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It’s Time to Get Rid of the Prize Table

It’s Time to Get Rid of the Prize Table

prize table at school fun fair

The first time I read about having a prize table instead of giving away prizes at games, it seemed like a great idea. The prizes the kids had been getting at the games were less than impressive – cheap bits of plastic and stickers that had an annoying tendency to accumulate in the corners of my home. So I jumped at the chance to give kids better prizes. They would earn tickets at each game instead of actual prizes, and then they could “shop” for the prize they wanted at the prize table, using their prize tickets like money.

In the beginning, we were selling tickets to play each game instead of unlimited wristbands, so I was able to carefully control the budget by knowing the ratio of prize tickets awarded to the tickets required to play the game. I was able to calculate about how many prizes to buy because we knew from past experience how many game tickets parents were likely to purchase for their children. But it wasn’t perfect – we ran out of smaller prizes and had too many large prizes. I hadn’t been able to predict with accuracy how many prizes we would need at each level, and our budget prevented me from purchasing a lot more than we needed.

I didn’t anticipate things like kids with 20 tickets wanting 4 5-ticket items instead of 1 20-ticket item, or that if we offered items at 1, 5, 10, 15, and 20 tickets, people with 16 tickets would always have one left over and so we would quickly run out of 1-ticket prizes as they were basically being used as change. I also thought kids would earn a lot more tickets than they did, but at the same time was dismayed to realize that a volunteer could accidentally give out ten times too many tickets much more easily than they could accidentally give out too many prizes. The prize table system had many more variables than giving out prizes at games

Later, a new variable was introduced – unlimited wristbands. While it is obvious this leads to much more game play, it also allows kids to become proficient at a game by playing over and over again until they can win every time. Controlling prize tickets becomes an exercise in maintaining throw lines and game rules, and this is quite difficult in the context of a school or church carnival, where there are no permanent fixtures. Moreover, it tends to over-burden volunteers, who are now expected to pay careful attention to winner ratios and accurate prize ticket distribution as well as running the game. Other variables, such as the age of children, the overall mood of the crowd, and the number of players relative to the size of the venue all influence how successful players will be at winning prize tickets. Some organizers resort to running around the event, directing game operators to increase or decrease ticket awards in response to what they are seeing at the prize table. For some, this works well, especially when the group is experienced and well-organized. But all in all, this is a complex way to award prizes, and makes accurate budgeting and buying more difficult, especially if your carnival organizing committee is new.

Unlimited wristbands + prize table system = chaos

If the difficulty of budgeting and purchasing is not enough to make you rethink the prize table, consider whether or not it really does what it is supposed to do. First, kids are supposed to get better prizes. Is that really happening at your event? Or are you offering more or less the same prizes you would at the games, but at a prize table? And if you have better prizes, are the majority of players able to earn them? Consider that if your prize table prizes range from .10c to $1.00, and the average prize given out is in the .25 range, that you might be able to simply purchase all prizes in the .25 range with little change in the experience of the majority of players.

The final reason why I abandoned the prize table system is because it is often a chaotic place for both children and volunteers. Children tend to crowd around the table at the end of the event, fighting for space at the front. I have seen this happen even when volunteers were detailed for line control. The rush on the table at the end of the event can be hectic enough that many children will forego prizes rather than fight their way to the front of the crowd. Children with special needs and shy or younger children may inadvertently be excluded. When I really looked at the prize table, I saw many children and parents approach it, survey the crowd, and then walk away with their unspent prize tickets. And so I made the decision to stop doing the prize table.

The result? Worth it. For one, budgeting and organizing is much easier. The prize table is volunteer and resource-heavy, requiring people, table, accessories, and organizing time. Giving each operator a mixed bucket of prizes takes almost no resources at all. It works perfectly with the unlimited wristband carnival, and prize usage is so consistent and predictable that at Kidsmart we can now offer prizes included with the price of a carnival. It’s easy for game operators to see how quickly they are going through prizes, and to make sure everyone gets one eventually.

