Yesterday I went door to door passing out preliminary schedules for this year’s summer block party. That’s a bit of an undertaking, since our block is really a block-and-a-half long, with closely spaced houses and two apartment buildings at one end. For orientation, the middle of our block looks like this:
Here's our block in south Oak Park. My house is the third from the right. Many drivers consider the 25 mph speed limit an unwelcome suggestion, so most kids' front-yard life focuses on the concrete sidewalk. On block party days the street is closed to traffic, and everyone's focus shifts to the wide expanse of asphalt.
In addition to the 50 houses and 2 apartment buildings on our block, we also invite the west half of the next block over, since they live on a major road that can’t be closed for parties. I printed 90 schedules and had fewer than 10 left.
Preliminary Activity Schedule
Here’s the preliminary schedule for our block’s 40th summer party. (Yes, we really do have a small archive that goes back that far.) I’ll give some history, explanation, analysis, and commentary later in this post:
7:30 to 8:30 A.M.– Neighborhood Nature Walk: Look for birds, bugs, trees and more on our block (explorations for all ages)
9 A.M. to 11 P.M. – STREET CLOSES AT 9 A.M. Bikes, scooters, skateboards, and rollerblading in the street, along with sports and games, kids’ outdoor toys, and more
BREAKFAST at 9 A.M. near the middle of the block. Everyone is invited to enjoy donuts, bagels, rolls, coffee, juice, and conversation.
9:30 to 11:30 A.M.– Decorate trikes, bikes, and scooters in the middle of the block AND nature collecting & sidewalk chalk village at our house
10 to 11:30 A.M.– Nature Swap — Children can trade natural things that they have found for natural treasures from around the world
10 A.M. to 2 P.M. – DinoJump! (Kids climb inside and jump like crazy)
11:30 A.M. Parade (decorated vehicles get a prize)
LUNCH: Everyone eats at their own house. (This makes it easier to get little kids down for their naps.)
1 to 4 P.M. – Build a woodland fairy village and Invention Fair (build and display an invention using recycled stuff)
2 to 3 P.M. – Meet live animals: Tadpoles, toads, & turtles (just a few of our many pets)
2 to 4:30 P.M. – Nature crafts using shells, shark teeth and other natural treasures to make a collage (by my wife!)
3:30 to 5 P.M. – Bubble & water play
4 to 5 P.M. – Face painting by a young artist
SUPPER at about 5 P.M. in the middle of the street. Everyone grills their own main course; one side of the block brings salads and other side dishes, the other brings desserts.
After Dinner – Bingo! (with prizes for kids)
After Bingo – Live music by a neighborhood teen’s rock band
Two Critical Ingredients
Now, if you stumbled on this post while searching for ideas for your first block party, please don’t be intimidated by our busy schedule. In my experience, a block party has only two critical ingredients:
- Street closed to traffic
- Shared food
Closing the street to traffic changes everything for kids. Suddenly the neighborhood is many times more interesting, even to kids who usually spend many hours in front of screens. Of course, the other kids on the street are as much of an attraction as the open space. Shared food helps get the adults together doing what they’re supposed to do — talk to their neighbors. Breakfast seems to be the most important meal for this kind of mixing, since that’s when people converse with neighbors who they haven’t talked with in many months. Supper is shared but less effective, since many families spend that meal with friends from off the block.
The other activities help keep kids amused once the initial thrill of the street wears off, plus they provide secondary centers for adult conversation. For families with toddlers and preschoolers, having your kids safely busy gives you more time to talk with adults. The activities are fun and useful, but you could get by with just a few of them.
Developing Block Party Activities
I keep these things in mind as I develop the activity schedule:
Legacy activities. Many activities at our parties are legacies — we tried them once, and now they’re so popular that kids would cry if we tried to drop them. The DinoJump is a legacy; we stole the idea from another block about 10 years ago; now it’s incredibly popular with kids, less so with the adults who have to rent and supervise it. (Even the name “DinoJump” is a legacy, since it’s been years since our jump was actually shaped like a dinosaur.) Bingo is another legacy. In fact, our bingo leader was the recording secretary at that first block party planning meeting, 40 years ago.
Activities express their leaders’ interests. My wife, Gail, is an occupational therapist and artist, so it’s natural that she should lead the afternoon nature crafts. A sports-loving family down the block converts their section of street into a skateboarders’ paradise. And my agenda has long been helping kids build their interests in nature, science, and technology, so I do a bunch of activities on those themes. And now my agenda includes “No Child Left Inside.”
