A common fear in childhood is being afraid of the dark, and as adults we can help children alleviate that fear. The following post lists some of my favorite ways to encourage children to enjoy the dark using the "language" children speak best— play and wonder.
Before exploring ways to make the dark a safe place to play and explore, however, I want to address the topic of horror films. If your home has any horror films in it's library, and/or you have people watching horror films when a child is present in your home, I'd encourage you to keep those films out of reach and not watch such films in the presence of children. This is true of any filmography intended for a mature audience. Young children (some older ones as well) are not developmentally and emotionally mature enough to handle the content of horror films-- heightened fear and anxiety are likely to follow, no matter how minimal the exposure.
That being said, let's talk about fun activities that encourage children to dim the lights or play in the dark:
1. Play with shadow puppets. You can search online for tutorials on making your own shadow puppets and/or search for where to purchase them. The advantage of making your own is that you can create an imaginative mix of characters and scenery that is “one of a kind” and of your child’s own imagination. The advantage of buying them is the convenience of not crafting them—because not everyone enjoys making arts and crafts or has the time to make them. The shadow puppets in these photos were created by Andrea Everman of Owly Shadow Puppets.
2. Make hand shadows. You and your child can use a flashlight to create fun shadows on the wall. Your local library most likely has a book or two on how to make the classic hand shadows. If your library does not have them, ask them about interlibrary loan— you may be able to borrow from another library.
3. Make (or purchase) a silhouette lantern. These lanterns are especially enchanting for children, and they will want to use these lanterns both for play (they are perfect blanket fort lights) and as night lights. I purchased the one below from Loren Morris at Primitive Witchery here: www.etsy.com/shop/PrimWitchery?ref=l2-shopheader-name You can also follow a tutorial such as this one to make your own (this one starts off with Christmas themed lanterns but if you scroll down you will find other designs to create): www.adventure-in-a-box.com/magical-christmas-lanterns/
4. Make a tin can lantern with your child and then light them up at night for a night walk, or use it as a night light. Battery operated tea lights can be used in lanterns for younger children. https://www.hgtv.com/design/make-and-celebrate/handmade/how-to-make-a-tin-can-lantern
5. Have an evening tea party where the only lighting is candles or twinkle lights. You can also serve tea that helps with sleep, such as chamomile tea.
6. Use bathtub lights. These lights are waterproof and designed for bath time, but they also work well as night-lights and as characters for night play (in or out of the tub). You can search online for "floating lights", "bathtub lights", or even "hot tub lights". Swans, jellyfish, rubber duckies, and more are available for purchase. There are also planetarium lights and other decorative lights for the tub.
7. Play with "play props" and toys that light up. These include miniatures (i.e found at craft stores and hobby shops) like the campfire pictured below. These light up play props can be used for both indoor and outdoor night play.
Battery operated tea lights can also be used with figurines:
8. Play board games and card games that need to be played in the dark. For example, Mistiboo is a spooky version of Old Maid. The card images glow in the dark, which means you can play this game with the lights out. Another game, Shadows In The Forest, (not pictured) involves hiding creatures called Shadowlings in tree shadows which are created by trees and a lantern that come with the game. If you have a local library that has board games in it’s lending library, ask them if they’re able to purchase one of these night games for patrons to borrow.
9. Visit your local library to check out books that will ignite your child’s sense of wonder about the night. Some kids love enchanting picture books that feature night themes and stories that take place at night, such as Dream Animals--A Bedtime Journey, by Emily Winfield Martin. Other kids may find non fiction books about the night more appealing, such as those about constellations, bioluminescence, and nocturnal animals.
10. Go outside to play before bedtime— this works especially well in winter months when the sun sets earlier. You can bring some figurines outside for your child to play with, if needed. And, if you have any "light up" play props, bring those as well. When it’s snowy outside, take advantage of the snow by using it to dig out caves and caverns for characters. Lights illuminating the snow (especially in the snow caves) create magical playscapes.
