Design Thinking for a Covid Halloween

Happy November, friends! Although there was no Haunted Library to celebrate the spooky holiday this year, there was plenty of opportunity to problem solve and get creative to safely spread some creepy fun in the era of Covid-19.

Let me set the stage for you. We live in a neighborhood that normally sees quite a few trick-or-treaters, but have a steep driveway that means our house isn’t a particularly popular stop. So each year, we turn off our lights, join our neighbors (who have a lovely, approachable yard), and gift unsuspecting costumed children with double the candy. When it became clear that Covid was going to be with us through the fall, I assumed that Halloween would be effectively cancelled this year – after all, how can we get close enough to hand things out to strangers in the era of physical distancing and contact tracing? But as a teacher, I heard my students’ buzzing about Halloween reach a fever pitch this week, and I knew that we’d better find a way to make it work safely.

The internet is filled with safe, distanced candy distribution options – I particularly loved the candy chute and the candy zipline – but as we would be guests in our neighbors’ yard for the evening, I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of lugging along a massive structure or intricate pulley system. In fact, my research didn’t pull up anything that was easily mobile and didn’t require the purchase of specialty materials. Thankfully, my years of working with the incredible Kim Wilkens have prepared me for situations just like this.

A seemingly impossible problem, no simple solution in sight, and a goal that helps people?
Sounds like a challenge for design thinking.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ll remember the design thinking process from our annual library challenges with fourth graders (those brilliant engineers created Braille signage, custom floor mats, Dewey Decimal infographics, and more). The process itself includes five steps:

Image via

I started by empathizing and defining. Although these are two separate steps, my brain tends to work best when I process through them together: What is the problem, and why does it matter? Covid safety protocols make it clear that keeping a distance of at least six feet and wearing a facial covering are two of the best mitigators for stopping the spread of the illness, which is still active in our community. At the same time, the very nature of trick-or-treating requires close contact and passing of candy from one hand to the next. Why does this problem matter? Well, continuing with traditional trick-or-treating could possibly put countless children and families at risk; and, if you’ll pardon my French, cancelling trick-or-treating entirely is a massive bummer. What are kids feeling when they’re trick-or-treating? What are the parts of the process that put participants at the highest risk? What kind of a solution would feel fun and exciting, instead of sterile and weird?

Ideating is always a messy, fun, and wild step. (My poor husband can defintely relate to the messy part, as I tend to ideate with physical materials and leave wreckage around the house.) Whatever solution I came up with, I wanted it to be made entirely of materials we already had around the house. Are paper towel rolls sized correctly for candy to fit through them? Can cardboard bend enough to create a slide? Can this dremmel successfully cut through this plastic almond milk container? Since I started a new job working from this year, I have almost a decade of teaching supplies in our basement waiting to be sorted and donated. This meant lots of exploring, and lots of mess 🙂 In my hunt through these materials, I stumbled upon an old Lego Mindstorm EV3 robot that a beloved former student gave to me when she was no longer using it at home. The current configuration of the robot had all-terrain treads on the side instead of typical wheels – and that was enough to spark an idea.

Hours of prototyping and coding later, I had a robot that could successfully carry a container of candy 10 feet, pause for 30 seconds while prospective trick-or-treaters snagged their candy, and then make its way back to me for reloading. Circling back to that empathizing step, I thought – how can I make this more fun for families that are having their candy delivered by robot, instead of by hand? A cut up t-shirt, some googly eyes, eight straws, and a glue gun later, we had a robotic spider, and a mad scientist to make it work.

The evening was not without its bumps and bruises, but some last minute rebuilding and code debugging added to the fun! Kiddos and families seemed delighted by the eight-legged monster, and we all managed to stay distanced and happy. Also, I got to practice my mad scientist laugh – so from all sides, it was a Saturday well spent.

This wasn’t my first rodeo channeling tech and creativity into Halloween!
Check out some of our past haunted STEAM adventures:
The Haunted Library 2018 and 2019.

2 thoughts on “Design Thinking for a Covid Halloween

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