Kids’ DIY Carnival


Ticket booth at the kids' DIY Carnival

It’s the last full week of summer break around here. We have 10 more days to enjoy lazy mornings, wacky outfits, and leisurely lunches. 10 days left to squeeze in any outstanding items on the “stuff-we’re-TOTALLY-gonna-do-this-summer” list. And if the last two years have been any indicator, these are the only 10 days that Little Hippie will be able to recall when someone asks, “What did you do this summer?” So let’s make it count, people.

What’s that? You can’t *afford* to do any of the fun things on your list because back-to-school shopping has rendered your disposable income invisible? Okay. Let’s shoot for something free, then. And if it can involve very little work from you and a TON of work and intellectual engagement from the little people you might be secretly wishing were back in school YESTERDAY* – well, all the better.

We stumbled on the idea of the neighborhood carnival a few weeks ago when we had a few extra kids rolling with our crew. I found myself with 6 children and no real plans for the day. We were drawing a chalk city on the driveway, and one of the kids decided to add a county fair. She asked for help drawing the ferris wheel while she created the ticket booth, which reminded me of the greatest dumpster dive finding in the history of dumpster dives. This:

My parents' neighbors built this for their son's circus-themed birthday party. They didn't feel like taking it with them when they moved. Usually, I get irritated when my parents bring me huge pieces of other people's trash. But this one?  Well, this one was okay.

My parents’ neighbors built this for their son’s circus-themed birthday party. They didn’t feel like taking it with them when they moved. Usually, I get irritated when my parents bring me huge pieces of other people’s trash. But this one? Well, this one was okay.

Before my brain could filter the idea, it became speech. I heard myself saying, “Maybe we could make a *real* carnival with games and stuff.” I tried to pull it back in, but the damage was done. It was 7 a.m. There were several children cheering. I had NONE of the materials (or energy) that would make this a pinterest-style carnival. I just had a pretend ticket booth, a bunch of excited kids, and no caffeine in my system. This was going to be a disaster.

A flash of genius burst its way through the haze of talker’s remorse: I was going to EMPOWER these children by not doing all of the work for them. Yes, that’s the ticket. My laziness will translate to excellent parenting! I got out poster board (recycled newspaper signs), glue, markers, and the ticket booth. Every time they told me that they needed something else, I said, “Okay – use what you find in the garage and the yard to make whatever you need.” I had to say it over and over and over and over again, but I rarely had to intervene.

Kid Carnival Sign - The Reluctant Hippie

Picnic blankets became a circus tent. The swingset became an acrobatics range. Baby Hippie was dressed in his sister’s Hello Kitty rain boots as a clown (at least that’s what I thought. He wasn’t actually being a clown, though. He just really likes the pink kitty rain boots that are 4 sizes too big). Toy boxes and candy stashes were raided for midway game prizes. A tightrope was erected (and then moved to ground level by the safety inspector before the carnival opened). Signs were drawn. Tickets were created and cut. Mini golf and Bozo buckets stations were laid out. Neighbor children were notified. And Grandma got wind of the carnival and arrived with $10 worth of walgreens-purchased prize items to round out the games experience.

Each kid got to be the boss of his/her own game, leading participants through the game and awarding prizes. My neighbor brought her kids over to be attendees. There were disputes over game rules, prize equity, and all sorts of issues, but we let the kids work them out amongst themselves, keeping an eye out for any injustices that might lead to violence. Our intervention was never required, except to suggest clean-up activities. And then to sort of force them into cleaning up the carnival.

Afterwards, the kids spent some time trading prizes, eating the 3 pixy sticks that each one brought home, and playing with the little trinkety prizes. This carnival provided FIVE SOLID HOURS of engagement with very little work from me. And many of the organizers are still talking about it a month later. If you were to do this now, it would definitely make the “What I did this summer” essays. Take a picture or two, and you’ll be all set. If you go to the store to buy a few prizes, this project will cost you that much. Dollar Tree has bags of party favors that would do nicely for this sort of activity. Beyond the prizes, it’s free, baby. Free.

The organizers for this event ranged in age from 3-8 (almost 9). The 2nd-4th graders got the most out of this activity. Our attendees ranged from 3 – 6.

Here are some ideas for games, rides and attractions for folks who want to give this a try:

  • Miniature golf. We have a nerf golf set, but you can make your own with cups turn on their sides and golf or ping pong balls. Or use sideways laundry baskets and soccer balls.
  • Tightrope walking. Ours was a jump rope on the ground. It started as a jump rope tied between two chairs, but the safety inspector failed to approve that version.
  • Swingset trapeze. Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
  • Big top tent. Sheets draped over ladders and chairs would work. Ours was just the top platform of the slide. This doubled as a carnival ride. Bonus.
  • Bozo buckets. All of the storage bins in my garage were emptied for this activity. We had plenty of balls on hand.
  • Bean bag toss. We didn’t do this, but if you have a bag-o/cornhole/*** set, go for it.
  • Ladder golf or any other outdoor game you have for parties.
  • Face painting. Oh, this was an adventure. But they loved it.
  • Roller skate or scooter obstacle course. They used football cones to create the course.
  • Bike carousel. Draw a big circle on the driveway or patio, decorate the bikes like horses, and let kids ride in circles. Add a wagon so that very little kids can be pulled on the ride, too.
  • You could also do a parade – have kids decorate bike and wagon floats. Make it a contest!
  • Don’t take money. That way, you don’t have to worry about your neighbors getting bilked by your children – this means you don’t have to intervene to ensure that the games make sense and are winnable.

You can do this! Pretty easily. The more kids you have working together to brainstorm and execute the plan, the better, so invite the neighbors or people you like who have kids so that the grown-ups can drink lemonade (or beer) and chat while the kids do their thing.

*For the record, I am not one of the moms who counts down the days until the end of summer break. But I see on Facebook that a lot of people I enjoy are slowly heading towards madness and are looking forward to the structure and rigor of the academic year’s beginning. This activity is good for parents in both camps. 

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