Giving out prizes at game stations requires fewer volunteers and more control over the prize budget.

And the kids? They don’t seem to miss the prize table at all. We offer a variety of prizes at each game and allow winners to choose their prize. If the event is not too crowded, we let them dig through the prize bucket for what they want. We create mixes out of various prizes at different price points so there is plenty to choose from in each bucket.

At other times we fill up 3-4 buckets at each station with a different type of prize in each bucket, and then refill those with still different prizes as they are emptied. Kids still get a choice, and the average value of the prizes is about the same as the medium level prize at a prize table.

And best of all, no one goes home disappointed!

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School Carnival Planning for Rookies

School Carnival Planning for Rookies: Last Minute Tips

If this is your first time organizing a school carnival, you probably think you’ve anticipated everything that could possibly go wrong. We hope so! But just in case, here are some things to watch out for, and some helpful hints to implement before event day.

Keep it Together

school carnival

You can’t be in 2 places at once, much less 4 or 5. If you spread your carnival out all over the school, you will be running madly from one of the school to the other all night, and in general be unable to effectively coordinate. Keep everything in one area, within eyesight.

If that’s not possible – let’s say your event has to be inside due to rain and you have a smaller school – then designate one good volunteer for each separate space. Hopefully these are people who have helped organize the event and know what’s going on and can run the site independently.

Make sure they know which vendors to expect when, and what the requirements for each vendor are (who needs a check, where does the equipment go, etc). They should also know how many volunteers to expect. Putting a list of volunteers and their time slots in each area is a good idea.

Be Ready for Vendors

This many vendors in a small space? Plan ahead!

Vendors have tight schedules, and yours is not their only event. Have any required payments ready to go when they get there, and know exactly where the equipment will go. You might need to designate someone to do this job, but be prepared for the possibility you’ll need to do it yourself (we were just at an event where the designated vendor greeter didn’t show up). And on behalf of all vendors everywhere, please please do not have a meeting with your team about where to put things while the vendor waits.

Where should things go? Ask the vendor ahead of time. Here at Kidsmart, we welcome photos, and especially videos of the area, so we can identify potential space problems ahead of time (i.e. it’s a fire lane, the incline is too steep, etc.). And remember – vendors need space to set up and a nearby spot to unload. Make sure they don’t have to compete with each other – or your volunteers! – for access.

Concessions Need Power

cotton candy and popcorn machines

If you have concessions or other powered equipment, you’ll need to be within reach of a power outlet. It’s usually 50-100 feet, depending on the vendor’s requirements (here at Kidsmart it’s 50 feet). That means directly to the wall outlet, not to a power strip or other extension cord. Otherwise, you’ll need to rent a generator from the vendor. (And please don’t plan to plug one vendor’s equipment into another’s generator unless you clear it with both vendors – generators have wattage limits).

Dunk Tanks Need Water

dunk tank

If you rented a dunk tank, you need to provide the water. And be careful what you place downstream or near the dunk tank – if you leave the hose in and forget it, it will overflow and could flood the ground nearby or run downstream. Likewise, when the tank is emptied, it will run out and you’ll need to think about what might be nearby or downstream that you don’t want to get wet. Hint: Kidsmart won’t place tents or wooden games close to or downstream of a dunk tank.

Sno Cone Machines Need Ice and Coolers

shaved ice sno cone machine

No vendor we know of supplies ice with a sno cone machine. Make sure you designate someone to get bags of ice, and – this is important – coolers or at least buckets to put them in. If you leave bags of ice on the ground, they will melt, and you will have water everywhere. If you’re outside on concrete this might be ok, but if you end up inside due to weather you will have a flooded and slippery school floor, and if you’re on grass, the area around the table will turn to mud.

Sun and Shade

school carnival

If your event is outside on a hot day, in a hot place, and especially if you are on shadeless blacktop, you will need to be mindful of sun and its direction throughout the day. When placing Kidsmart tents, try to place them with the backs to the sun to create shade at the game table. That means taking note of the sun throughout the day beforehand. Get extra tents for concessions, face-painters, and anyplace you will have volunteers or vendors standing for long periods. Remember also to place tents so that they provide shade – if the sun shines directly into the front of the tent, the tent will not be very helpful. Shade is more important than what will look the prettiest.

