23 Ways To Celebrate Halloween At Home This Year

There’s been a lot of talk in the last week or two about whether or not there will be a Halloween this year. Of course there will be a Halloween! Twitter user pennysnark said it best:

But while there absolutely will be a Halloween, there may not be trick or treating, and there certainly won’t be the parties, harvest festivals, haunted houses, and costume parades many kids are used to. I know a lot of parents are feeling real sadness at the idea of their kids missing out on Halloween, so I wanted to pull together a list of a few ways to celebrate October 31 at home.

First, a few caveats:

  1. You don’t need to do 23 things. I want to get that out of the way now. Parenting during a pandemic is hard enough. You might want to do one or two things in whatever time you have.
  2. Of these 23 activities, only four require a backyard or access to outdoor space. We just moved into a place with a yard this summer, but most of these activities we did for years in places without outdoor space and they worked very well.
  3. I tried to minimize how much stuff you have to buy. We’re all operating under financial constraints right now, and often it’s difficult to acquire things even when you have the money to buy them. I know we’re all trying to shop local as much as we can, but I prioritized the kinds of basic supplies you can reasonably expect to find at a big-box retailer, too, if that’s where your family is shopping safely.
  4. Most of these are not original ideas, but things I’ve borrowed from other parents, Pinterest posts, past school functions, Halloween blogs, or any one of a million other places. When I can recall the specific place where I picked up an idea, I’ve credited it.
  5. My kids are 11, 9, 6, and almost 2. I decided against dividing the list into activities for older kids and younger kids, because every kid is different, but I did try to indicate where slight tweaks might better accommodate toddlers or teenagers.
  6. I’m not including anything educational. We’re all doing enough.

So let’s get started!

  1. Haunted Fort. This is hands down my kids’ favorite activity every year so I wanted to put it at the top of the list. A regular old blanket fort with added spooky elements like LED candles, fake cobwebs, “spooky fabric” (that phrase always cracks me up), and any other Halloween decorations you make or buy.

If you can sacrifice the space in your house, set it up a few days or weeks early and your kids can do other Halloween activities inside it. I’ve found my kids consider any otherwise mundane activity (watching a movie, reading a book, eating a snack) a wonderful treat when it’s done inside the Haunted Fort. If you do have outdoor space, you could also do a Haunted Tree House, Play House, or Tent.

2. Halloween Countdown. For kids who’ve already missed so much, from birthday parties to summer trips to the first (normal) day of school, Halloween is the next big thing, something exciting to look forward to. I usually start a countdown at 100 days from Halloween because I’m me, but a more reasonable person might start on October 1. You could add a small sticker or piece of candy every 5 or 10 days, but honestly the countdown is usually fun enough by itself.

3. Silly Spooky Dinner Party. We usually do this the night of October 30, a dinner where all the elements are tweaked for Halloween. This can be as simple or elaborate as you wish but even in its simplest form kids find it really delightful. You can find hundreds of ideas with a quick online search. Last year we did mummy hot dogs (from Home Made Interest), chicken soup with black bat-shaped noodles (from Morgan Manages Mommywood — though mine did NOT turn out as photogenic as hers), and cupcakes with candy eyeballs. Older kids can help make the food, too.

4. Elegant Spooky Dinner Party. Older kids and teenagers might prefer more of a sophisticated, goth-inspired dinner party. If you don’t want to make a full dinner, just do mocktails and a dramatic charcuterie board accented with a few plastic spiders or skeleton hands.

5. An Evening of Fortune-Telling. For hundreds of years (and long before trick or treating), Halloween was celebrated mainly with fortune-telling games. Traditionally these were played by teenagers to find out who they were going to marry, but young kids might want to find out what they’re going to be when they grow up. You could use tea leaves, coffee grounds, tarot cards, palm reading, or for older kids, something more esoteric like ceromancy (fortune-telling using wax candle drippings). Kids can also make their own folded paper fortune-tellers.

6. Halloween Dance Party. Just what it sounds like, a dance party with a playlist of Halloween-appropriate songs like “The Monster Mash,” “Thriller,” “This Is Halloween,” and the Ghostbusters theme. As a variant for older kids or teenagers, you could present a mini-marathon of Halloween- and horror-themed music videos.

