RENO, Nev. – With camps named Spanky’s Wine Bar and Homomojitos, the annual countercultural festival Burning Man offers a wide assortment of adult experiences.
But a modest yet passionate group of parents also argue that the temporary city in the desert can be a transformative learning laboratory for children.
Burning Man, which concluded Labor Day and drew more than 60,000 people from across the globe to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, celebrates music, art and independent thinking in communal, free-spirited environment.
While organizers do not track the number of children who attend the weeklong happening held 90 miles north of Reno, experience shows the vast majority of the “city” denizens are adults.
Nevertheless, Burning Man regulars Tony Guerra and Karina O’Conner, of Nevada City, said they never considered leaving their son Jai at home. The 8-year-old has come to the event each year of his life.
Guerra, who attended the festival for a 20th time this year, said bringing his son enhanced his enjoyment of the experience.
“We’ve gained an appreciation for the morning sunrise,” said Guerra, who with his wife runs the Earth Guardians informational camp, offering lessons in being environmentally friendly.
The majority of parents who bring their kids to Burning Man stay in an area known as Kidsville, one of the festival’s 600 or so themed camps where like-minded people share shade structures and other resources.
While making clear the collective is not a baby-sitting service, Kidsville organizers said the area offers a youth-appropriate environment with activities such as trampolines. Since it was started in 1999, the camp has grown to 600 people annually.
Kether Axelrod, a Colorado schoolteacher who serves as the “mayor” of Kidsville, sees the festival as a positive force in young lives. “My girl is a great example of raising your kids at Burning Man,” she said. “Burning Man made (her) extraordinary.”
This year, Axelrod’s daughter – an accomplished slam poet – interrupted her attendance streak of 12 consecutive years because she’s starting college.
Patrick and Sally Dunne, from Lafayette, brought their kids Jack, 8; Mia, 6; and Danny, 4, for the first time this year. The couple said they hope the event has been as inspiring for their children as it has been for them.
Sally Dunne said Burning Man has helped her become more open and accepting to all walks of life.
Jack, for his part, said he enjoys the dust storms and “art cars” – creatively customized vehicles, such as a giant, rolling, metal octopus that shoots fire from its tentacles – that have become a featured part of the festival.
“(Burning Man) changes people,” said Patrick Dunne, who grew up in Ireland. “You could meet the president of Goldman Sachs. He won’t be wearing a suit. He’ll be wearing burner clothes.”
The event encourages participants to live by 10 principles, including “radical inclusion,” “radical self-reliance,” “leave no trace,” “participation,” “decodification” and “radical self-expression.”
Outside of the annual burning of a 90-foot effigy structure known as “the man,” most festival activities – from a skating rink to juggling lessons – are put on by different camps. Part of the Burning Man experience is sharing with others; some attendees “gift” hugs or informational sessions, others alcohol.