Avoid the Crowds

crowd at school carnival

If your school has 700-800 students or more, you can probably expect a very crowded event. That means more stress and more mess. You can reduce crowds by stretching out your event over a longer period – for example 3 or 4 hours instead of 2.

Don’t Just Schedule Volunteers – Coordinate Them

event volunteers

The Welcome Table

Ideally, put a list of volunteers along with their time slots at each station. That way, people know who is replacing them and when. This is a hard thing to do, of course, if you find most of your volunteers last minute, or end up just hoping some extra people decide to show up. If your volunteer count is not looking good a week out from the event, then consider changing or eliminating things to create less need for them. We can help you find games that require less supervision, for example.

It’s best, if you are able, to designate a volunteer coordinator who job is simply to round up volunteers and make sure they go to the right places. A volunteer check-in at the welcome or ticket table is a good idea, and usually one of the easier volunteer positions to staff.

And here is where having it all in one place will really help – it’s much easier to coordinate your volunteers if you can actually look around and see which areas are staffed and which are not at that moment. Trying to get messages back and forth to different parts of the school is difficult and inefficient, even with cell phones or radios.

If you are using high school students who need “volunteer hours,” be aware that you may not be getting the most willing volunteers, and they are more likely to abandon their posts (we’re not knocking teens – they can be great volunteers – but when forced into service, not all will be enthusiastic). One thing we saw that seemed to work well was for the volunteer coordinator to have all the teens show up a half our before the event, and then have them all wait in one area until she was ready to give everyone instructions (versus trying to instruct each person as they came in).

Plan the Parking Lot and Beware of Buses

parking lot with carnival setup

If you are using a parking lot for your event, make sure you block it off well before the event starts. Ideally, two hours before, when vendors begin arriving. Be aware that some schools have bus parking in the evening, meaning that you may be surprised when several large school buses show up with the intention of parking in your event space. Occasionally, even the principal might not be aware that buses will park there overnight, as in some school districts this decision is made independently of the school or even last minute. Check with the appropriate facilities office to make sure your parking lot is really available.

Be Financially Responsible

If you will be charging money for tickets, we’d like to strongly suggest that you encourage parents to pay with a check (or if you have the ability, a card or other electronic payment) instead of cash. You can sell tickets for concessions as well, reducing the need for cash all around.

Cash can go missing fairly easily. It can be lost, or….well, all PTO’s and PTA’s are vulnerable to fiscal mismanagement and even outright theft. It happens more often than you would think. Checks and electronic payments ensure that money will be deposited into the correct accounts, and the last thing any organizer wants is to find out that the monetary fruits of all their hard work have literally disappeared.

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How to Make a Face-in-Hole Board

These boards are always popular at events, and make for great photo ops! This one was recently made for a Vacation Bible School event. Although we no longer offer it as part of our rental inventory, it is a popular post so I am keeping up just to help out all the DIY face in hole board-makers out there. Here’s how it was made:


  • 1 large wooden board – I used 4×4 plywood from Home Depot
  • Primer (water-based)
  • Acrylic paint – I used Folkart from the craft store
  • Paintbrushes for acrylic paints – get good ones; they matter
  • A topcoat spray – I used Rustoleum Clear Enamel
  • Sandpaper
  • A jigsaw or other small power saw
  • Two hinges and 2×4’s for the stand (thinner boards are also good, but that’s what I had)
  • Chain to attach the legs of the stand to the board, so that they can’t slide out from under it

Before starting, I watched some useful videos on the internet. Google is your friend!

I cut the holes in the board first. I outlined a real face on paper to get the right size and shape – if your holes are too round and not oval enough, the board will not have the desired effect.

Next, I sanded the board – especially the holes – and primed it.

