We usually select our pumpkins - one for each member of the family - early in October and let them sit au naturel for a few weeks near our entryway. As Halloween approaches, however, we bring our pumpkins inside for a make-over. While I admire carved pumpkins - especially some of the intricate ones that show real artistry - I have found that other means of decorating them have been more fun and more satisfying for my family.

Like most of the lessons I have learned as a mother, this one has come from experience. Despite the best of carving tools - and I think we have tried them all through the years - pumpkin carving is a very messy and difficult proposition for young children. Each of my kids has been surprised by the amount of goop inside a pumpkin and just how much effort is required to scoop it all out. While little ones initially are entranced, they quickly get bored with this chore, and I have had more than one of them want to bail on the whole project because of it.

Next, there is safety to consider. We have purchased the pumpkin carving tool sets meant for children, but they still require an amount of force and effort that little hands and arms usually cannot muster. When my kids have gotten frustrated with not being able to poke through the pumpkin, they have poked even harder, to the point of risking an injury.

Another reason we now skip the carving process is that our decorated pumpkins last longer. No more rotting jack-o-lanterns that scarcely make a week past Halloween for us. Our decorated squashes happily stand as sentries until we put out the Christmas lights.

Finally, decorating pumpkins, rather than carving them, is fun and really unleashes my kids' creativity. Not having to worry about the mess or the cutting has let them think of a pumpkin as a blank canvas for their ideas. Here's how to get started.

Since pumpkins grow on a vine along the ground, they can be dirty when you bring them home. Just gently wash them with water and dry them before beginning your decorating project. Prepare your workplace by putting down plenty of newspaper or by using a plastic tablecloth. If the weather is nice, pumpkin decorating is a great project to do outdoors on a picnic table.

Most of our designs begin -- and maybe also end -- with acrylic paint. The small tubs of paints that are sold especially for pumpkin painting can work, but if you have several children, or if your artists want to cover the entire surface of the pumpkin with one color before adding other details, we have found larger bottles of paint to be more economical. The colors you need depend on your artists' imaginations. We try to have plenty of the primary colors. Some years, we need to have more of one color than another, depending on the project.

To encourage sharing of the colors and to cut down on how many different paint containers we need, each child gets a paper or plastic plate to use as her or her palate. The plates also help make clean-up easy.

We have found having a paintbrush for each color alleviates a lot of mess. We use watercolor-type brushes that are sold in packages of 10 or 12 at the dollar store for detail work and larger brushes for surface coverage.

Here are a few of our favorite decorating ideas:


My six kids have each gone through superhero phases, and we have happily incorporated these phases into pumpkin decorating. One son, for example, was proud of his Batman pumpkin, which featured the recognizable black wingspan across a background of orange. (He also was in a minimalist phase.) We have had Superman and Spiderman pumpkins, and, although she doesn't really qualify as a superhero, a Minnie Mouse pumpkin. The point is that there really is nothing off limits. Just let your kids express themselves.

Get Fancy:

Both of my girls went through prolonged glitter and sparkle phases. You can dress up your orange friends in all kinds of pretty things with felt, fabric, buttons, lace, and other accessories and some craft glue or a glue gun. Very glamorous!


Think Mr. Potato Head for this one. Use nature items such as pinecones, acorns or sticks or craft items such as pipe cleaners, toothpicks or ice cream sticks to create anything from the legs of a scary spider to the arms of a friendly scarecrow.


Create self-portraits with your pumpkins by asking each child to paint his or her likeness on her pumpkin. Encourage them to include identifying characteristics, including eye and hair color - even braces! A twist to this idea is to swap identities and have siblings create each other's likenesses. Mom and Dad should get into the act as well!

Character Pumpkins:

As an expansion of the superhero idea, you can encourage your kids to create pumpkins based on their favorite fictional or movie characters. Harry Potter characters are great for Halloween. We've enjoyed Star Wars and Lord of the Rings pumpkins as well. If you are going to try this idea, have it in mind when you choose your pumpkins: a tall, upright choice for R2-D2, for example.

If, like me, you have found, your kids sometimes don't want to leave their freshly-decorated pumpkin friends outside ("He'll get cold, Mom!"), find a window to display them in. We've used them as rather large centerpieces as well. Happy pumpkin time!