sure it’s on your private property or you might end up living the plot of a bad crime thriller.
8. Develop an autumn themed library
These are our autumn books, which are lovely albeit highly anthropomorphic, fantastical and even touchy-feely. So not remotely Montessori, but new books are expensive and I can’t afford the library fines for forgetting to return them on time. We love to read these, with their warm autumnal colours and beautiful illustrations.
Autumn (Ailie Busby) is a beautifully illustrated board book that can’t help but get you excited about the season, with wonderful depictions of collecting conkers, baking and playing outside.
In the Night Box and Sweep (Louise Grieg) are stunningly imaginative books about children and their control over the world, managing emotions and the illustrations are dreamily beautiful with autumnal colours.
Fox’s Socks (Julia Donaldson) is a lift-the-flap board book (great for fine motor control and pincer grip) with the usual rhyming structure that makes her such a beloved author.
Pumpkin soup (Helen Cooper) never fails to make us feel warm and cosy, and excited about pumpkin picking.
Off the back of this book we have made pumpkin soup, learned about bagpipes and listened to them (the less said about that the better), explored the predator and prey dynamic and the food-chain, discussed feelings and how we can make sure our friends feel appreciated and not left out, and how to communicate our needs clearly. (If only the duck had explained he would like to try a different role in the soup-making enterprise instead of stropping off in a huff.)
We have also had lengthy conversations about the probability of a cat, a duck and a squirrel sharing a home, whether animals can appreciate music, the appropriate food for herbivores vs carnivores, the significance of opposable thumbs, and whether a bear, a wolf, a fox and a witch are likely to live in the woods. Not bad going for a book about three irascible animals with an unhealthy obsession with making soup.
9. Make autumn scented candles.
I have made my own scented candles for years since I realised how much I was spending on my addiction to them. I buy a bag of pre-assembled wicks, some soy wax pellets and reuse old candle jars. If making them as gifts, then you can buy containers and labels and make sure the recipients use a candle plate underneath.
If you do the melting and pouring of the wax into the container (unless your child is old enough and careful enough to assist) then your child can choose the fragrance and add the drops.
10. Pumpkin picking. Admittedly a very obvious one, but there are lots of ways to power-up the Montessoriness.
Pick-your-own pumpkins at a farm provides the perfect opportunity for young children to see how their food grows, and to see the different stages of growth. It is also super healthy and outdoorsy, and helps local businesses so lots of brownie points there.
If you are given a small wheelbarrow, they can push it and fill it, seeing how many pumpkins they can fit, and which ones are heaviest, (gross motor skills, coordination and strengthening muscles – tick, numeracy skills – tick.)
Paying for the pumpkins – identifying prices on signs, working out offers like 4 for £5, how many can you buy for £10 etc, asking politely at the till, working out the total and the amount of change. (numeracy – tick, grace and courtesy and practical life skills – tick)
Washing the pumpkins – with a brush and a bucket of water is a perfect example of a practical life skill.
Sorting the pumpkins by size, colour, shape or texture. (sensorial)
Cutting, carving and scooping out the seeds – cutting skills, accuracy, fine motor skills, strengthening muscles in the hand, coordination, transferring.
Learning about different parts of the pumpkin – develop vocabulary like pulp, fibres, flesh, skin, centre. (Language skills – tick, KUW/biology – tick)
Using pumpkin seeds – clean them, sort them from the fibres, plant them, roast them, eat them, paint them, count them, use them in crafts.
Cooking pumpkins – look up recipes online (ICT & literacy skills), follow the recipe instructions, measure ingredients & check oven temperature (numeracy skills), cut/mix/stir/sprinkle and cook (practical life skills). Develop vocabulary with words like ingredients, recipe, nutritious, edible and inedible (language skills)
Eating pumpkins – by far the worst bit as they taste revolting. Can be made bearable with the addition of either spices and sugar, or mounds of cream, salt and butter.
Decorate a pumpkin – save a couple for young children to decorate with paint, glue, stickers and the inevitable mounds of glitter. Obviously not to be eaten by humans or animals.
Monitor decomposing pumpkins – see which one rots faster (experiment with variables like temperature & conditions, size, whole or carved, and watch the hairy mould develop (KUW, biology)
Recycling pumpkins – discard your pumpkin carcasses at the bottom of the garden/chuck them in the woods and run away, to provide sustenance for local wildlife. Or use them in compost, feed the scraps to the chickens or gardening beds, hang pieces as bird feeders. (Care of the environment.)
Pre-activity discussion: When magma escapes from deep inside the earth through the crust or surface of the earth it creates a volcano. When the pressure increases it causes the volcano to erupt and the magma becomes lava when it reaches the surface.
Variations by age: Those under the age of 3 will enjoy watching and making the dough, and pouring the ingredients but will probably try to eat it/cover themselves in it. Older children can have the activity linked to geography, science and history.
Vocabulary: magma, lava, eruption, pressure
Step 1: Once s/he’s made the salt dough (using lots of pouring skills and fine motor control) and spent an eternity playing with it, mould the dough around the bottle to look like a volcano, leaving the top of the bottle open. We used a little yellow food colouring in this one to make the landscape sandy.
Step 2: Decorate the bowl or tray with a layer of dough, and maybe some model animals if you’re feeling ruthless. We add little snips of leaves to make trees (fine motor skills and scissor practice)
Step 3: She spoons the bicarbonate of soda into the top of the bottle (prepare 2 tbsp worth into a container so she can use a child sized spoon)
Step 4: She adds a few drops of red food colouring into the top of the bottle, and a squirt of washing up liquid.