Drawing the robots was a challenge. If you’re not a great artist, one possibility is printing them out using the Adobe multiple page feature (where the printer prints one image over multiple pages and then you stick them together into one largei mage), and then tracing. I use Woodcraft Carbon Transfer Paper in the extra large size (you can buy it here). But it’s hard to get the pictures exactly the right size on such a large surface, and works better for intricate images, like lettering. These robots are just made of simple shapes – circles and squares. It’s easy to draw straight lines with any straight edge, and you can trace anything round to get a circle – a plate, bucket, garbage can lid, whatever. *Tip – if you need to freehand it, rest your arm or wrist on the surface for support when drawing and you will have more control.

After drawing them in pencil, I went over the pencil with a paint marker. Paint markers are really useful for outlining shapes if you don’t have enough skill with a brush to create smooth lines.

Painting is the fun part. Anyone can paint simple shapes. For some simple online painting lessons, totally free, check out the Art Sherpa.

I decided to paint the background first in yellow – to make it like an alien sky – but not to paint too much yellow where the robots were drawn. Not sure why, but sometimes, even with enough drying time, painting one acrylic over another can cause either too much blending or lack of coverage. I didn’t want to deal with that problem on a 4×4 scale.

I really wanted them to be more 3-dimensional and not too childish looking, so I spent time shading the shapes and adding details.

Metallic paint was used on the round robot, and gave it cool, realistic look. When using metallic paint you have to dry brush it. It’s already liquidy, and if you get your brush wet, it makes it too watery.

I wanted to add shadows to the robots and give the smaller one arms, but ran out of time. Oh well.

I painted the back side with white Rustoleum Enamel. It’s a great choice for this because it creates a weather-proof surface that is smooth to the touch, eliminates splinters, and will hold up to a lot of kids’ hands.

When the paint was dry, I sprayed the whole thing with about 4 (thin) coats of Rustoleum Clear Enamel to help protect and preserve it.

Last, I lined the face holes with felt so that there would be no chance of splinters. I just Gorilla-glued it on, and it hasn’t come off yet after several uses.

Then I just screwed the legs and hinges onto the board and added chains at the bottom to make sure they stay and can’t be kicked out from under.

The finished product:

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School Carnivals 101 – How Many Prizes Should I Buy?

How Many Carnival Prizes Should I Buy?

Ordering prizes is one of the most difficult tasks of the carnival organizer. How does one calculate how many prizes will be won? And how can you make sure you have enough prizes, without buying too many or running out? When your budget is limited, it can be a tough call. Here are some ways to figure out your prize order.

How Many Prizes Will We Use?

The simple way is to just use our formula: 70-75 prizes per hour per game for a typically crowded school carnival

This formula is tried and true – it’s based on many years of data. It applies to crowded events – obviously, you’ll use less if there are fewer people, but this formula gives us our maximum usage. It is based on a very liberal prize policy. We don’t give a prize to every player no matter what, but we make sure every player gets a prize, even if they have to try more than once. And if anyone looks like they just sort of need a prize no matter what, then we make sure they win. We literally have a “no crying at the carnival” rule.

If you want to give a prize to every player, see below for how to calculate number of players.

The simplest way is to figure out the maximum number of prizes you will use, and then buy that many. You’ll have some left over, but you can always use them next year. You can calculate this number by taking the number of prize-awarding games – let’s use 8 as an example – and figuring out the “put-through” of each game, or how many people can play that game in an hour.

pig race carnival game

The Porkchop Speedway takes exactly 1 minute to run, and only awards one prize per game, so we always know its maximum prize usage is 60.

Most popular carnival games, such as the balloon pop, ring toss, and basket toss, have a maximum put-through of about 120/hour. That means 2 players per minute, or 120 prizes per hour. Games that allow two players to play at once may have double that amount. So if you have 8 one-player games, that’s up to 960 plays an hour for your entire event. If every single person wins a prize, that means you will need 960 prizes per hour. Now just multiply that number by the cost of each prize. For example, if you spend an average of .28/prize, then your prize budget will be about $268 per hour. Here is a chart that shows this calculation:

Maximum Players Per Hour x Average Cost of Prize x Number of Games = Per Hour Prize Budget for Event

balloon pop carnival game

This game moves fast, and we’ve counted over 120 plays per hour here.