7. Face Painting Party. Every year I buy an inexpensive Halloween face-painting kit and let the kids go crazy. For maximum, mildly transgressive fun, I also let them do my face any way they want. (Before you start, make sure you have something on hand to remove the makeup! I find greasy things like Vaseline or cold cream work best.) You could also do a Temporary Tattoo Parlor. Teenagers can check out YouTube tutorials for really amazing Halloween looks like this one I attempted with very limited success in 2017.

8. Shadow Puppet Performance. My kids LOVE shadow puppets. So much so that we usually make a set for summer vacation, one for Christmas, and another one for Halloween. They will play with them for hours and all you need is stiff black paper and some scisssors. You can also tape or glue a popsicle stick to the bottom of each figure as an optional handle. You could also try Hand Shadow Puppets (the only hand shadow I can do is a flying bird but I imagine with some practice I could turn it into a Spooky Flying Bird). If you’re feeling very ambitious, you could film the shadow show and maybe set it to some spooky music. I haven’t tried this yet myself, but the blog Inner Child Fun has instructions for making a simple shadow puppet theater out of a cardboard box and white tissue paper.

9. Halloween Craft Party. There are too many Halloween crafts to list, of course, but I find the open-ended ones keep my kids occupied the longest. Their favorite is probably Monster Puppets made from paper lunch bags and whatever odds and ends you have on hand. You can use them after for a puppet show.

10. Pumpkin Carving Party. Okay, this one is obvious, but I had to get it down. One variant on pumpkin carving my kids really enjoy is making Pumpkin Dioramas. Remove most of the front of the pumpkin, clean it out, and let them arrange toys and little objects into scenes inside. (Also it’s way easier to carve one big 0-shape than a regular jack-o-lantern face.)

For toddlers, I sometimes sub out Pumpkin Painting for Pumpkin Carving. Some years I’ve also asked my littlest kids to draw a design on the pumpkin and then carved around it, which leads to awesome freeform pumpkins like the one pictured below.

11. Not-A-Pumpkin Carving Party. You could also try carving other things. Historically, jack-o-lanterns were carved into turnips, rutabagas, and beets, but you could also try apples, potatoes, yams, or any number of other foods. These foods are all much smaller and easier to carry around than a pumpkin, so after you’re done you could do a Jack O’ Lantern Parade around the neighborhood. Turnips have the added benefit of looking profoundly creepy, way more so than pumpkins. And if you’re buying a bunch of assorted vegetables to carve, you can keep the rest for a post-carving dinner.

12. Haunted Gingerbread House Making. A Halloween variation of a holiday gingerbread house, though you could also skip the baking and make the walls from graham crackers. A lot of retailers also sell pre-fab kits, including Trader Joe’s and Target.

13. Halloween Cookie Baking. Much like the gingerbread house, this is a Christmas staple reworked for Halloween, but kids love it. And if you don’t have the time and energy for baking this year, it works just as well with rolls of pre-made dough from the grocery store.

14. Halloween Theater. Kids who like writing may want to create their own Halloween skit or play, or they can stage a performance of one of their favorite ghost stories. You can incorporate improv games, puppets, songs, jokes, magic tricks, musical instruments, or dance routines. Older kids can do a dramatic recitation of a classic poem like “The Raven.” Depending on your kids’ ages and your comfort with gore (and mess), you could also incorporate practical and makeup effects: fake blood, oozing wounds, a “missing” head, you name it. For a less violent alternative, you could play a soundtrack of spooky sounds (YouTube has tons of them). Also, fact: 100% of kids love doing foley effects. How Stuff Works has five simple sound effects with everyday objects to get you started.

15. Halloween Game Night. I downloaded and printed this free Halloween Bingo printable from Artsy Fartsy Mama in 2011 and I swear I’ve gotten more use out of it than almost any other kid thing I own. (Last year I finally laminated the pages.) The kids are all OBSESSED with Halloween bingo. Yes, they get to eat a lot of candy, but we eat sweets all the time so I’m not sure what’s so special about this? But something about a handful of candy corn plus low-key luck-based competition, it’s one of their absolute favorite things to do.

There are tons of other Halloween games online. Good Housekeeping has a list of 30 games to get you started here, including variations on tic-tac-toe, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and Twister. If you want to get really fancy, buy a bag of small candies or prizes.

