Tackling Burning Man with Kids
Curious what Burning Man looks like and what is available for kids and their families? Follow along as my friend Tai, a brilliant interior designer and world traveler, gives us a first hand look of this yearly event.
If you’ve heard of Burning Man, you’ve probably heard of the dusty desert known as the Playa, the all night dancing, the giant art installations and the outrageous outfits (or lack there of). Chances are, you haven’t heard much about kids at Burning Man, and quite frankly, that’s a shame – because if anyone would love the energy and delight, it’s the under-18 set!
From the artwork to the fireworks, the bonfires and the friendships in between, Burning Man is truly an event for all ages. While the vast majority of images you see might be dusty 20- and 30-somethings running around with hula hoops and dancing on art cars, the truth is, Burning Man is like any other city – there’s something for everyone, and, with some care, Burners of all ages can have an amazing time.
What is Burning Man? Burning Man is an annual creative festival that takes place in the Black Rock Desert, on a barren alluvial floodplain known as “the Playa”, about 3 hours north of Reno, Nevada. Founded on the principles of creative self expression and radical self reliance, it’s an annual gathering of more that 50,000 people of all ages from around over the world. They come to celebrate creativity and life with theme camps, huge interactive art installations and musical exuberance.
This isn’t a traditional festival – there are no headlining acts or VIP passes – and everyone is a participant. Part of the challenge is getting there and being there – the desert is harsh, and there are no amenities other than what you bring in. As a gifting economy, no money exchanges hands on Playa, and you are responsible for your own shelter, food and water for the duration of your stay.
Family time on Playa is a wonderful bonding experience – where else can your kids run around in blue body paint from head to toe? Parents that are really engaged in their kids lives, creating meaningful experiences, letting exploration and growth happen, and setting discernible boundaries, tend to have strong relationships with their kids.
The youngest Burner I met this year was a mere 5 months old, cradled in a bassinet sleeping blissfully despite the dust that seemed to permeate the air. I asked her parents how handling an infant at Burning Man was possible, and they just laughed and said “if you can be a parent in San Francisco, you can be a parent anywhere.” They noted that the sun as well as the dry desert air was an issue, so they kept her covered in sunblock and shade and made sure to keep clean, dry socks on her feet and mittens on her hands. Bag Balm, a stronger balm used by long distance cyclists, was also on their “must pack” list. At night, before going to bed, a wipe down with baby wipes and a vinegar-water solution, followed by an almond oil moisturizer, was their trick for combating the dryness.
Family time is a magical experience on Playa. With art works scattered across miles of desert, decorated kid trailers strapped to your bike are a necessity. El wire and decorations help make your bike visible at night – so get the kids involved in decorating their chariot too!
It’s the delight that lights the eyes of the kids that really makes the artwork amazing. A 60-foot metal scorpion playing music? A 20-foot tall train with giant rolling human-powered hamster-wheels? That’s heaven for a 10 year old – and a parent! Just let them on and run and run and run….. they’ll wear themselves out before you know it! Schoolyard jungle gyms have nothing on the climbable structures that are scattered across the Playa.
Costumes and outrageous outfits are part of the Burning Man experience – and no one loves a costume more than your little Angel or Dragon, right? Burning Man is the ultimate excuse for your kids to costume up, so make it an all year event, creating costumes that don’t shed (ie no glitter and no feathers). Shedding makes MOOP – Matter Out Of Place – and as a Leave No Trace event, it’s a big no-no!
Which leads me to the most important part of being a Baby Burner – the environmental culture of it all. Burning Man is a Leave No Trace event – you bring it in, you pack it out, and that means EVERYTHING – every bit of trash, every shred of wrapper, every can of soda. Teaching kids to be conscious of their needs, and to be aware of their trash, is a critical part of being a Burner. Engaging those old enough to help pick up after themselves, and participate in cleaning up with the whole camp at strike, teaches about responsibility to one’s community and environment in a hands on way. And when you teach a child about Leave No Trace on Playa, imagine being able to take that ethos back into the living room!