Step 5: Pour the vinegar into a child sized jug, and she pours it slowly into the top of the bottle, stands back and watches the reaction. The mixture should froth and erupt over the volcano. Add more bicarbonate of soda and vinegar for further eruptions.
Step 6. She delves both arms into the bowl, and is dyed red for the next two days. She revels in submerging the model animals in the lava and becomes alarmingly blood-thirsty. Covered in red dye and grinning manically while surveying her mass destruction she reminds you of something from the Lord of the Flies. The smell of vinegar will pervade for days. You will go over the words magma, lava, eruption again and again and she will remember none of them. There will be endless mess to clear up and she will refuse to have a bath.
Objectives: The children will learn where their food comes from, how it grows, our relationship with the sun, and the food chain. They will build on their understanding of healthy eating and how we take care of the environment and ourselves. There will be opportunity for refinement of fine motor skills with planting seeds, picking, washing, chopping.
Areas of learning: Science/biology, numeracy/measuring, practical life/gardening, meal preparation and cooking, care of the environment, care of self, healthy eating, food hygiene.
Introductory activities: The sun game. This will help the children understand our dependence on the sun for our food. The children place the cards with plants/flowers/crops/vegetables/fruit around the sun in a circle. Then the cards with animals that eat plants around the outside. Then the outer circle is made up of carnivores.
You can explore lots of different activities together, such as drawing parts of plants together, growing peas in clear cups, investigating how fruit and vegetables help our body, and how plants and flowers help the environment.
Activity: Plant some vegetable seeds with the children. We like the M&S little seedling kits which have seed infused sheets with little compost blocks, and tiny paper pots.
All you have to do is soak the compost block ’til it expands, fill the pot and pop the seed sheet on top.
Label each one with the name of the plant, and the child’s name. Place in a sunny area, water it, observe its growth daily.
Measure the height of the shoots and record the numbers, which will help the children incorporate numeracy into the activity and give it a practical purpose.
If you are lucky enough to have a sunny patch of outdoor space, you can plant seedlings in containers, clearly labelled, and continue planting throughout the spring and summer so you always have a ready supply of vegetables.
Edible flowers make a beautiful addition to the kitchen garden, and the children will love garnishing salads with the bright petals.
Once your vegetables have grown, invite the children to prepare a meal with them. A fresh salad of warm new potatoes, peas, broad beans, cherry tomatoes, herbs and edible flower petals will be a wonderful sensorial experience for them, as well as developing practical life skills and a love of nature and food.
Things to incorporate: hand washing, food preparation, chopping,
In real life
It is summer in the UK, and so has rained for the last 45 days, with about three hours of weak sunshine. It is lockdown, and you are desperate for fresh air and Something To Do so you and the child have planted hundreds of seeds and seedlings.
Your child has shown zero interest in the sun game, even though you spent ages downloading the printables, trying the print the damn things on the insufferable printer, cutting them out, sticking to card, and laminating them. Then cutting them again.
She has also shown no interest in the activities you’ve introduced – peas in pint glasses, growing their shoots up the side in wet kitchen roll. Drawing the different parts of a potato plant.
The seeds you planted six weeks ago have struggled into the light with spindly stalks. You started measuring them, but then she wanted a competition and hers weren’t winning so she cried.
You planted a packet of broad beans, tenderly watered them with the Montessori Child daily, observed and measured them. If you were feeling particularly tyrannical, you shut one or two in a cupboard with no light in the name of science.
You now have four or five huge pods, which buy a moment of precious joy as child pops them into a bucket, and looks very sweet in her sunhat.
You show child how to pod them at the kitchen table. You hastily google and find out that unlike peas, broad beans can’t be eaten raw out of the pod. There’s definitely fewer in the bowl than before, but she swears she hasn’t eaten them. You later find them squashed into the carpet.
How big are people’s allotments and vegetable gardens? This took two months and you’ve got about ten broad beans.
But this is lockdown, time has no meaning here.
Next you pluck some butterhead lettuce leaves. The snails ate most of the plants, and the culprits have been chucked over next door’s fence. ‘Snail patrol, snail patrol, be there on the double’ the child shouts gleefully as she hurls them over the buddleia. You have a discussion on care of animals, and she looks at you doubtfully as you squash some aphids.
The tomato plants have some kind of yellow flower on them, and no sign of tomatoes. You are unsure if they are in fact tomato plants.
Your edible flowers have weird gummy black flies stuck around the stamens. You leave them well alone.
Your leek now looks like this.
Potatoes! The potato bags have a little flap you can open to pull the baby potatoes from the roots. Child lifts the Velcro flap and approximately 5kg of compost spills out onto the decking. Husband groans. ‘Never mind’, you trill, child fetches dustpan and brush.
Are those new ones or the original seedling potatoes? They are small and wonky and a bit green. Child enjoys washing them and spreading more earth in physically impossible places.
Child washes and dries the lettuce leaves, and chops them with scissors. Together you carefully boil the new potatoes (and possibly some very old ones) and finally the broad beans.
Your salad has seven broad beans, five new potatoes, four lettuce leaves, and some sad parsley from the herb ‘garden’.
Your child makes the dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. She then screams because lemon juice got in a imperceptible cut on her finger and she needs a plaster Now. Not that one, the Paw Patrol ones. No, the Skye one. And she HATES pepper. The dressing is placed in the fridge for later, or when you notice it covered in mould three months time.
Family forlornly eat the salad. You pour a glass of wine and order pizza.