How to Survive an Outdoor Summer Festival with Kids

Chicago has a vibrant summer festival scene. Here's how to navigate it with kids.

There’s nothing like attending an outdoor summer festival with your family. Lucky for us, Chicagoland is busy with summer fests all season long — food and drink-themed fests, concerts in the local park, ethnic festivals that celebrate heritage and cultural traditions, the list goes on.  You name it, and there’s probably a festival in honor of it! 

Summer festivals give our communities vibrancy, identity and opportunities to try new food, activities and have fun together. Plus, who ever said no to eating funnel cake and drinking a frozen pina colada out of a pineapple while their family enjoys live music?

However much fun fests may be, every parent knows that all it takes is a bit too much sun or a tiny bit of boredom to set in, and you might be at risk of facing a full-throttle meltdown. Luckily, Chicago Parent has some tips, not only for avoiding tantrums, but to make the most of your family’s festival experience.

This summer, use these helpful tips for families and, with a little extra preparation and a few handy festival hacks, you’ll be able to show your kids what Chicago’s festival season is all about. 

Looking for a summer festival near you? Check out these family-friendly fests around Chicagoland. 

Be ready to battle the sun

Sunscreen? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Hats, visors, maybe even a thin, long-sleeved layer to protect against sunburn? Check.

Nothing ruins fun in the sun like a sunburn. Protect your skin and prevent sun damage by making sure you have all the sunblock essentials on hand. Remember to reapply sunscreen and to check in with your child — if their skin is pink, then they’re already burning and it’s time to get out of the sun. 

Protect your ears 

Speaking of protection, when’s the last time you heard about ear protection (pun intended)? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure to noise above 85 decibels — including rock bands and fireworks at festivals — can cause hearing loss and, once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Get yourself and your little ones in the habit of wearing earplugs or protective earmuffs. Today, there are plenty of fun colors or convenient options that fit on your key ring, making it easy to enjoy the fun of live music outdoors without any of the potential hearing damage. 

Check the menu ahead of time 

Carnival food stands are almost guaranteed to have kid-approved food options, like hot dogs, fries, popcorn chicken and tons of sweet treats. But if you have a picky eater and plan on attending a food-focused event — like Tamale Fest or Pierogi Fest, for example — don’t be surprised when there are only tamales or pierogis available and your little ones aren’t having it. 

To make mealtime a breeze, check the offering of food vendors before you go. Knowing which food stands offer options your child will eat ahead of time will avoid mealtime meltdowns and allow you to pack backup snacks if needed. 

Photo credit: Millennium Art Festival/Amdur Productions

Bring cash

Cash tends to be king at summer fests. If vendors aren’t cash only, then they tend to have long card-only lines that often have twice the wait time.To avoid long ATM lines and card-only queues, grab some cash ahead of time. 

Locate nearby bathrooms before you have to go

The dreaded trek to the porta-potties is an unfortunate trade-off for festival fun. If you’re lucky, you may attend a fest that uses park facilities, but with so many extra patrons, they aren’t always in ideal conditions — especially if you need to change a diaper or nurse. 

Before you head to the festival, identify nearby businesses that allow customers to use their restrooms, like a chain fast food restaurant or coffee shop. If the lines and facilities aren’t up to par, you can rest assured knowing you have a nearby Plan B(athroom). 

Be ready to roll

Managing crowds with little ones — and all the gear that comes with them — is no easy task. That’s where the trusty stroller or wagon comes in handy. Not only will you be able to transport your kiddos through crowds efficiently, they won’t wander off if they’re rolling alongside you. Plus, you’ll have extra room to store necessary festival gear like chairs and blankets. 

Prepare to camp out for awhile

So you’ve used the bathroom and grabbed food and drinks, but when you look around, you see that all the picnic tables and seats are overflowing with people. No worries! Bringing a stroller or wagon means you have plenty of room to bring a portable lounge setup, including lawn chairs and picnic blankets. 

Locate a spot on flat ground that’s out of the way of any foot traffic and create your own area to hang out, eat and enjoy the festival vibes. The best part? It’s totally private, customizable and moveable, so no one will take your seats and you can relocate whenever you please. 

Enjoy kid-friendly programming

From face painting and balloon animals to crafts, kid-friendly music, carnival rides and more, summer fests are usually packed with family programming. Check the festival’s website or social media accounts to learn more about the specific offerings at your next fest. 

Make it fun to stay cool

Let’s face it: you can wear all the sunscreen, hydrate plenty and find a cool spot in the shade to enjoy a frozen treat and there are some days the sun just won’t let down. Instead of waiting on the impending meltdown, come prepared with fun ways to stay cool! 

Stock up on mini squirt guns or fans from the dollar store so cooling down can double as a fun game. While you’re there, pick up a tube of bubbles — they might not cool down the kids, but they can at least distract them for a bit! 

Know what to do in a worst-case scenario

Every year, children get separated from their families in large crowds. Even if mom and dad are just a few feet away, it can feel really scary to be separated from your parents. Prepare for this worst-case scenario by checking in with the festival’s staff and seeing if they have ID bracelets to help lost children reconnect with their parents. 

If your festival doesn’t offer this service, come prepared with your own bracelet, necklace or dog tag that lists important info, like your name and phone number. If your child is separated, scared and can’t remember helpful contact info, the ID will help festival staff reunite you with your child.


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Nikki Roberts
Nikki Roberts
Nikki Roberts is the assistant editor on the Chicago Parent team. She is always on the lookout for the coolest and trendiest new attractions, restaurants and events for Chicagoland families. Her newsletters, online family guides and exciting digital content keep families informed on all the latest happenings around town.

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