11. Winter is also a wonderful time to take advantage of any snow forts your child has built. Bring flashlights or lanterns out to the fort at night for bedtime stories or snack time.
12. Go on a night picnic.
13. Sit by a campfire. Regardless of the season, campfires provide many opportunities for storytelling and music, quiet contemplation, marshmallow roasting, and the primal joy of sitting next to the fire.
14. Watch a celestial event such as a meteor shower or Northern Lights. spaceweather.com offers updates for when these are likely to occur.
15. Visit a planetarium.
16. Create snow sculptures during the day and then light them up at night. For example, we made a Godzilla creature once and put a sparkler in it's mouth. Other ideas include making snow dragons where tea lights can be placed in the dragon’s nostrils; or make "snow people" holding lights in their hands; create snow sculpted jellyfish that light up, etc… the possibilities are endless. (Of note-- by day, Godzilla served as a bird feeder. Those "hands" are full of peanuts and sunflower seeds. It was entertaining to see birds landing in his arms.)
17. Play with glow in the dark bubbles (aka black light bubbles). There are online tutorials for how to make your own, but I purchased mine. Either way, you will need a black light flashlight to view these bubbles. However, if you have the means to enjoy this activity, it's a treat. If you wait for an extra cold winter's night, you can have the added benefit of watching the bubbles freeze. Glowing frozen bubbles on the snow mimics galaxies and the night sky -- it's a magical delight to lay your eyes on this spectacle. The same bubble solution was used to create the glowing effect on a small snow fort.
18. Go for a night walk.
19. Take your flashlights outside and look for nocturnal creatures such as beetles and moths. You may even find a toad to say hello to.
20. Watch the sunset together.
21. Visit places that offer candlelight tours, whether it’s a tour around the historical district in town, or a candlelight tour of a castle or fort. The photo below is from a candlelight tour at Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
22. Go on night drives or night walks to find fireflies in summer. (Yes, I added a firefly filter to the photo below, but in real life there were hundreds of fireflies around, and my iPhone didn't pick up on them. On a side note, the phone camera DID get the picture of this sweet deer that was feeding in the field.)
23. Take advantage of full moons— ice skating and swimming under a full moon, for example, are memorable events for kids. Play with moon shadows or go for a full moon walk. Put your child’s gemstones out in the moonlight for them to “recharge”.
24. Use “twinkle lights” or string lights at home where the child spends time in the dark, whether its a blanket fort or their bedroom.
25. Have a candlelight dinner.
26. Create a bedside basket for your child that has a flashlight (or other small light) and a few small tokens of comfort in it. If the child wakes in the middle of the night s/he may learn to use the items in the basket before waking you.
27. Play a game of flashlight tag with your kids.
28. Create your own “flashlight filters”— a) Use clear colored plastic or paper; cut circles to fit just within the inset of the flashlight; then place the circles on the end of the flashlight to make different colored lights. b) Cut black card stock or scrapbook paper into circles to fit within the inset of the flashlight. Poke holes in the paper circles to create patterns or constellation shapes, then place the circles on the flashlight end. When the flashlight is on, it will shine through the holes and create the designs on a flat surface, such as a wall.
29. If you have very active kids, it may be a worthy investment to buy a light up hula hoop. Kids can hula hoop in the dark and watch the lights on the hula hoop rotate and swirl around. If you have more than one child, and if they can tolerate friendly competition, see who can hula hoop the longest, or try hula hoop challenges such as “who can hula hoop the longest with their eyes closed?” They will burn off some excess energy before bedtime.
30. “Talk” to fireflies.Here is a tutorial: www.amnh.org/explore/ology/zoology/talking-to-fireflies
Overall, any time you engage a child in an activity that taps into their sense of wonder and play, you are also providing an opportunity for them to learn. In this case, they are learning to fear the dark less with every fun and safe exposure they have. So, if any of the above activities seem to match the interest and need of your child, go ahead and give them a try.
Copyright B. Thomas 2019