31 October 2011

Seashells as Halloween treats ? - update with data

Several years ago I disposed of some geodes and agates by distributing them to children on Halloween.  This year I'm going to try something else.  While exploring a local hobby/craft shop, I saw the basket above on sale for $8, and wondered if the kids in our neighborhood would like something like these in lieu of the traditional candy.

Unwrapping the basket revealed the not-surprising fact that while the shells near the top were generally large and attractive, those underneath tended to be conventional and rather plain bivalves.  Still, there were a lot of shells - in addition to about a hundred clam-like bivalves, there were about 40 other attractive or interesting ones, which would bring the cost per shell down to the 20c range, in keeping with the cost of conventional candy.

Now the question will be whether the children will accept these or not.  We plan to offer them a choice between sweets (we give out bagged chips) and shells.  And I'll need to make sure the littlest kids understand that the shells are not edible.

This should be interesting.  I'll give a followup a week from now.

O.K.  - I know some of you are losing sleep wondering how this experiment would turn out.  Here are the totals.  76 trick-or-treaters from 5-8 p.m.  43 chose bags of chips (Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, SunChips,  and Lay's potato chips).  33 chose seashells. 

The first five kids to the door chose seashells, and about a half-hour after trick-or-treating started, a mommy from next door showed up smiling, reported that her kid had come home, handed her a shell, and told her "Mom, put this in a safe place," and then headed out the door again.

There was an obvious bias toward big shells.  You can offer kids the most remarkably patterned olives and cowries, but if there is a big ordinary shell next to it, they will choose the big shell every time.  During the early part of the evening, the big shells went fast. The chips took the lead when the big shells were gone.

There was an apparent "leadership" bias.  If the first kid of a group chose chips, the little kids with him tended to pick chips too.  But if he said "Seashells - cool!" then the other kids in the group tended to take shells as well.

There was no obvious age stratification.  I had thought a priori that little kids and teenagers would take chips,  but there were teenagers who walked away from the door waving their shells yelling "I got seashells at Halloween!"

It was an interesting experiment.  We're toying with the idea of adding peacock or turkey feathers as choices next year.

Note:  this study was conducted in Wisconsin, which is about as far from the ocean as you can get in the U.S.  Those of you in coastal communities would probably have to offer cowpies or something equally exotic to elicit a similar response.  :.)

Addendum:  Experiment repeated in 2012.  This year 30 out of 69 trick-or-treaters chose seashells.  That was exactly the same percentage as last year (44%, 33/76 last year).  Not the same kids (though several came to the door this year hoping for seashells).

Addendum 2:  For 2013 we repeated the seashell distribution, with consistently favorable results.   Given a choice between a seashell and a small bag of Fritos/Doritos/etc, the majority of the kids chose shells, often running back to the street holding the shell aloft in triumph to show their parents.

Addendum 3:  In 2015, 23 children chose bags of hips and 39 chose a seashell.

Addendum 4:  Trick-or-treat resumed in 2022 after a couple years of Covid.  This year 41 kids chose shells, while only 11 opted for chips (typically the youngest).  After we finish using up the last shells we have, we're going to discontinue the option, because of our doubts that these shells are sustainably harvested.  Will look for other items to give away.  Two bird nests were popular years ago.  Maybe agates in the future.  Or some of my old comic books.


  1. I used to hand out quarters to trick-or-treaters, because I didn't want to give them what I wouldn't give to my own children. So I agree with you about finding alternatives. However, my understanding is that those shells are "harvested" in an unsustainable way, from areas of the world where dynamiteing and cyanide poisoning are commonly used methods of fishing.

  2. You'll know the inquisitive ones from the hungry ones.

    btw, saw this and thought of you

  3. so, at what point to adults get ideas like handing out shells instead of candy on halloween? congrats, this is probably the dumbest idea i've heard all year

  4. Contrary to mister anonymous 3:03, this will be cool to some of the kids you hand them out to. My daughter has a pet hermit crab, and getting a new shell for him at Halloween would be really fun.

  5. I agree with Tony. You probably know already that most of the kids will want the candy. But some will be intrigued with the shells enough (and have enough candy already?) to take one. And, maybe, start what will turn out to be a lifelong interest. And I love the idea of giving geodes! I would definitely have loved to get one as a kid.

  6. Thank you anon 3:02 for the link; it's an excellent summary of what's been going on up there. Will blog in a few days.