That’s your maximum. On the low side, plays will probably about 100/hour per game, maybe even less, and not all will win. However, at a wristband carnival, with unlimited games for each child, more than half will usually be winners because they have the opportunity to practice. So if 3/4 of players win and there are 100 plays for each game in each hour, you will use 600 prizes total, per hour, for your 8 games. This would be your low end. So at .28 per prize, your budget would be $168. That leaves you with a prize budget of $168-$268 per hour, with your actual number likely being somewhere in the middle.

How Much Money Should I Actually Budget for Prizes?

We have been using .28/prize at the prize cost in the examples, because that is the current cost of Kidsmart prizes (but please don’t hold us to that – it can change). This is the average cost of typical small prizes such as sticky hands, mini yoyos, bouncy balls, and finger puppets. Kidsmart sells prizes at an average price instead of individually, in order to keep calculations simple. One prize, one prize. This is a little bit less in most cases than the price you would pay to purchase such prizes on sites like Oriental Trading and Amazon.

If that is more than you feel you can spend, you can do several things to reduce your prize budget.

First, you can reduce the number of prize-awarding games. We use our Giant Connect 4, Kerplunk, and Giant Jenga as “just for fun” game, that provide entertainment but don’t award prizes, but any game or activity that doesn’t award prizes will work.

giant lawn game

Giant Connect 4 doesn’t award prizes, only personal glory!

You can also add some entertainment to your event instead of more games. Kidsmart can help with great children’s entertainment such as a DJ or juggler that engages the kids in active games, giving them something to do besides win prizes.

Second, you can reduce the amount spent per prize. The cheapest prizes are .05-.15 per piece, which could bring your maximum budget down below $168 per hour. Many schools choose to purchase candy, stickers, and tattoos as prizes, in order to spend the least amount of money possible. At Kidsmart, while we acknowledge that it’s all basically plastic junk, we hold that our plastic junk is high-quality plastic junk, and we do not include fillers such as stickers or tattoos.

Beware ordering large prize bags from online retailers. While they may appear to be inexpensive, they contain significant amounts of filler. Some of that filler is often tattoos and stickers with images and slogans that may be inappropriate for children. If you do buy such bags, be sure to check them carefully before using them.

carnival prizes

Some 15-50-cent prizes (Kidsmart sells all prizes at an average price of about .30/prize, meaning no calculating is necessary when purchasing from us). And there is no filler!

One way we do not recommend is to rely on volunteer game operators to adjust the game difficulty in order to give away a certain percentage of prizes. Volunteers often feel rushed or flustered at a busy event, and forget to take this into account or simply aren’t able to do so while supervising the game. It is best to use variables you can control to determine your prize budget, or you risk running out of prizes or going over budget.

pig race carnival game with crow of children at school fun fair

This is our most exciting game, but it’s hard work for the operator!

Tickets vs. Wristband Carnivals

If you don’t use wristbands for unlimited play and use tickets per game instead, you can expect your prize usage to be on the lower end of your calculation. Likewise, a poorly attended event will lower it. On the other hand, if you sell unlimited wristbands and have a very busy event, your prize usage will probably be closer to your maximum.

One thing we have found leads to high prize consumption is using students to run games. 6th graders make great game operators for an elementary school carnival, but don’t expect them to be able to regulate prize usage among children almost their own age. It may be worth the trade-off to get enough willing volunteers, but expect your prize usage to be on the higher end.

The Perfect Solution to the Carnival Prize Dilemma

If you’re in the Northern Virginia area, you can forget all about these calculations and just use our Prizes on Consignment Service instead – we help you figure out your prize budget range, and then bring you enough prizes to make sure you don’t run out, but only bill you for what you actually use. We can even help you manage your volunteers and prizes during your event. Best of all worlds!