Hosting an Awesome Kids Session

Sharon Cichelli
Jan 2, 2019 · 7 min read

I watched a parent lean down to her child, point in my direction, and say, “Look, honey. It’s the Play-Doh teacher.” I knew right then that was the best job title I would ever have.

After five years of facilitating THAT Conference’s Circuits in Play-Doh, plus attending other awesome kids sessions, I’ve collected strategies for making a session with challenging logistics run smoothly. Hosting a kids session is so rewarding, I encourage you to give it a shot. I’ll share with you what I’ve learned, and I hope you’ll add your own observations and suggestions in the comments.

You could have 60 to 100 attendees.

Don’t get caught off-guard by how many people might show up. I’ve never had the extra bandwidth to count how many kids are in my sessions (and sculptures are being built by more than just kids), but families consistently fill 12 round hotel banquet tables of 10 seats each.

Room setup for Circuits in Play-Doh, with 12x10 chairs

You’ll have a range of ages and abilities.

Many THAT Conference families come with multiple kids, sometimes spanning many years and levels of literacy, motor control, and attention span. If you can design a session to which a parent can bring all of their kids, you’ll be giving that parent some much needed relief.

See if you can include play for the younger ones that won’t disrupt learning for the older ones. In my sessions, some kids are building circuits while others are smooshing their fingers in Play-Doh, and everybody is having a delightful time. I’ve also learned that nobody seems to be too old for Play-Doh and blinky lights.

Self-directed works better than explanations.

I do indulge myself with a tiny introduction at the beginning, but I try to keep my remarks under three minutes. I’m asking everybody to sit and listen to me when there’s all this cool stuff right in front of them. I owe it to them to keep it brief. It’s also never actually quiet during that introduction, so I’m sure there are people who can’t hear me; therefore, I want any really important info to be there in their supplies, instead of in my little speech.

On each table I put a card-stock poster with colorful drawings of a Play-Doh circuit and the invitation “Try this!” Because kids at THAT Conference need to be with a chaperone, I rely on the fact that they’ll have a grownup collaborator who can help them get started if they’re stuck.

After I turn off the mic, I spend the rest of the session visiting each table to offer troubleshooting tips if anybody is still stuck. Getting to see everyone’s creations and tell them how great they are is my favorite part of the session. Five years in and kids are still surprising me with their ingenuity.

Open-ended activities create delight.

In a workshop with rigorous steps to follow, it can be impossible to catch up if you miss a step. With the Play-Doh Circuits, the less I try to direct the activity, the better it goes. Families come up with their own experiments, and the kid’s (and grownup’s) artistic expression is surprising and delightful.

The second year, I made it too complex, with disappointing results. I thought, so many kids will have done this last year (which turned out to be wrong), I need to make this year have new things. I brought motors, but those required a different voltage, so I had to bring a second type of battery, and… you can see where this is going. The motors were fragile, and the instructions were complicated. The tone in the room was markedly different. Kids struggled to make the thing work, instead of playing, creating, and inventing their own experiments. The complexity left little room for curiosity.

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Photo by Rob Reynolds

Remove the tablecloths.

If your activity is messy, invite a few older kids to go collect up the table cloths before you start. The hotel tables underneath are plastic or laminate, which in addition to resisting stains, turns out to be a better surface for most crafts anyway.

Plan for supplies.

Rather than “so much per kid,” I view each table as a workstation and bring “so much per table,” and then I ask everybody to share. I think this encourages more collaboration and making new friends, although the original reason was that it made the planning easier for me.

Most years, there have been 12 tables, and I bring supplies for 15 tables so that I’m ready for surprises, hardware failures, and additional families. I always end up being glad I brought extras.

Plan for distributing the supplies.

I wanted to avoid starting the session by having all the kids line up and wait while I scrambled to hand them supplies. In prior years, I enlisted early arrivals to help me distribute supplies to the tables.

