Unschooling: Why Your Kids Should Consider Entering the County Fair

A few years ago, my twin boys decided to enter the county fair. They had never entered anything in the fair before, and not having participated in such things when I was growing up, I didn’t have much experience to share with them. We had been looking into 4H, but having just moved to our valley, we didn’t have any connections and hit a dead end. We weren’t raising livestock at the time, so I wasn’t sure exactly what they would enter- they were really just interested in participating in anything where a ribbon might be involved.

I knew that people entered vegetables and baked goods, but I wasn’t sure if there were categories for kids to enter those things. Working blind, we planted a few cucumbers, melons and tomatoes earmarked for the boys. I was nervous that they wouldn’t do what was needed to take care of them, and I didn’t even know if they would be able to enter them, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt. They started out enthusiastically, checking on them daily and making sure our crude watering system was working. In the meantime, I continued my investigation. The fair’s website mentioned an exhibitors manual, but I didn’t know how to get one (now they have a downloadable pdf format, but they hadn’t gotten there yet at that time). Whenever I tried calling the fair office, they were closed. Frustrated, I finally contacted a friend we had recently met at a homeschool event, and she let me borrow hers.

When I finally started to read about all the options and categories for judging, I was fairly blown away. There were sections not only for kids to enter vegetables and baked goods, but also for artists such as painting or drawing, crafts like ceramics, sculpture or fiber arts, and even poetry and essays. Apparently I had been missing out on a world of opportunities for kids to showcase their talents! Now the only thing to do was decide what they were going to enter- there were so many choices.

We decided to see how the vegetables turned out and enter them if they seemed to have a chance. But the boys wanted to do something creative as well, though they weren’t particularly strong in any creative or artistic area. Finally, they decided to each make a small watercolor painting and a wet felt design. Wet felting was something we had done many times and they were relatively comfortable with it. Knowing they would do better with design than a functional piece, we got out all of our colored wool and created abstract images, vaguely reminiscent of mountain landscapes, on a white background. We then framed them, as we did with the watercolors. It was probably the most creative summer we have ever had.

When the time came for the fair, we basically collected the best of all the vegetables in the garden (whether or not they had technically been the boy’s responsibility), and piled them in with the art pieces, delivering them to the fair building at the very last moment. As we did so, we couldn’t help but notice the interesting projects and creations other kids and families were delivering. We felt inspired to tour all of the craft and art buildings the next day, something we probably would not have done otherwise. It was fascinating to see the variety of artwork on display, some of it highly skilled and beyond the expectation for the age group. We also noticed there were very few other entries in their age range for fiber arts.

The vegetables were judged and tagged the first day to avoid spoiling, and we were pleased to find that we had won a few ribbons, especially for our favorite category, “funniest shaped carrot”. The boys were restless for the three days until the end of the fair, since the prizes for the other categories are not announced until the end. The wait paid off, however, when we learned they had won first and second place in fiber arts for their age category. That excitement would have been enough, but, I was floored when I was told to go to the registration office to collect the cash for their prizes! I had no idea there would be money involved!

The boy’s moods were becoming increasingly more boisterous as we waited in line, for we could see from those in front of us that cash was being issued for each ribbon, which meant each individual vegetable we had entered. By the time we left the booth, each boy had collected about $20 each- a big deal for 8-year-olds, especially when they weren’t expecting it! We were all so delighted that we decided we would make the experience a yearly tradition.

So far, we have only been able to enter the fair one other year since then, like trips to visit family and soccer events have interfered, but we are still determined each year to make or grow a few things for entry. It is such a unique opportunity for inspiration and motivation, especially since it falls at the end of the summer, so it can keep them active in ways they would otherwise not be. The sheer number of entries, both from kids and adults, is inspiring to see and makes us feel like we are a part of something important, something that connects everyone who lives in our sprawling, rural valley.

State and County Fairs have been held in almost every state since the late 1800s. Originally designed to bring agricultural producers together and give them a chance to showcase and trade their goods, they have evolved over time to include a variety of carnival events such as rides and games, as well as entertainment such as music and dance performances. Recently, one of my son’s music teachers has begun putting together a group performance for the fair with all of her students. The performance has been so well received that they are expanding on it this year, and it gives my son a wonderful sense of satisfaction to be part of such a key community performance.

Fairs have been, and in many places still are, an important part of rural culture and a high point for the year in small towns, where entertainment can be sparse. In our county, the public schools close for three days to allow kids to participate in and visit the fair. This probably harks back to a time when school didn’t start until after the fair had ended, but it’s a huge statement about the value of the event in our rural community. It is the biggest single event in our valley and brings people together to create a special air of festivity and celebration.

It also provides a chance for my kids to see a part of our county that they may otherwise not interact with much. Being imports from the east coast and harboring rather progressive political views, it can sometimes be difficult for us to feel connected to our larger community. The county fair is one important way we can overcome those barriers and feel like we have an equal place in our community. It also provides the kids with a priceless opportunity to try out new skills or improve on old ones. And of course, as anyone who has visited a fair knows, it is one of the most fun and exciting events for any kind, whether they’ve entered or are just visiting. I highly recommend every family try it at least once, even if they just enter “the funniest carrot” contest!

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