CHIPPING-UNDER-OAKWOOD, CALIF. — While the theme parks of southern California are fighting the hi-tech wars (Six Flags Magic Mountain's newest entry, "Superman!" hurtles children through the air at 100 m.p.h.), the Renaissance Faire proudly offers ... turtle races!
Judging from the crowds, (30,000 over Memorial Day weekend, with a quarter million projected by Faire's end), this no-tech theme park is on to something as far as understanding what children need.
My six-year-old son, as Sega-savvy a youngster as there be in all of Christendom, demanded immediately, "Mom! C'mon! Let's go watch the tortoises race!"
From there, he was lost to the Rope Ladder Climb, the Fool's Joust (a wooden horse on a rope), and an endless arcade of games as timeless as childhood: the knife, javelin or axe throws, ring toss, Plates of Wrath (piles of ceramic plates to hurl at objects), crossbows, archery, fencing, ETCETERA!
Historian Jim Stewart, whose own daughters are Scottish Highland Dancers in a local Renaissance Faire, muses that since these games require no explanation, children understand them immediately. "They're constructed from available materials and played for the simplest, most elemental reasons like how far and how high."
Better yet, from the parent's perspective, these games require active participation to make anything happen. This sort of full-sensory output focuses rather than scatters kids, says historical novelist and political scientist, Judith Merkle Riley.
"The whole Faire is set on such a human scale," she observes. "Kids can relate and engage on every level, and it makes them feel connected rather then separate as much of modern culture does."
Merkle says the human scale is evident in the intricate layout of the grounds, where every inch offers something of interest and the multigenerational, communal experience at the Faire, where performers spontaneously engage visitors all the time.
"In earlier historical times, children would interact with many people in their community," she says, adding that children would know everyone in their communities and have a sense of belonging. "Today, people are transient and separate, and entertainment is mega, not human scale, which alienates kids and shuts them down."
Faire organizers are quick to add that children now have their own corner, Jester's Grove, where activities such as a petting zoo are targeted specifically at children.
But if the children be the judge, the whole Faire is for them. Says 16-year-old Kelley Bendt from Anaheim, Calif., "the shows, the talk, the dress are all so happy. I don't miss big rides at all." Her 13-year-old brother, Brian, chimes in, "it's different than I thought it would be. The performers are great."
The final word on the deeper value of no-tech over hi-tech may come from my own ranks. My son, now decked out in a full, jingling jester outfit, after wanting to know if he could take fencing lessons, asked me on the way out of the Faire, "Mom, who was Queen Elizabeth?"