Don’ts and dos of running a “family” festival

We decided to brave the city-sponsored “Family Fun Fest” on the waterfront over the weekend. We ran into a couple of people we knew who were leaving as we arrived and asked them how they had liked the event. Their response? “It’s kind of… a mess.”

And it was. I wonder why events supposedly designed for families with children are so often unoriginal, even a bit unfriendly towards the audience they seek? When corporations decide to sponsor these events and have an on-site presence, is their goal to actually offer a fun experience for kids, or simply to dole out logo-covered junk? If it isn’t the former, it should be. Your frisbee may or may not give me a lot of joy, but providing an authentically fun memory for me and my child will. You may not think so, but the experience is more important than stuff. And if you give me a bad one, I’m really really going to remember that.

Here is my free advice:

Rule #1
DON’T hold these events without providing a space or fun activity specifically for children under the age of five. Things that they are supposed to sit still and watch don’t count, because people under five, who are often members of families, are generally incapable of sitting still for very long. If you can’t do this, advertise that the event is for kids of a higher age.

DO come up with something specifically designed to engage the youngest people. It’s not hard. Throw down a big mat inside of some gates with some colorful pillows and balls. Get some bigger kids to volunteer to play with the little ones, because no one loves big kids as much as little ones do.

P.S. While you’re at it, make sure you also provide a space for nursing moms and babies. A tent with a few changing tables and rocking chairs will do. This isn’t progressive, it’s just logical and babies, it should be noted, are also often members of families.

Rule #2
DON’T give kids pre-drawn pictures to color. Or at least not only pre-drawn pictures to color.

DO try and inspire them to come up with some ideas on their own. Instead of giving something you think is “fun” laid out in factory form, give them a blank page and ask them to draw something they think is fun. Then praise their brilliance and ingenuity. A big open patch of road where kids could draw whatever they wanted with sidewalk chalk was one of the best things at the festival.

Rule #3
DON’T put any giveaway items out in public view that you do not actually intend to give away. This should be your rule at every event, but when children are the ones you are marketing to, the penalties for breaking this rule double.

DO try and make sure that the people who work at your booth like children and parents, and put them on in shifts, so that they aren’t worn out and disgusted by everyone as it gets later in the day.

Note: When we visited tent for the Columbus Crew – a soccer franchise that isn’t exactly burning up the ticket lines – the woman in it actually pulled a bunch of small soccer balls off of the table when Dan approached, saying “sorry, we’re putting these away, we have to save them for other events.” I’m only grateful that my two-year-old and I were far enough from the table that he didn’t quite clue into the fact that he was being denied a cheap promotional ball, especially since balls, spheres or globes are the most important things on earth. A toddler meltdown was narrowly averted by our parenting reflexes and the fact that he had a healthy nap that day. Bad form, Crew!

Rule #4
DON’T insist on having those infernal bouncy contraptions at every single event where kids may show up. If your goal is for a family to have fun together, this doesn’t cut it. It’s just a dangerous, temporary babysitter. But if you have to have it…

DO make sure that who ever runs the thing does so in shifts with big kids and little kids, or make sure that there are two of them – one for big kids and one for small ones, because small ones can get seriously knocked around just being in the proximity of a fourth-grade jumper. At least put the thing somewhere far enough away from the center of the event that it’s not there, torturing the children of parents who don’t want to either pay $1 for every three minutes of jumping or to watch their child narrowly avert death with every 11-year-old you allow in there with them.

Really, it would be better just to hire more strolling performers. Musicians, clowns, whatever. Seriously!

Rule #5
DON’T think of a family festival the same way you would think about a county fair or an amusement park.

DO try and be creative and considerate of your audience. Parents are dying for more events where the objective isn’t just a bald-faced sales pitch for stores and services. If you’re a corporation, consult educators about the activities and gear you provide.

What would you add?

Life soundtrack: Sly and the Family Stone, Anthology, “Family Affair”
Sly and the Family Stone - Anthology - Family Affair

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