Also my kids find Mad Libs hysterical. You can buy an official Halloween Mad Libs book or just make up and print your own (Teach Mama has a free dowload to get you started).

There are also quite a few spooky board games you can buy. Younger kids will like Shadows In The Forest, and older kids and teens will like Mysterium and Betrayal At House On The Hill. There are also horror-themed role-playing games like Call of Cthulu and Arkham Horror, or you could do a night of horror-themed video games.

16. Old-Timey Halloween Game Night. Okay, this one is a little precious, but older kids and teenagers might enjoy this twist on a game night, focused on traditional Victorian Halloween games. I haven’t done this yet myself, but I’m thinking about it this year (or maybe I’ll save this one for Christmas). Author Mimi Matthews has collected a few ideas on her blog to get you started.

Most Victorian Halloween party games were fortune-telling games (see above) but there were also games like “Trying for a Raisin”: “In this game, a good-sized raisin was strung onto the middle of a yard long cotton string. The two competitors then took one end each of the string into their mouths and began to chew. The first person to reach the raisin was the winner.”

You and your kids can also marvel at all the very dangerous old-fashioned games you won’t be playing this year, including ones involving knives, open flames, and molten lead.

17. Miniature Hay Ride. This one is mostly for very little kids, but I like to rig up a little mini hay ride by putting a bale of hay from a craft store into a wagon and pulling babies or toddlers around the neighborhood.

18. Backyard Ghost Story Campfire. The name here pretty much says it all. If you don’t have an outdoor area but do have an indoor fireplace, that would work, too.

19. All Things Apples. My kids love carving Dried Apple Witches. You could combine this with eating apple pie, caramel or candied apples, or drinking apple cider. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could try bobbing for apples, one of the most popular Victorian Halloween games. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could play a whole host of popular Victorian Halloween apple games; Laura Irrgang explains many of them on her blog.

20. An All-Pumpkin Dinner. As with apples, you can make an entire meal involving pumpkins (this pairs nicely with pumpkin carving). Two recipes I particularly like are Spicy Black Bean Chicken Enchiladas with Pumpkin Sour Cream Sauce and Thai Pumpkin Coconut Soup. If you don’t wish to cook, Trader Joe’s sells an absurd number of pumpkin foods in the fall, everything from pumpkin Cheerios to pumpkin bagels with pumpkin cream cheese (come to think of it, maybe an All-Pumpkin Breakfast?)

21. Outdoor Games Field Day. If you have outdoor space, you can play a number of Halloween-themed outdoor games. Most of these can just be variants on normal outdoor games like ghost freeze tag and ghost leap frog and ghost jump rope (see what I’m doing here?) but my kids particularly like Giant Spider Web, a game I found on Pinterest long ago: Everyone stands in a circle, one person holds a ball of yarn or twine and tosses it to another. Keep tossing back and forth until you have a big tangled spider web. I’ve used this game educationally, to teach Girl Scouts about ecosystems and things, but mainly it’s just fun to toss yarn around. The blog beaucoup has more ideas for things like sack racing and a toilet paper mummy wrap.

22. Halloween Movie Night. Another obvious one, but a classic. A fun variant if you do have the space would be an Outdoor Halloween Movie Night.

23. Fall Nature Activities. Remember, Halloween was a fall holiday long before it was a scary one. You can get back to the holiday’s roots with a whole afternoon of fall-themed nature activities. My kids’ favorite is a fall scavenger hunt; the list I use is here.

Maybe the best idea I ever had with my Girl Scouts troop was to teach them about environmental artists like Andy Goldsworthy and then direct them to make their own environmental art installations while on a camping trip. (Yes, the Andy Goldsworthy part is technically educational but you can skip that part and get right to the pebble stacking.) It kept the troops of girls ages 7–10 occupied for hours and the results were really lovely.

While you’re outside, have your kids collect leaves, acorns, pinecones, or twigs for nature crafts back at home. There are thousands of fall nature crafts to be found online. Pinterest is almost entirely fall nature crafts. Many of them skew towards younger kids, but older kids and teenagers can try more advanced crafts like leather punching and wood-burning (I bought this great wood-burning tool for my wedding for $16). Also remember that any traditional Summer Camp Craft (friendship bracelets, lanyards, tie-dye) can be repurposed as a Fall Nature Craft by making all the colors orange and brown. It’s just that easy.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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