Burning Man is known for a lot of things—wacky art and performances, wild costumes, and general debauchery, to name a few—but children are not one of them. Yet, since its inception in 1986, the annual nine-day gathering has enthusiastically welcomed kids of all ages, ranging from the littlest “baby burners” to tweens and teens.
Held at Black Rock City, a temporary town made up of tents and RVs in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the event brings more than 70,000 people together every year in August. A few thousand of them are children. There’s even a cooperatively run camp village called Kidsville, exclusively reserved for families with children under the age of 18.
“Since my first ‘burn’ in 2000, I’ve been intrigued by the children of Black Rock City,” says Zippy Lomax, a photographer who captured the families of Burning Man in her 2017 book Dusty Playground. “They’re awesome little creatures who seem so effortlessly at ease—playful sages covered in alkaline dust who remind me always to be curiously present, fearlessly open, and light of heart.”
Safer than a park back home
Far away from adult-themed activities and centrally located near toilets, medical stations, and 24-hour volunteer rangers, Kidsville is completely fenced in. Parents take turns working shifts at the guard station to ensure wristbanded children remain safe within the camp’s perimeters.
Vehicles are not permitted in the area, so kids can run free, play, and ride bikes in between the strategically placed flagpoles that represent Kidsville’s boundaries.
“Kidsville is safer than any park by my house,” says 17-time burner Jesse Gros of Marina Del Rey, California. In 2016, Gros and his fiancée, Alex Zech, loaded up the couple’s vintage Shasta trailer and brought their 2.5-year-old daughter Devon to Burning Man for five days.
“Inside Kidsville, no one is lighting up or up to anything inappropriate. There’s no weirdness at all and there’s a real sense of community,” says Gros, a life coach and author of three books, including one called My Life Coach Wears a Tutu.
“The kids will definitely see some nudity, but it’s natural, nothing risqué,” he says, referencing the 100-person communal shower truck where families gather in a fish tank-like structure to get sprayed with peppermint foam and rinsed off with a fire hose.
The Burning Man organizers also created Black Rock Explorers, an onsite kids’ program based on the 10 principles of Burning Man. Explorers aim to teach children how to survive and thrive at the massive event.
The program teaches kids to fully embrace their creativity and become an integral part of the Burning Man community. Children who participate are rewarded with pins, badges, and other souvenirs. The organization’s desire is to create model burners for the next generation. Today’s dusty little burners will one day be responsible for keeping the Burning Man flame alive.
A modern-day rite of passage
It wasn’t that long ago that Gros sadly proclaimed, “When I have a kid, life as I know it is over. No more Burning Man!” But even fatherhood couldn’t keep him away from the playa. When Devon was 4 months old, Gros ended up going to the event solo and says he had an amazing time.
Two years later, he suggested to Zech that they head to Burning Man as a family. According to Gros, she flat out rejected the idea, insisting they wait until Devon was four years old (an arbitrary age, says Gros), but he knew how to change her mind.
He showed Zech—a documentary filmmaker—a mini-documentary called Kids at Burning Man and her reaction was expected: “We have to go! We have to take her!” she exclaimed.
“It’s our duty as modern day parents to take our child to Burning Man,” Gros laughs. “It’s like living in the ’70s and taking your kid to see The Beatles. You’ve just got to do it. So we overplanned and overpacked and—10,000 diapers later— we made it there and had a blast. Although, to be fair, Alex would say it was a lot of work.”
“It’s our duty as modern day parents to take our child to Burning Man. It’s like living in the ’70s and taking your kid to see The Beatles.”
Kidsville surpassed all of Gros’ expectations, from the summer camp vibe of the communal dining, to the group art projects, family snow-cone hours, trampolines, and art car rides. There is even an early “Burn the Man” event that allows little ones to gather around their own fire.
“The kids are just so happy to be out in the open and free to explore,” says Gros. “They’re all just taking care of each other, it’s really amazing.”
Gros credits his daughter with unknowingly being the ultimate ice-breaker for him and Zech. “She was, like, a beacon for people to approach us,” he says. “So many people would just come up and thank us for bringing her. We met lots of people we might not have had the chance to if it wasn’t for Devon.”
Though the family created lifelong memories at Burning Man, Gros and Zech have decided that the event is really a time for them as a couple. Devon, now 5 years old, has not returned with them since the event three years ago, and the jury is still out whether she’ll join them this August.
“The way I see it, as a couple, you can spend thousands of dollars sitting on a therapist’s couch or you could rekindle your love at Burning Man like we do,” says Gros.
While Kidsville is definitely a favorite among parents, it isn’t necessarily where all families choose to set up camp.
Parents like 11-time burner Brenna Morrison and her husband, 15-time burner Evan, find Kidsville’s secluded location less than ideal and prefer to pitch their tent in a camp closer to the action.
Every year, Evan runs a bar camp for approximately 40 people called Love Puddle. According to Brenna, it got its name back in the carefree, early days when members would run onto the playa and swarm people with hugs. “Love Puddle is really just a place where everyone can feel loved and accepted,” Brenna says.
But the camp’s tradition of love and acceptance was tested a bit when the Morrisons first broached the subject of bringing their baby along. Love Puddle had never hosted children before, and initially Brenna and Evan encountered some pushback.
“Some people were concerned they’d have to modify their behavior if children were around, but we told everyone to feel free to be the same way—we would deal with our children,” says Brenna. “And that’s how it’s been ever since. It’s our responsibility—no one else’s—and we are good with that.”
Even before starting their family, the Morrisons made a commitment to one another that they would make it a priority to bring their future children to Burning Man, barring any health or financial issues. Their eldest daughter—now 5.5 years old and nicknamed “Fireball,” since Brenna’s morning sickness made her feel like a ball of fire was growing inside her—has attended Burning Man since she was in the womb, technically making her a six-time burner. Their younger daughter—affectionately known as “Sweet Puddin’”—attended her first Burning Man at the tender age of 4 months. She is now 1 year old.
Since Love Puddle is primarily a bar camp, no one under the age of 21 is permitted in the bar area, including Fireball and Sweet Puddin’. Despite the raucous party reputation Burning Man has earned, Brenna says checking IDs to prevent underage drinking is surprisingly common.
“Everything that is for the 18-and-over crowd is in a tent behind walls, so the girls aren’t seeing anything they shouldn’t be in our camp—or anywhere else for that matter,” says Brenna.
She is confident that if something ever happened to either of her daughters, they are well-equipped to deal with it. In fact, both an EMT and an ER nurse are registered members of the Love Puddle camp, and the Morrisons have helicopter insurance in the unlikely event they need to fly to Reno in an emergency.
Brenna swears her girls can sleep through just about anything—a real benefit in a temporary city that truly never sleeps. She does, however, bring headphones to protect their ears from loud noises.
So while her husband Evan arrives early to set up the camp and stays late to break it down, Brenna jokes that she and the girls just have to “show up, burn, and leave.”
Lomax says that children are a big part of what makes Burning Man so special: “Without their youthful spark—without the generational diversity they represent—Burning Man wouldn’t be a true community.”