Esme swayed in some hippie bubbles as the Violent Femmes took the stage. She wasn’t even 3 yet, and yet it was almost as if she had completely forgotten about me – everything. She just grooved to the music, trusting her surroundings — Fort York in the summer in Toronto, late afternoon on July 6, 2014 — to protect her as she danced. My child responded intuitively to the freedom, the exuberance of outdoor summer rock ‘n’ roll.
“Kids need an outlet for their emotions, and nothing does that better than music,” says Jennifer Buchanan, music therapist in Calgary and author of Wellness Well Played: The Power of a Playlist. Buchanan, who has taken her kids to Kris Kristofferson and kd lang shows, says this summer is especially ideal for introducing kids to outdoor live music releases.
“Our kids deserve the opportunity to express themselves without rules,” says Buchanan, who also adds that it’s healthy for kids to see their parents in a new light — rather than hopping to Metric or rapping to Shad telling them , they should wear a helmet and eat their broccoli. “Having gotten out of the times we’ve all gotten out of, we need to help ourselves to feel better. We need to demonstrate to our families the unifying, intergenerational power of fun.”
Going to concerts might even encourage children to pursue their own musical interests. The MC from Nova Scotia has classified himself behind hits such as Inner Ninja, says he grew up in a family where the guitars came out on every camping trip. “That’s where my appreciation for music came from: seeing my dad having fun with his friends,” he recalls.
Classified is now a father himself – he has three daughters, aged 8, 12 and 13 – and when he performed in front of 6,000 fans during a spike in COVID-19 cases last fall, all he could see was his girls.
“You watch them let their guard down — it’s honesty, nobody’s trying to be cool,” says the MC, who has booked tour dates across the country this summer, including at carnivals and county fairs. “Live music brings everyone together. It’s powerful and positive and that’s healthy – to be part of the music, something bigger than yourself.”
The first time my son heard music outside was in 2018 at Field Trip, an indie music festival held in Toronto’s Fort York. Matthew, then 4, athletic a bandage on his forehead and a Spider-Man t-shirt, was on the kid’s stage when a musician took up beatboxing. The rhythm made my husband make moves he didn’t even know existed: First a windmill, then the Cabbage Patch, which caught the attention of a clown who smiled and then danced with him from afar.
As it turns out, Field Trip was designed with kids in mind.
“We wanted something that parents and kids would love to have, and because of the community, a place that had a level of security that would give kids a freedom they wouldn’t get on the street,” says co-founder Jeffrey Remedios, who started Field Trip alongside Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene as part of their Arts & Crafts record label.
It made sense to make the festival family-friendly: when it started in 2013, many of the label’s acts had children.
“When we started Field Trip, and it came straight from Kevin, it was about enjoy life, take care of each other, everyone matters equally,” said Remedios, now chief executive officer of Universal Records Canada.
Singer Molly Johnson, a member of the Order of Canada, which hosts an annual festival at Toronto’s Kensington Market, agrees that music is fun – but adds that it is is also politics. She says festivals give kids a chance to experience different aspects of life — including their ethics (are they going to recycle that cup?), their sexuality, and their understanding of justice and power.
“I stand on the shoulders of the American civil rights movement, and if you don’t share that with someone younger than you, throw it out,” Johnson says, noting how protest songs convey a visceral weight that kids can’t learn to carry on one Blackboard. It’s one thing to read about oppression. It’s different to see 10,000 people mating get up get up by Bob Marley.
“Music arms our children against a screwed up world.”
Both my children were taught to trust the festival environment. As they explore, they see things I miss like craft stands, demonstrations, and (much to my chagrin) anything with a tail or price tag. As I focus on the stage, the kids take in a whole universe.
“It’s not about us teaching them,” Johnson says of leading our children in community, joy, and togetherness. “Our children can teach us anything.”
I asked my kids why they like to go to summer parties. Matthew, now 8 years old, vacillates between listening to Imagine Dragons and playing it PokemonHe says, “I like the volume and I like to dance to songs.” Esme, 10, whose favorite musicians are Cardi B and Olivia Rodrigo, says, “I like the crowd because they cheer and you get along with them in a good way and way small.”
Her feelings are similar to those of Martha Wainwright. The musician watched Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin at the Forum in Montreal as a child, but her favorite shows were summer festivals in Edmonton and Winnipeg, where Ry Cooder and Emmylou Harris performed.
“Music has helped me connect emotionally. … As a kid — but still as an adult today — it’s like you feel what the performer is feeling, but you don’t have the words for it,” says Wainwright, who is part of the children’s music class and production team that recently opened URSA performance space in Montreal the mission.
Wainwright’s parents are iconic singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, so she’s always had music in her life. Today she takes her sons, 8 and 12 years old, to open air concerts and says that even if the experience is not perfect, it is valuable.
“They can laugh at the adults and say, ‘You’re not that great. you fall down You’re drinking beer, so I’ll get another cotton candy,'” she says, laughing.
After a lifetime of music, they still pick up on outdoor shows.
“All I ever wanted was to take my kids to summer festivals,” she says. “It does for them what it does for all of us: it tells them we’re not alone.”
Bring your kids—and the right gear—to these summer festivals
You will need a blanket, sunscreen, puzzles, snacks, cash, water, phone charger and hats. And don’t forget to pack some form of identification, like a light-colored t-shirt, and arrange an obvious meeting point in advance so you can find each other easily. It’s also a good idea to bring hearing protection for children, and the younger they are, the more protection they need. And, counterintuitive as it may seem, consider an iPad or similar screen. A festival can be a long, hot day; a A little YouTube break in the shade won’t hurt anyone.
Hillside Fest 22-24 July
Featuring local food vendors and waterfront camping in Guelph, Ontario, this popular festival consistently boasts brilliant line-ups. This year it’s led by Cadence Weapon, Bahamas and Dan Mangan, who is awesome. Hillsidefestival.ca
Whistler Summer Concert Series, July 1-8 25
Serena Ryder, Sam Roberts and Stars are just a few of the acts in this free annual series, which also features free bike services and a family-friendly start at 6:30pm. They also allow you to bring your own food. Whistler.com
Osheaga, July 29-July 31
The multi-day festival in Montreal is free for children under 12 years old. This year’s headliners include Dua Lipa, Glass Animals, A$AP Rocky and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“I’ll never forget taking my three-year-old to Iggy Pop,” says Nick Farkas, vice president of concert bookings at Evenko, the festival’s promoter. “I always tell him what not to do, but not that day. It’s like, eat hot dogs, I don’t care.” Osheaga.com
Calgary Folk Music Festival, July 21-24
Here’s your chance to see K’naan, the Somali-Canadian troubadour behind you waving flag, which every adult and every child should experience live. Now in its 43rd year, there will be no vaping or smoking at this festival. Calgaryfolkfest.com
Saskatoon Jazz Festival, June 30th – July 7th
You’ll have to hurry to get tickets to see Halluci Nation with Kiesza on July 3rd at this 10-day non-profit festival that began in 1987 and is a registered charity. It offers a stroller service and children under 7 years old get free entry. Sakjazz.com
Field trip, July 9th
My favorite festival where Max Kerman from the Arkells said on the children’s stage, “Here’s the first song on our new album,” and then we started Let go out Frozen. This year I’m excited for Matthew and Esme to see Haviah Mighty. Fieldtriplife.com