Adding a Kids Fun Run or other youth activity to your race can have many benefits for your main race. A Kids Run can help introduce youngsters to the running community while increasing the “family appeal” of events, setting them apart from other races and making them more attractive to participants, spectators, vendors, and sponsors.
For the most part, Kids Runs are relatively straightforward affairs. They are generally held an hour or two after the main event starts, don’t require special course permits because of utilizing streets that are already closed, and don’t really need to be precisely measured or timed, like adult races do.
While many race directors appreciate the benefits that come with adding a Kids Run to their race, they often underestimate the intricacies involved in planning a successful and safe event. And while none of this is rocket science, there are some aspects that require special attention, mainly because children run races differently than adults.
Here are some of the most important lessons for putting on a successful Kids Run (learned the hard way!):
Put a key person in charge
This person should manage everything Kids Run – from the planning leading up to the event, to the implementation on race day. This person should be the primary manager of the youth activity and shouldn’t be pulled in multiple directions.
Many race directors take on this role, but should keep in mind they often have numerous duties and “fires” to put out on race day so having someone else who is specifically focused on the kids event is a great way to ensure it is getting the attention it requires.
Plan a course that is easy to manage
A scenic course isn’t necessary for your Kids Run. Instead focus on a simple course that is easy to manage with minimal turns, clear signage, strategic placement of cones and barricades, and lots of volunteers (more on that in a minute).
Out and backs are the easiest choice and require the least volunteers, as well as allowing parents to keep sight of their children from the side lines at all times – putting them at ease and allowing them to get plenty of (shareable) photos.
Have a pace leader
Whether you recruit a fast runner, a cyclist, a motorcycle police officer, or someone on a motorized scooter, having someone “lead the pack” ensures everyone runs in the right direction. Remember that most children don’t have the critical thinking skills to simply follow arrow signs and all it takes is one kid who misinterprets a turn to lead the whole pack off course.
Lead runners should be fast so consider contacting local school track teams or run clubs to find someone.
Recruit plenty of volunteers
Plan ahead so you have enough volunteers for the start/finish line, each course turn, and any sections where runners will be near traffic/driveways or hazards like curbs and potholes. In my opinion, you can’t have enough volunteers to direct and monitor a Kids Run. If you have extras, have them cheer and high-five the young runners.
Start the run with safety in mind
The start line is the area where most accidents happen. Children are inclined to sprint out of the gate and can easily trip. The littlest kids like to crowd in front with the bigger, faster kids. Parents running with their children can double the size of the field. All these factors can lead to a pile-up!
No matter the size of your Kids Run, plan for a safe start that minimizes risk. Consider wave starts for larger groups with the oldest kids going first. Ask parents with strollers to start at the back. Talk to children about starting to run from a standing position, not crouched in a track-style start. A well-prepared announcer can talk about all these issues as well as pacing and reuniting with parents at the finish.
Make first aid available before, during and after the run
It is strongly recommended to have your main medical tent set up for the duration of your Kids Run. Sometimes children fall or get overwhelmed by the excitement both before and after the event. It’s important to know there’s a medical staff person available and for your key volunteers/staff to all know where they can find them at all times.
Don’t forget your lost child protocol!
When children get separated from their parents, it is frightening for all parties. So it is important to create a well thought out “lost child/lost parent protocol” ahead of event day and communicate the policy with your staff and key volunteers to ensure quick and safe reunification.
Consider who will stay with the parent or child, how you will verify the parent’s identity upon reunification, when to contact emergency personnel, and how you will handle communications to protect the privacy of the child (i.e announcements over radio or loud-speakers).
As part of your start line announcements, remind parents to speak to their children about where they will reunite and what happens if they get separated.
Keep spectators at a safe distance
Children who participate in Kids Runs often have a small entourage of family-fans who are all excited to see their young athlete cross the finish line!
It is wonderful when parents want to encourage children to run. Unfortunately, some parents focus so much on their own children that they forget about the other participants and can act in ways that put people at risk.
Stopping mid-course to take photos, crossing into the lanes of runners to reunite with a child, or moving barricades to have easier access to the course are all ways I’ve seen spectators act without thinking. When planning your Kids Run, pay attention to how the spectators will interact with the course and have a clear reunion area. Consider how to use barricades to protect your participants while allowing spectators a way to celebrate and cheer from the sidelines.
Last but not least: Make your run FUN!
Energetic warm-ups, engaging the crowd, cheering and high-fives, medals, and finish line festivities can have a lasting impression and motivate kids to keep on running.
A well-planned, fun event may easily become someone’s family tradition. In fact, I’m always thrilled to see kids come back to my races and often “graduate” up to the 5K – I’ve even recruited some of them as pacers!
In the end, the Kids Run is a great way to encourage youth to be active and we race directors are in a prime spot to inspire our next generation of runners!
About the Author: Lucie Murray is the founder of Run Kids Run, a company that produces active events for kids to engage them in the running community. She has been working with race directors, charities, and schools for over a decade and has produced or consulted on over 200 youth events, including the Los Angeles Marathon, Nautica Malibu Triathlon, Generic Events, the Lace Up Running Series.