DIY Sensory Friendly Vehicle Costume
When my 3 year olds wanted to be the trains Rocky and Diesel 10 from Thomas and Friends, it set up a couple of problems besides the fact that they’re not main characters so you can’t exactly just buy the costume or find a dozen tutorials on making them. Even if there had been, all of the train costumes I could find required the costume to hang from the wearer’s shoulders using straps.
Both kids had sensory processing issues that caused aversions to texture, light and sound. They were excited to wear costumes and trick or treat, but costumes that hung from their shoulders and were in constant contact with their skin would make trick or treating impossible. They would be unbearable after ten minutes, and would make the other chaotic stimuli of Halloween miserable.
So, I made two train costumes they could push instead of wear. The pushable train costumes were a huge hit, and made me realize how many advantages there were to vehicle costumes that the wearer pushed instead of wore.
Pushing means doing heavy work while trick or treating. Heavy work is often part of occupational therapy because it can be calming, and help people handle sensory input that would normally be difficult. Halloween has a lot of chaos and sensory input, so a vehicle that provides less tactile stimulation than a typical costume and a coping mechanism for overstimulation is perfect.
A pushable costume also provides greater autonomy. It allows the wearer to stop being in contact with their costume just by letting go of the handlebar. Additionally, one costume was a large box with a trapdoor in the top, allowing my son to sit inside with the trapdoor closed for a break.
Pushable costumes allow the wearer to avoid having to hold bags or pails when trick or treating, which further reduces unwelcome stimulus. This can be done by building the candy pail into the costume (pic left), or by setting the treat bag on top of the costume (pic above). Because these costumes use a toy shopping cart as their base, they also have a space to stash necessities within the costume itself.
Box-based pushable vehicle costumes become personal space barriers around the wearers, and the vehicle gets all the attention. So, there is no need for an engineer hat, or special clothing because the giant vehicle is enough.
The trains were a lot of work to build and could have been expensive if we’d used new materials. But using what we had at hand reduced the costs significantly. I used Freecycle, garage sales, and existing supplies to build the trains.
Second, these costumes don’t do stairs and are best for ADA compliant locations like stores and community centers. We used ours at a YMCA, a mall, and in our neighborhood with low porches.
Lastly, they take up more space than most costumes. We gave up a chunk of our living room for a week while I worked on them, and transporting large costumes by car was difficult.
How To Make the Costume
We were on a budget so the materials list on the below are what I had on hand or could get cheaply or free. But, this list should give you an idea of the items you could use. Be creative and you can make these costumes out of almost anything.
- Large cardboard boxes (wardrobe, appliance or moving boxes,)
- Kid-sized shopping cart or push toy (I also used a small wagon)
- Bungee cords, screws, bolts, string (any fastener will do)
- Duct tape (colored if you want, but not necessary)
- Paint (the cheapest paint I could find in each train’s color, plus 1 qt white, 1 qt black)
- Stiff foam or craft clay (I carved up 2 free boogie boards)
- School glue (you can also do a thinned flour paste)
- Furniture Wheels (cost varies by size, but you can use again)
- A plastic sand pail (Free)
- A Saw (if using plywood)
- A box cutter and/or sharp serrated knife (I used both)
- Plywood or double thick cardboard for the base (I had pegboard, so I used that)
- Foam (I used old boogie boards)
Step 1: plan
I measured the dimensions of two toy trains and I scaled them up to the size I needed to fit the kid sized shopping carts I used as the core of the costumes. Then, I shortened the length by two feet, so we ended up with blockier versions of the toys.
I eliminated all the vehicle’s accessories and attachments because I didn’t have time to make them. For example, The real Rocky has a huge crane, and Diesel 10 has a claw attachment. I skipped both, but the costumes looked enough like the toys that everyone recognized them anyway.
Step 2: Shape your cardboard.
I cut the cardboard boxes to size and taped them into rough shapes of Rocky and Diesel 10. Rocky was a long wardrobe box laid flat, with a book box attached near the middle for his head. Diesel 10 was an appliance box with angled panels to approximate the toy’s shape.
Once they were roughly shaped, I cut out the entire bottom off of the box for Rocky, but left the Diesel 10 box intact.
