When my daughter Josephine was 3, her friend Natasha came to our house for a visit. The girls have always gotten along famously and have known one another their whole lives.
Earlier in the day, Natasha had enjoyed a fall festival where her face had received a magnificent kitty cat paint job. It was truly a work of art and she had clearly sat for a long time to get it done. Of course, when she arrived at our front door, Josephine took one look at her, shrieked, and ran from the room. No amount of explaining or cajoling could reconcile her to the fact that this kitty was her friend. The only words she could say were, “It’s not Natasha! It’s not Natasha!” It was heartbreaking for both kids, and the face-paint finally, sadly, had to be washed off.
This was my first, but by no means my last experience with a preschooler freaking out over a costume that hid its wearer’s face. My first Halloween as a teacher, instead of a single costume I brought a box full of costume items, a couple of which were masks. Over the course of the evening I would pop in a pair of fangs, or don my skeleton-hand gloves, shake a silly wig, or slip on my fake tongue with an eyeball on the end. The responses ranged from laughter to “so what?” But when I came out of my workroom wearing a simple Zorro-style mask, the look of abject horror in the children’s eyes made me swear off masks forever.
I’m not the only preschool teacher who has learned to take extra precautions around masks. Fellow teacher Jenni posted this comment to yesterday’s post:
In some of our classrooms, we add some masks to the environment (non threatening of course) and at circle and other times we "practice" putting them off and on and looking at ourselves in the mirror. No matter how non-threatening a mask is, it's still scary, especially for those little ones 2-3 years old, because there is that fine line of fantasy and reality...Do you really change into SpongeBob, or is it just pretend? By practicing, they can really explore this part of things. In circle the children and teachers all practice together and talk about what is REALLY happening.
We do a similar exercise at Circle Time. I’ve made a couple dozen jack-o-lantern masks by cutting out the eyes, noses, and mouths from some jack images imprinted on Halloween party plates. We have a couple short songs/chants where we practic hiding our faces, then revealing them with a “peek-a-boo” or a “boo!”
Someone is hiding
Someone is hiding.
Who could it be?
I see you!
Halloween is coming,
And this is what I’ll do,
I’ll hide behind this pumpkin face,
And then I’ll say,
We also have a set of “eyes” and “mouths” that children can hold up in front of their own faces to change their expressions. I sometimes use them too, but have learned to make sure the children see me before I cover my real face, then immediately afterwards, so they always know it's me.
Although we don’t allow masks or face paint at our evening Halloween parties (there’s just too much other stuff going on to have to deal with masks), as Jenni points out, it’s important to help children overcome this particular fear. Not only do we want them to begin to understand the line between pretend and real, but it also could save their lives.
Each year, for instance, hundreds of children run and hide from firefighters who have come into their homes to rescue them. Modern firefighting equipment includes oxygen tanks and protective masks that completely cover a face. Often there is no indication of eyes, noses or mouths. Recognizing this, our local fire department visits preschools, with the primary purpose of donning their entire turnout suits, including the mask and oxygen tank. Even with our constant assurances that friendly Firefighter Mike is still “inside there,” many of the children remain unconvinced until he removes the mask. For weeks after the firefighters visit, I hold up a picture of a fully equipped firefighter and ask, “What do you do if you see someone dressed like this in your house?” And while most of them know the answer is, “Go to him!” there remain a few who say, “Run away!”
It’s hard to overcome our innate fear of the faceless (or clearly artificial face). Our faces, after all, are the essential part of how we visually present ourselves to the outside world. We’re programmed from infancy to study and comprehend facial features. When those are hidden or altered, our brains tell us that something fundamental is wrong. As adults, it can be a thrilling experience to alter something so basic, but for young children it can be a true nightmare.