Frightfully Creative: Halloween at Westtown School

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Students in Westtown School's Lower School celebrate Halloween by making imaginative masks that reinforce what they study in the classroom. As they exercise their creativity while constructing wearable art, authentic learning is also taking place because they make something they can actually use. The resulting masks are simpler and less violent - and far more engaging - than traditional Halloween costumes.

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A kindergarten student at Westtown School wears her frog mask

Children can transform the ordinary into the magical. We give them the opportunities to create, the problems to grapple with, and they just take off. Learning is authentic and tied directly to their own expressive development.

Halloween is supposed to be a little scary, a lot fun. It’s both those things at Westtown School, a Quaker pre-K – 12 college preparatory school in West Chester, PA, but it’s also much more. In fact, children in Westtown’s Lower School have so much fun preparing for Halloween they don’t even see the learning that’s sneaking up on them!

Principal Barbara Marchese explains that Westtown’s Halloween traditions for elementary-age children are grounded in the Quaker values central to the school’s program. They developed over time in reaction to some of the excesses of popular culture. “We teach peacemaking, but so many of the action-hero costumes in stores today glorify violence. They’re often just not appropriate for young children. Our program places a value on simplicity, and yet so much about Halloween today is antithetical to that. Sure, we share the kids’ excitement about this holiday, but we’ve come to believe there has to be a better way to celebrate it.”

So Westtown's Lower School offers an alternative. Instead of expecting them to come to school with store-bought Halloween costumes, teachers help children create their own fanciful masks with themes that relate to science or social studies units in the classroom. First graders study birds, for example, and their masks are whimsical combinations of wings and beaks. Third graders, who study Africa in the month of October, learn about traditional African masks – and then create their own. And the second grade unit on oceans informs the design of imaginative sea creature masks. The result – in all its wriggling, writhing energy – is a gloriously colorful celebration of creativity, a Halloween parade that’s also “an art show in sneakers.”

For those whose idea of Quakerism begins and ends with the Quaker Oats man, the vibrant colors of the Lower School Halloween Parade may be surprising. But they shouldn’t be, says Lower School art teacher Jeff Waring, “Children are amazingly resilient and flexible, and their imaginations allow them to transform the ordinary into the magical. We give them the opportunities to create, the problems to grapple with, and they just take off. Their art is particular to their experience of the world, and their paths vary accordingly. Learning and problem-solving are authentic and tied directly to their own expressive development."

A Westtown parent put it into broader perspective: “Children who can center down and focus, who learn without fear, are the ones who become the world’s creative thinkers and problem solvers…The better universities continue to look for this kind of intelligence, and the best time to develop it is in early childhood.”

Barbara Marchese adds, "At Westtown, we believe in a life-size education. Life itself is so much bigger than the first years of school, but we know these years shape everything that comes next. So when we help our even our youngest children develop competencies and skills like creativity and problem-solving, we're doing it because it's going to serve them far beyond their primary years."

And what do the children think about all this? For them, it's simply spooktacular. A fourth-grader said, "Mask making was the best. I'm so proud of the mask I made." And a first-grader sums it up: "The Halloween parade is my favorite day of the year!"

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