Every June, kids and families in the Bach Elementary neighborhood walk to the Children’s Festival in Wurster Park. “It’s a very low-key event,” says Rachel Thompson who has been organizing the festival for the last ten years. “It’s a beautiful park, and it’s not too crowded. Kids don’t have to wait in line to do the things that interest them. The activities are spread out through the park. People wander and there’s no pressure to do anything.”
But there is plenty to do at the event funded by the Old West Side Association. In recent years, for instance, the magician has drawn crowds. “My own kids and their friends climb onto branches on the trees so they can get behind the magician to see how the tricks work,” says Thompson.
When Allison Stupka, owner of Ann Arbor Children’s House, presents a craft project, she focuses on the process. “If they think too much about what the product will be, it’s not as engaging,” she explains. This year, Stupka led the kids in paper marbling. She blended carrageenan, derived from seaweed, into water, then had children use an eye dropper to drop acrylic paint on top. When they hold paper to the paint, they have marbled paper. “I can tell they’re engrossed because they get quiet,” she says. “Some of the older kids start helping the younger ones.”
Paul McCormack, “the critter guy,” has been taking animals to schools, libraries, and birthday parties since 1995. He joined the festivities at Wurster Park in 2003. McCormack describes his activities as “show, tell, and touch.” He picks up an animal–a lizard, perhaps, or a chinchilla–and tells the crowd what it is, what it eats, what it does, then invites them to touch it. Sometimes a child quivers at the thought of touching a snake. “When he starts stroking it, that makes my day,” says McCormack.
Dogs attending the Children’s Festival with their humans are fascinated by Franklin the turtle, a huge tortoise who wanders the park with a balloon tied to him. “Dogs go right up to him and sniff, and then they circle cautiously,” says McCormack. “The turtle doesn’t care. He just stays there and eats dandelions.”
Christine Brummer, head of the Old West Side board, says the festival started simply as “an egg roll or hunt.” By the time Thompson took over, the festival was getting elaborate, so she scaled it back. “We had balloons and a helium tank, and we gave out plastic prizes for games, but that’s not good for the environment,” she explained. It’s simpler, but both children and adults are having too much fun to notice.