Recycling is good! Many of my activities date back to when I volunteered at Wonder Works, led a Camp Fire group, or ran a Nature and Science Club at our neighborhood school. And my kids and I have had many passionate interests over the years (from cars to dinosaurs to birds), so I tried many of our nature, science, and technology activities at home before taking them on the road. Also, we recycle many activities year-after-year; see Legacies, above.
Every block’s party is unique. There are lots of block parties in Oak Park, each with its own history and leaders. The activities at each party reflect the history, constraints, and current composition of its neighborhood. Planners from different blocks hear what’s going on elsewhere and steal ideas, but somehow every party stays unique. That’s the way it’s always been, but if you don’t like it, you can change it — all you have to do is say you’ll be in charge.
So, that’s the context I considered as I developed the “No Child Left Inside” block party.
This Year’s “No Child Left Inside” Activities
As I discussed in an earlier post (here), there’s a whole “No Child Left Inside” movement out there, and I see our block party as part of it. Of course, all block parties get kids outside, but I’ve been thinking of ways to extend the experience, giving families ideas they can use outside all year.
So, here are activities I’m trying for this year’s “No Child Left Inside” theme:
Neighborhood Nature Walk: The nature walk is new this year. Of course, it fits with the theme of this blog (Neighborhood Nature). We’ll concentrate on front-yard nature this year. If we attract an audience, we’ll try backyard and alley walks at later parties. I’ll help participants discover new animals and plants — things they’ve been walking past all summer but not noticing. We’ll also discuss what to look for as summer ends and fall begins.
Nature Collecting: We’ll restock Collector’s Garden (which is open all year) and haul out a sandbox that we can “salt” with natural treasures. I may also enrich the local supply of acorns, winged seeds, and buckeyes on our street, just to see what happens.
Nature Swap: For the last few summers we’ve been setting up a table of natural treasures that kids can trade for — their natural finds for our natural treasures from around the world. This activity was inspired by the nature swap exhibits at Minnesota Museum of Science’s Collectors’ Corner, Brookfield Zoo’s Play Zoo, and elsewhere. This year I’m also going to encourage the kids to trade with each other.
Sidewalk Chalk Village: As we’ve been doing most years, we’ll be putting Aaron’s old toy car and wooden train sets out in the street for kids to play with. This year we’ll also use sidewalk chalk to draw train tracks, streets, buildings, rivers, and more on the pavement — just like we used to do with Aaron. It kept him outside and amused for hours — maybe other families will try it at their homes.
Nature Crafts: Gail plans to have cardboard patterns of butterflies that the kids can decorate with beads, stickers, and markers and also do nature collages on rectangles of poster boards, either making scenes, like a beach scene with shells, or just making a display of some of their favorite rocks, shells, shark teeth, leaves, sticks, flowers and more.
Woodland Fairy Village: The big trees on our street shed lots of twigs and bark, and these days most of it goes to waste — hauled away by the village when it would be lots of fun to play with. We’ll help kids use these natural materials to build a “fairyland” on some bare dirt in front of our house. They can revisit their constructions the next morning to discover rewards the no-longer-homeless fairies have left behind. (My parents used to leave candy, but we’ll probably leave polished rocks.)
Meet Live Animals: For years my family has displayed wild animal pets during our block party. This year I’m going to focus more on the animals that live right on our block — like soil animals and squirrels.
Those are the ideas I put in the preliminary schedule, but I’m already thinking of other activities. I’ll probably have a table of books — field guides for everyone, Richard Louv and David Sobel for the teachers and school volunteers who live on our block, nature story books for kids — along with blankets and beanbags to read on. I may bribe Ethan and Aaron to show the younger folks some outdoor games they can play on front yards and tree lawns, even after the street reopens. I’m sure we’ll come up with more activities before next Saturday.
Wait Until Next Year!
That’s what we’ve planned for our “No Child Left Inside” block party, but this year is just the beginning. I’m thinking next year’s block party should be earlier in the summer — not right before school starts — so families can discover outdoor ideas they can use all summer long. Also, I’ll recruit parents to the “No Child Left Behind” theme in advance — it didn’t occur to me until weeks after this year’s planning meeting. Maybe some younger families will be inspired to start a Nature Club (like this) for our block. (I’ve got a whole year to dream about next summer.)
Note added September 22, 2009: I used the social networking application Twitter to keep up a running commentary before, during, and after our block party. Now I have collected all the tweets in one place, so you can read it here. (This stream is no longer publicly available on Twitter.)
Of course, if I really want to dream big, I can think about ways to change the traffic pattern in our neighborhood. The Active Living Resource Center has some interesting ideas in this PDF file.