That worked reasonably well, until I was confronted with an understandably disappointed family. If you seat a bunch of kids around a table piled with enticing supplies, they’re going to dive into those enticing supplies. So when a father and his kids arrived a few minutes before the start time, they were flummoxed by how much the session seemed to be already underway. “I thought it started at 1:30?” he asked. And because the kids who’d shown up earlier were well into their projects, it was hard to see an opening where this new family could sit. It looked like the session was already full.

I came up with a solution for 2018 that worked perfectly. I put each table’s supplies into a white paper bag and folded over the top. Then I put a bag on each table before the attendees started to arrive. Distributing them was much easier, and the folded-over top suggested “please wait” just enough. Because the tables were not already covered in circuit-sculptures before the session officially started, it was easier to ask kids to shuffle and fill in empty seats to make room for everyone.

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Photo by Katelyn

Plan jobs for your helpers.

You will have many hands ready to help you clean up. Think ahead of time what you will want help with, and what you want to do with leftover supplies and trash. That way you won’t feel stressed when ten volunteers ask you how they can help, and you can give them the satisfaction of contributing back to a session they appreciated.

Plan for the leftover supplies.

I struggled for many years with what to do after the session with the supplies, some of which were still pretty usable in the near term but would be corroded and dodgy by the next THAT Conference. I finally realized I could reach out on THAT Slack to find someone who could make use of them.

I was delighted to give the Play-Doh and batteries a new life by passing them along to Samantha Dahlby for the NewBoCo education program. If you don’t have a good use for your leftovers, somebody in THAT community will.

Just buy the Play-Doh.

My first two years doing this, I would come to Wisconsin a day early, run to the store for flour and salt, and work my hands to exhaustion mixing up Mom’s play clay recipe in my hotel room.

One day I checked Amazon for the price of Play-Doh.

Right. Ruthlessly simplify your logistics, for the sake of your sanity. I keep notes after every session with what worked well and what I want to try next time.

In my yearly reflection, I also note quantities, prices, and sources of supplies, so that I know what to order next year. Keeping a notebook is key to so many of my endeavors.

Make it easy to share photos with you.

You’ll want pictures. You’ll be too brain-crazy to take pictures. Small moments of wonder will be happening all around the room, out of your line of sight. Make it easy for folks to share their experiences with you. I put my Twitter handle on the tabletop posters. The tweets that parents send me about their kids’ joyful and transformative experiences make me cry and show me why all the fretting and planning were worth it.

Helpers make it better.

The number one thing I’ve learned is the more I let people help me, the better the session is.

Lance Larsen and Angela Dugan have each let me ship supplies to them ahead of time. Samantha Dahlby let me pass along leftover batteries and wonky LEDs. Katelyn, Sage, and Ashlyn have helped me set up the room and answer participants’ questions. And in addition to continuing to create the wonderful event that lets me do this, the THAT Conference team have encouraged and supported me, responded quickly to logistics challenges, and hauled a lot of Play-Doh.

That hare-brained idea you’re not sure you can pull off? You should do it.

On a conference call in 2013, I idly mentioned that Play-Doh conducts electricity and wouldn’t that be fun, and Lance Larsen put me on the agenda before I had time to realize what an impossible project I had just proposed.

Although this session is challenging, and I have literal nightmares every year about forgetting the Play-Doh, it is the most rewarding thing I do all year. You don’t need to be a parent or a schoolteacher to host a kids session. I’m not; I’m a software developer with two spoiled cats. You just need to think through the logistics of the venue and, more importantly, take kids seriously.

The kids at THAT Conference keep me energized and excited about technology. You should definitely challenge yourself to design a kids session.

THAT Conference

THAT Conference is your Summer Camp For Geeks.

Sharon Cichelli

Written by

.NET and Python developer, open-source contributor, author of, Arduino enthusiast, and pinball fan.

THAT Conference

THAT Conference is your Summer Camp For Geeks. The only family friendly polyglot community of geeks who've set out to change the world together.

Sharon Cichelli

Written by

.NET and Python developer, open-source contributor, author of, Arduino enthusiast, and pinball fan.

THAT Conference

THAT Conference is your Summer Camp For Geeks. The only family friendly polyglot community of geeks who've set out to change the world together.

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