Because tape and paint will cover mistakes or scribbles, this is a good time to get help from children too young to use house paint.
Step 3: Paint
I mixed yellow and black paint to make the dull yellow of Diesel 10. Once that was dry, I mixed some yellow with white to make the light stripes around his base, and added the black side windows and “wheels.” Then, I mixed white and black paint to make a light gray for his other windows.
Step 4: Build Up The Cart
I determined the fit of the child-sized shopping cart my child would push to make the costume move by placing it inside of the boxes, then eyeballing where to cut around it.
For Diesel 10, I began with a plastic kids shopping cart, but it was not sturdy enough, so I put it inside a red wagon, and secured the wagon handle to the cart. A better cart would’ve also solved the problem, but this worked and fit our budget.
I ran two PVC pipes parallel to each other through the cart and connected them in a rectangle that extended outside the box through small holes in the side. The PVC pipe frame kept the Diesel 10 box off the ground and balanced.
Because the Rocky costume has a large base box and a small upright box, I couldn’t put the box on until I’d secured the base, but during this step, I ensured the smaller box fit the wooden kids’ shopping cart that my child would push to make his costume move.The wood kids shopping cart was sturdier and easier to work with than the plastic shopping cart. If you have access to a wood cart, it would be the best choice.
Step 5: Make the Base
I made my base for Rocky out of pegboard, because we had some available. Plywood would also work, as would a double thick layer of cardboard, though it would be less sturdy.
The base needs to have space for the wearer to walk. I had my children walk with wet feet on cement, then measured their steps from the heel of the back foot to the toe of the front foot.I added 4 inches and cut a rectangle that length out of the base for Deisel 10, and it worked well.
I left the back of Rocky’s base open. Most people will see the costume from the side or front, so leaving the back off made little difference to the awesomeness of it.
Next, I added the additional wheels and attached the base to the push toy. I used only rear wheels for Deisel 10 and both front and rear for Rocky.
Step 5: Carve and paint the face (optional)
There are a few ways to create vehicle faces. You can use foam, paint the faces on, use paper mache, or model them from model magic clay (see this tutorial). I cut up some old foam boogie boards to the size of the train faces.
Using stills from Thomas and Friends videos, I drew rough topo maps on the surface of the foam to map out where I wanted to carve the features. I used a serrated kitchen knife to carve the faces, and shave them down to smooth them.
Because the foam had tiny holes that caused the paint to soak through, I mixed black and white paint and added glue to thicken it. Then, I painted on the features. The faces turned out well, and when I was done, I used screws to attach them to the train boxes from the inside.
After attaching the faces, I added the names of the trains in a highly visible spot so that any adult would know immediately who my kids were supposed to be, since most people have no idea who these trains are.
Step 6: Assemble It All
I attached the base to the cart for Rocky and then added the boxes over the top. Then I attached the box to the cart using bungee cords to minimize the number of screws involved. I placed leftover strips of the boogie board inside the shopping cart to serve as a base for the sand pail that was going to serve as the candy container. Then I cut a circle in the lid of the box above it so the costume would become a big candy pail.
To insert the cart, I cut a square flap in the back of Rocky’s head box. Once I had the cart inserted and secured, I used duck tape to give him a back that was similar to the one on the Rocky toy. I wrapped the wooden handle in red duck tape as well.
The back of Rocky’s base and bottom box widens slightly like a foot, which allowed me to add a round reflector for when we trick or treated in our neighborhood.
One challenge was making Rocky’s sand pail candy area secure. I used black tape to attach it to the roof, which pushed it down into the foam on which it was perched to ensure that it stayed.
For Diesel 10, assembly was as simple as tucking the cart into the big box with the cross poles of the PVC pipe sticking out small holes I’d cut into the lower 6 inches of box’s sides. Then, I attached the painted the outer PVC pipe to keep it all in place and provide stability.
Though the insides were cobbled together out of seemingly random things, and I am not a professional crafter or builder, the train costumes held together well through all of the halloween events we attended. We built these on tight budget with mostly free supplies, and they were still a hit. For me, they were a way to show that it’s possible to make a vehicle costume for a sensory sensitive person that is just as fun as the other costumes out there, and that allows them to handle the stimuli of Halloween more easily so they have a good time.
All Images are the property of Deek.