Esme was swaying in the bubbles of some hippies as the Violent Femmes performed onstage. She wasn’t even 3, and yet it was almost as if she’d completely forgotten about me – about everything. She was just grooving to the music and trusting her environment – Fort York in the Toronto summer, late afternoon, July 6, 2014 – to protect her as she danced. My kid was intuitively responding to the freedom, the exuberance, of summertime outdoor rock ‘n’ roll.
“Kids need an outlet for their emotions and nothing does that better than music,” says Jennifer Buchanan, a music therapist in Calgary and author of Wellness, Wellplayed: The Power of a Playlist. Buchanan, who has taken her kids to see shows by Kris Kristofferson and k.d. lang, says this summer in particular is ideal for introducing children to the release of live music in the open air.
“Our children have earned the opportunity for an outlet of their own self-expression without any rules,” says Buchanan, who also adds that it’s healthy for kids to see their parents in a new light – bopping to Metric or rapping to Shad instead of telling them to wear a helmet and eat their broccoli. “Coming out of the times we’ve all been coming out of, we need to help ourselves feel better. We need to demonstrate to our families the connective, intergenerational power of fun.”
Taking in concerts could even encourage kids to pursue their own musical interests. Classified, the MC from Nova Scotia behind hits such as Inner Ninja, says he was raised in a family where the guitars came out during every camping trip. “That’s where my appreciation for music came from: seeing my dad with his friends having fun,” he recalls.
Classified is now a father himself – he has three daughters, ages 8, 12 and 13 – and when he performed before 6,000 fans during a dip in COVID-19 cases last fall, all he could see was his girls.
“You watch them let their guard down – it’s honesty, no one’s trying to be cool,” says the MC, who has tour dates booked across the country this summer, including at carnivals and fairs. “Live music brings everyone together. It’s powerful and positive and that’s healthy – being part of the music, something that’s bigger than you.”
The first time my son heard music outside was at Field Trip, an indie music festival held at Toronto’s Fort York site, in 2018. Matthew, then 4, sporting a bandage on his forehead and a Spider-Man T-shirt, was at the kids stage when a musician began beatboxing. The rhythm had my man doing moves he didn’t yet know existed: First a windmill, then the Cabbage Patch, which attracted the attention of a clown who smiled and then danced with him from afar.
As it turns out, Field Trip was created with kids in mind.
“We wanted something both the parents and kids would be equally pumped about and, because of the community, a place with a degree of safety that allows the kids a freedom that you wouldn’t get on the street,” says co-founder Jeffrey Remedios, who started Field Trip along with Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene as part of their Arts & Crafts record label.
It made sense to make the festival family-inclusive: By the time it launched in 2013, many of the label’s acts had kids.
“When we started Field Trip, and this came right from Kevin, it was about: Enjoy your lives, take care of each other, everybody matters equally,” says Remedios, now chief executive officer of Universal Records Canada.
Singer Molly Johnson, a member of the Order of Canada who puts on an annual festival in Toronto’s Kensington Market, agrees that music is pleasure – but adds that it also is politics. She says festivals give kids the chance to experience various aspects of life – including their ethics (will they recycle that cup?), their sexuality and their understanding of justice and power.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of the American civil rights movement and unless you share that with someone younger than you, you’re throwing it away,” says Johnson, mentioning how protest songs express a visceral weight kids can’t learn about on a blackboard. It’s one thing to read about oppression. It’s something else to see 10,000 people cover Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley.
“Music arms our children against a screwed-up world.”
Both of my kids have been taught to trust the festival environment. In their explorations, they see things I miss, such as craft stalls, demonstrations and (to my chagrin), anything with a tail or a price tag. While I focus on centre stage, the kids take in a whole universe.
“It’s not about us teaching them,” says Johnson of following our kids’ lead into community, joy and togetherness. “Our kids have everything to teach us.”
I asked my children why they like to going to summer festivals. Matthew, who is now 8 and oscillates between listening to Imagine Dragons and playing Pokémon, says, “I like the volume and I like dancing to songs.” Esme, 10, whose favourite musicians are Cardi B and Olivia Rodrigo, says, “I like the crowd because they’re cheering and you feel small amongst them, in a good way.”
Her feelings are similar to those of Martha Wainwright. The musician saw Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin at the Forum in Montreal when she was a child, but her favourite shows were summertime festivals in Edmonton and Winnipeg where Ry Cooder and Emmylou Harris would play.
“Music helped me connect emotionally. … As a child – but even today, as an adult – it’s like you’re feeling the thing the performer is feeling, but you don’t have the words for,” says Wainwright, who recently opened the Montreal performance space URSA, where children’s music class and production is part of the mission.
Wainwright’s parents are singer-songwriter icons Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, so she always had music in her life. Today she years to take her sons, 8 and 12, to open-air concerts, and says the experience, even when it’s not perfect, is valuable.
“They can laugh at the adults and say, ‘You’re not that great. You’re falling over. You’re drinking beer, so I’m going to get another cotton candy,’” she says with a laugh.
After a lifetime of music, outdoor shows still lift her up.
“All I ever wanted was to take my kids to summertime festivals,” she says. “It does the same thing for them as it does for all of us: It tells them that we’re not alone.”
Bring your kids – and the right gear – to these summertime festivals
You need a blanket, sunscreen, puzzles, snacks, cash, water, cellphone charger and hats. And don’t forget to pack some kind of signifier, such as a bright T-shirt, and agree in advance on an obvious meeting point, so that it’s easy to find each other. It also makes sense to bring some sort of children’s ear protection, and the younger they are the more protection they need. And, as counterintuitive as it seems, consider an iPad or similar screen. A festival can be a long, hot day; a little YouTube break in the shade isn’t going to hurt anyone.
Hillside Fest, July 22-24
This beloved festival with local food vendors and camping along the water in Guelph, Ont., features reliably brilliant lineups. This year it’s headlined by Cadence Weapon, Bahamas and Dan Mangan, who is sublime. Hillsidefestival.ca
Whistler Summer Concert Series, July 1-Aug. 25
Serena Ryder, Sam Roberts and Stars are just some of the acts at this free annual series, which also offers free bike valets and a family-friendly 6:30 p.m. start. They also allow you to bring in your own food. Whistler.com
Osheaga, July 29-July 31
The multiday festival in Montreal is free for kids under 12. 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 see Iggy Pop,” says Nick Farkas, vice-president of concert bookings at Evenko, the promoter behind the festival. “I’m always telling 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-July 24
Here’s your chance to see K’naan, the Somali-Canadian troubadour behind Wavin’ Flag, which every adult and child deserves to experience live. There’s no vaping or smoking, at this fest, now in its 43rd year. Calgaryfolkfest.com
Saskatoon Jazz Festival, June 30-July 7
You’ll have to move fast to get tickets to see Halluci Nation with Kiesza on July 3 at this 10-day non-profit festival that started in 1987 and is a registered charity. It offers a stroller valet and children under 7 get free entry. Saskjazz.com
Field Trip, July 9
My favourite festival, where on the kids stage, Max Kerman of the Arkells said, “Here’s the first song on our new album,” and then launched into Let it Go from Frozen. This year, I’m excited for Matthew and Esme to see Haviah Mighty. Fieldtriplife.com