    Anon 3:03, I'll offer you a reply after Halloween.

  7. Anon 2:43, I have a link about the "sea nomads" poisoning reefs with cyanide -


    - that I've been meaning to blog for a year. If that's the source of the material I'm distributing, then I'll certainly stop.

  8. Don't be disappointed if nobody takes the shells. I tried something similar a couple of years ago, with small play-doh containers rather than candy. It seems when children are told to expect candy, they become small candy-seeking missiles, and their programming will just ignore distractions.

  9. I''m not trying to dump all over your idea; I'm all for encouraging a love of the natural world and healthier habits. But articles like the one below make me nervous about harvesting of any similar material for mass sale:

  10. Anon, I happened to see that about a half-hour ago while surfing tonight, and plan to blog it tomorrow.

    Thanks for thinking of me.


  11. Be sure to have some toothbrushes available if they don't want the seashells.

    I remember the woman who gave out donuts 40 years later - yummm

  12. As a kid, what I liked getting most was nickels, but I don't know if anyone gives out cash nowadays.

  13. wouldn't be surprised if one of the kids will say... egg that house!

  14. This is what is wrong with Halloween these days. I'm all for encouraging healthy habits and all, but come on. Halloween without candy is like the 4th of July without fireworks. If anything, give the shells to kids that are too old to be trick or treating.

  15. This is what Halloween is about:
    Gettin' Sugar High

  16. I would have loved seashells or something like that instead of candy. Of course I've always been a little weird, but when you have twenty pounds of candy already, it would be cool to get something different.

  17. "give the shells to kids that are too old to be trick or treating."

    We have some packs of chewing gum that are about three years old that we give to the trick-or-treating teenagers.

  18. I think some of the "naysayers" are missing a critical point of this venture -- that the kids will be offered a CHOICE between candy/chips or a seashell.

    If the individual wants candy/chips instead of a shell, fine. But if the individual would rather have a shell, why not?


  19. @ Stan
    "We have some packs of chewing gum that are about three years old that we give to the trick-or-treating teenagers."

    A few years ago, we started giving out 3-packs of disposable razors to the more senior trick-or-treaters. I think they got the idea, as we haven't seen them since!

  20. The trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood run to several hundred. They'll be getting small amounts of the cheapest candy possible. Until I run out. No way could I spend 20 cents on each of them!

  21. Thank you, Anon 10:45!
    I think offering seashells as a choice are an excellent idea (assuming they don't turn out to be unsustainably harvested).
    The museums at my university run a "Creepy Campus Crawl" every year. The kids still get candy, but they also get to learn about natural history while they do it via activities we run. It's a fantastic alternative for parents who want to give their children an opportunity to experience education as a Fun Thing rather than simply getting hyper from a sugar overload.

  22. The kids noticed the other day that chocolate fudge brownies don't have to be baked flat, but can be piped into "attractive" dog-turd shapes - so that's what they're making for treats this year.
    Along with zombie gingerbread men. Just like ordinary, only decorate with green icing before baking - it makes them look like they've had an accident with some dreadful corrosive chemical.

  23. Geodes and agates? Those lucky, lucky children.

  24. Nice idea.

    We give candy and glow-stick bracelets. They kids think they look cool wearing them. I think they look visible-in-the-dark. Everybody's happy.

  25. Seashells are the Tootsie Rolls of giveaways. :)

    True story: One year we simply put out a huge bowl of candy on the front porch with a sign that asked kids to please only take one or two pieces and to leave some for the others. Now, I fully expected the first 12 year old to just run off with the entire 15lbs of candy (and I kick myself for not hiding a videocamera on the porch) but when we returned home after 11pm, the bowl was still there. Inside it was 11 Tootsie Rolls.

    Even when faced with a free bowl of candy, kids still don't take the Tootsie Rolls.

  26. I think I'll try this. I live in Texas and get flooded with illegal Mexicans on Halloween, usually two adults with a baby who can't even eat pureed carrots yet, in a cute little ten dollar baby costume. I started saying "I don't give out candy to adults", but they didn't understand me. Shells may be exactly what I need.

  27. Never heard of seashells being given out as Halloween treats, but I'm up for it. At least it isn't those stupid spider rings people think kids like (they're uncomfortable to wear and who exactly wears them?).