Tips and Tricks: Health, Safety, and Noise
Dust. Dust is a real problem on Playa - pervasive, there are also frequent dust storms. Eye protection like ski goggles are a must, as is a dust mask. Bandanas work great in all but the worst storms, but in the event of consistent dust storms the best place to be is inside – ideally you have an RV as part of the camp in case of truly bad conditions.
Scrapes, Bruises or Worse - Playing on the art works is fun – but a healthy dose of gravity will remind anyone that some rules apply everywhere – and kids are bound to have a little bump and scrape. Carry a first aid kit for minor scrapes; Rangers and Health Services will help out with bigger concerns.
At night, the Playa can become a loud rolling party. Selecting camp in a quiet zone is key. The further back from the Esplanade and Open Playa, the quieter your nights. Some families camp by the airport, about 1 1/2 miles from the center of the action – without runway lights, nothing can fly after dark – guaranteed peace!
Kids get distracted by shiny things – and so do parents! ID bracelets, committed care takers and a well-organized camp network is key to making sure kids and parents stay united, but sometimes separations happen. In case of separation, the Black Rock Rangers are your best friends - they are the volunteer services department that communicates emergencies via radio, networking the entire city in minutes. This year, a teenager was reported missing, and the Rangers shut down all incoming and outgoing traffic for a few hours until she was found – snoozing on a hammock a couple of camps over.
Comfort and Familiarity - with all these strangers wearing bunny ears and face paint, it can be very disorienting. Make sure to bring something familiar and loved – and washable! – like a blanket, sippy cup or stuffed animal.
Hydrate Hydrate Hydrate - The average adult drinks 1 to 1.5 gallons of water a day at Burning Man. The activities – cycling across the desert all day – certainly add to the body’s needs, and the elevation, heat and dust can wreak havoc on anybody – but kids can be especially susceptible. It’s important for everyone to stay hydrated and charged up – salt-rich foods like peanuts and bacon are excellent for older kids to keep their electrolytes up, and younger kids can have a little extra Pedialite added to their formulas.
Fear - There’s alot of stuff that’s awesome to adults – and terrifying to kids. At night, art cars might blast too much fire or a piece of art becomes animated and really scares a kid. It’s important to take the time to sit with your child, let them know that you realize they are scared, but the art was meant to make that noise or that fire. Comfort them, so they can enjoy themselves – and let you enjoy your time too!
Weirdness - There’s no denying it, there’s alot of stuff happening at Burning Man. Alot of it is right up a kid’s alley – unicorn bikes, Ferris wheels – but much of it is outside the realm of “kid friendly” as well. How do you deal with it? Turns out, you don’t have to say much – most of the truly bizarre is behind closed (tent) doors, and anything that isn’t can usually be gently explained as a “sometimes grownups are weird!” You as the parent are in a position of educating your child about the wonderful differences in humanity – and the joyous creativity all that can bring together!
Connect! Just like parenting in the real world, it’s hard to do it alone! There are great parent networks at Burning Man – Kidsville is a camp dedicated to kids and their parents, and others include Burning Moms and Alternative Energy Zone. Even if you camp with a different group, it’s great to know where these groups are and get to know them both on and off Playa – parents AND kids benefit from this network of people!
Have you been to Burning Man? Would you bring your kids?
Tai Kojro-Badziak is an architect, designer, artist, food hound & unstoppable traveler, sinking in to local culture wherever & whenever she can. She got her first passport at age 2 (Europe!) & has been keeping it active ever since. Interested in the deep culture of a place, she uses her passions for food, art, creativity & the human spirit to connect with people everywhere, learning about local habits & bringing them back to the US. She believes life should be lived richly, using her travels to inform the design process & bringing the textures of travels back to her design work.
All images Copyright Tyler Mallory 2012