Children wander happily about, getting their faces painted, making macaroni necklaces, creating clay pots, watching puppet shows, tie-dying, sand-casting, gold-panning, silk-screening, candle-making—you name it—anything that could delight and enchant a child.
It's magic, pure and simple. It's the Children's Festival in Jacksonville. And it only costs $2.
What: Children's Festival, 30 hands-on art, craft, science projects, storytelling for kids 2 to 12.
Where: Britt Gardens, Jacksonville
When: Sunday, July 12, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Monday, July 13, 9 to noon & 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 14, 9 to noon
Cost: $2 a person
This annual extravaganza is run almost entirely by willing, happy volunteers—no big government funding crises—and it's loved just as much by parents, many of whom attended as kids and are now sending their own children and grandchildren.
The Children's Festival is one of those magical stories where everything works, everyone is happy and leaves with rich memories. Nothing gets commercialized—and it all came from the dreams, back in 1967, of a small group of mothers who joined together in something called the Storytelling Guild.
"Back then, there were no public kindergartens and no special activities for children," says founding member Pat Blair in a history she wrote about the festival. "Other than Sunday school, there was nothing to do. Except take the kids to the library."
That's where Blair found the seminal group of women who read to kids every Thursday morning. Librarian Myra Getchell in 1966 began reading to kids under a big tree in Britt Gardens on the site of pioneer photographer Peter Britt's estate. The crowds grew. Then, one of the storytellers, Jeannette Paulson, proposed a "Child's Afternoon of Fantasy" for kids 2 to 12 at the gardens.
Kids were greeted by a feast of fun activities—puppets, plays, costumes and a wandering minstrel, with Goldilocks and Sleeping Beauty as themes.
"We expected maybe 50 people—300 showed up. It was overwhelming," says Blair. The magic exploded like Jack's Beanstalk, drawing 2,000 the next year and 5,000 by the third year—and solidifying its place in major West Coast happenings with an ad in Sunset Magazine. It now attracts about 8,000 a year, with an all-time high of 15,000.
The Children's Festival may look like (and is) interactive fun and games—hand prints, sand art, a maze, play dough, mosaic magic, body art, weaving, gymnastics, carpentry, leather craft, a queen in court—but its central mission from day one has been to open the magic door to books, books, books.
For 42 years, it's been all about literacy, with the real magic being about how books open the mind to ideas, possibilities, adventure and, often, what to do with your life, says Blair, the retired Jackson County children's librarian and a former "queen."
To make that magic come alive, the festival has always had one of the guild's storytellers (or community volunteers) sitting under the "reading tree," a sequoia planted long ago by Peter Britt, and not only reading to kids, but often in costume and acting out the story with every manner of prop.
Mother Goose, in costume, strolls about the rolling grounds, reading children's books to the under-5 set. The person playing the queen—an annual honor for a guild volunteer—captures the awe of children, spreads the aura of majesty as she knights them, and imbues them with the power of reading.
"The kids really believe in her. They bow to the queen and she makes them lords and ladies—and promotes reading," says guild member Annie Michels, this year's festival director.
"Storytelling is vital and hearing words is how we form our early vocabulary, giving us the language we use all our lives," says Blair. "It's important to start before the school years. It's necessary for a child to become successful "¦ but a lot of kids have never even seen books."
The festival has grown in contrast to a Disneyland-type vacation, where you spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars, stand in line for hours and, says Blair, get a 10-minute ride.
"It provides a Disneyland for children who can't afford Disneyland," says former Queen and former Festival director Susie Wright, and it's all home-grown, affordable, made of ordinary materials, is put together by thousands of volunteers and has no video games or flashing lights.
The many sponsors who give time, money and energy know they won't get to hang one logo or banner for their business, but gladly do it anyway, with a sense of "ownership" of the festival says Judy Gambee, former Queen, festival director and guild president.
Proceeds from the festival support the Storytelling Guild all year in this and other literacy activities, including:
The festival has been going on so long, says founding guild member and past Queen and president Verdell Coleman, that "we're seeing many parents who went when they were children, now bringing their children and even grandchildren."
"It's a happy place," says Blair. "As harried, hot and stressed as it gets, when children come, they're so happy. You rarely see kids crying or unhappy."
"It's an amazing program, so popular," agrees guild member Mary Patridge. "People crave this. It's back to basics. They need it—and you're not going to be hit up for rides and cotton candy."