    However I do want to voice some concern: seeing those seashells I can't help but wonder if they would be too fragile to be placed in a bag filled with candy, whether it's at the bottom and may be broken by the weight of candy bearing down on it, or the bag being droped or kicked/swung around, resulting in the breaking of the seashell in question.

    However, I still think it's a cool idea, as compared to the other alternatives to candy and sweets, like stickers and spider rings.

  28. How wonderful! I'm glad to hear it went well. Very clever of you to offer a shell or a treat, instead of just a shell. Happy Halloween!

  29. I'm not sure why but I've been looking forward to seeing the results of this little experiment. Very nicely done. I enjoyed your observations and the comments.

  30. Not sure if anyone mentioned this, since that many posts are more than I want to read on my phone, but the feathers could be an allergy issue for some kids. I had trouble along those lines as a kid, ignoring an obvious allergy and picking up feathers or even wearing or playing with boas. Kids are bad about allergy avoidance, and feathers are a common one.

    When I was a kid I resented houses that gave out anything other than candy. It just wasn't right, in my black-and-white view of the world. Now I'm not sure I'd give kids candy. When I've indulged trick-or-treaters in the past (I live in an apartment and work nights now), I gave out candy and a small toy. The kids loved the vampire whistles, but the parents weren't too happy about them. Now, with my feelings about HFCS, I'm not sure about the candy. Part of me says it's fine as a treat, another thinks I'd go with all-natural fruit snacks, while another knows these kids probably eat the same barely-food garbage most Americans eat so it doesn't matter. Knowing myself, I'd probably give out whatever I found at a grocery outlet.

  31. Oh....and one word for the anon a few posts above me: racist.

  32. My mom used to hand out book certificates for the locally-owned book store, but she was out of town this year and handouts were left to me, and I just had candy. But one family came to the door and asked if ours was "the book house" that gave out book certificates in the past. Apparently, the little girl was insistent that they visit "the book house" before going home. I was sad I didn't have the certificates to give them! Next year we will have them for sure!
    So, you see, it doesn't have to be candy for kids to like it!

  33. Hey Stan,

    When I first read your idea, I thought it was really cool. I didn't bother reading the comments then. I'm now that I have, I'm really surprised about all the haters.

    Seriously? I didn't see that there would be any forcing of the shells.
    I wasn't surprised that kids wanted the shells.

    Despite the fact a few of the posters have reinforced the stupid, greedy,fat American stereotype, I actual gave you and the kids much more credit.

    Thanks Stan. You're a great guy and I'm sure you made some kids very happy this Halloween.

  34. I'm glad it turned out so well. If you think about it, it's not really surprising. I haven't been a kid for alot of years, but I remember having a box of "treasures" I took out from time to time to handle each stone, shell, bit of old pottery, etc. and either remembering where it came from or making up stories about where it might have come from.

  35. Yesterday I read of a Wiccan priestess saying that Halloween trick-or-treating is a survival of the ancient custom of giving offerings to the gods of harvest during the Harvest Festival on Samhain (All Hallows Eve). Don't know if it's true, but I love the idea!

    --Swift Loris

  36. Brilliant idea.
    How about Nuts next year. No not the 1/2" ones...Brazil nuts Coconuts, how many local kids have seen them?
    Do they know what a walnut really looks like?
    It will "do them good" and "breed character" when they find out they have to open them first and there is no ring pull.
    Keep the blogs coming...It's a lovely warm evening here in central france but the wind is kicking up a bit.

  37. I must admit, when I first heard about this idea, I immediately reverted to my 8 year old self and was filled with resentment. However, my 8 year old self was in a household where candy was a rarity (at least until I started earning baby-sitting money) and Halloween was the one time I could count on candy of my own. And, unlike my best friend who got to visit apartment buildings, my mom would take me to about 15 houses and that was it.

    As most kids these days have access to all the candy they want, I think offering something different is a great idea.

    And now I need to go buy some M&Ms. :)

  38. I think giving things other than candy at Halloween is a great idea, whether it be shells, book certificates (how awesome is THAT?), toys, pencils, whatever, and, coming from a non-candy household, had always been concerned about the mountains of candy our kids would get, obsess over and gorge on. Then we heard about the Halloween Fairy, who, IF the kids chose to put their Halloween candy under their pillows (minus a few choice pieces, of course), would take the candy and leave a toy. We were not sure the kids would think this was a fair or desirable deal, but every year it has been met with unbridled enthusiasm. Now they go trick-or-treating because they want the candy to leave for the Halloween Fairy.


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