A wet Sunday afternoon in February at our house...
The Eastcon committee is meeting in the dining room
The Worldcon GB committee is in the back bedroom.
The children (Peter, aged 6, Karen, 3, and Kai, 5) have played with the Transformers and cuddly toys, burst most of the balloons and watched "Land of the Giants".
"What shall we do next, then?" asks one.
"Let's go upstairs and play at organising an Eastercon."
Of course, their main experience of large conventions is playing in the creche. There have been creches at conventions since the mid-80s - primarily when some con-com members had kids - and were as much to let these parents help run the convention as anything else. Creches now have wider appeal and offer three main benefits: for the children, who have somewhere safe and interesting to play; for the parents, who can attend programme items or sit in the bar in relative peace; and for other members, some of whom perhaps think children should be neither seen nor heard...
This article sets out some of the practical considerations, and is based on notes written by Jill Armstrong-Bridges after twice running a creche at Beccons, my own experience of other conventions, and some help from Roger Perkins.
Ideally, a creche needs two Inter-connecting rooms, one for use as a playroom and the other a quiet room where babies and toddlers can have a daytime nap. It also needs its own toilet and washing facilities. It should be reasonably near the centre of the convention, rather than tucked away down a hundred miles of corridor. In practice these points may well be mutually exclusive, and you take the best compromise - in which case room + toilet is priority. The team negotiating this aspect with the hotel should ideally include someone with some experience of running creches, but if not it should at least take advice before finalising arrangements.
Door: most creches find they need to keep the door shut, but I think a more convention-friendly solution, where feasible, is to fix a baby gate or similar across the open doorway so fans can see in and children can see - but not get - out.
Windows: need to open enough for ventilation but not enough for small bodies to climb out. At the Birmingham Metropole we had to fasten up the doors to the balcony.
Electrical: exposed sockets need to be covered - masking tape does a good job. Some hotel rooms have fixed equipment that needs to be safeguarded. Fire exits should be checked, and all staff need to know where these are.
In my opinion a creche at a major convention needs at least two adults present all the time, and at least one of these should be more or less permanent through the weekend, as it can be disconcerting for a child to get to know the staff one day and then find completely different people the next. Then, depending on the number of children, extra helpers are needed in the ratio of, say, one adult to five children. If a convention is sending out a general booking/volunteer form, then space can be found both to fill names/ages of children attending and offers of help in the creche. Most parents who use a creche are willing to help out for an hour or two, and other fans may well volunteer to do the same... playing with children can actually be quite fun! At small conventions it is sometimes possible to set aside a room as an Informal creche where parents can organise their own rota of minders.
Various sources of staff have been used. Contrivance, and I think Follycon, had outside staff from an agency. In the case of Contrivance the hotel paid for her, as they had said at an early date that they could provide a creche - though I'm not sure they understood exactly what we meant by that. Beccons, Novacons (and Seacons?) have generally used relatives of committee members and have paid them in the form of a free membership and hotel room. This does not seem unreasonable, as they are doing a long shift in some isolation from the rest of the con. We have sometimes arranged for the creche-runner's room to be adjacent to the creche itself, with travel cots etc. in to double as a quiet room.
Communication and Responsibility
Some kind of register must be kept so that staff know how many children are supposed to be in the creche at any time. Parents must make it clear in the case of older children if they are allowed to leave the creche at their own instigation, and let staff know when they are collecting them.
The creche needs a link to ops - probably via a hotel phone - and should also have occasional visits from the DCM, committee member in charge of creche or information gopher, so they do not feel totally isolated.
I think a 3 hour stretch is enough for most children - more than enough for some adults! - so I would be inclined to run say 10am to 1pm and 2.30pm to 5pm. A definite lunch break is important, so that children do not just get left all day. They need a break, and food, and so do the creche staff!
A night creche or communal babysitting facility has been tried at Conspiracy. Gophers willing to baby-sit in individual rooms could be contacted through Ops, but I don't know whether the sharing plan ever worked out; at Contrivance the creche room was used, with the girl from the agency staying on I think 8pm to midnight. She charged an hourly rate and this was divided out between the parents who used the facility according to how many children stayed for how long. Vicky Evans did an evening session at Novacon 19 during a particular guest item on the programme. A facility of this sort is particularly useful when con members are not all resident in the main hotel. Night babysitting could be arranged even by a con too small to run a creche - some hotel switchboards can arrange a listening service but many modem ones cannot.
Well, toys obviously. What you need depends on the number and ages of the children, but it is probably best to aim mostly for toys that span a wide age range. One of the most popular at Beccon 85 was a Duplo (giant size Lego) train set. I remember one afternoon I think there were four fathers track building, two or three more chatting, and one 3 year old looking on in amazement (all the other children were sleeping or out for a walk). The main categories of toys I suggest are
Opinions differ on this one, so whichever way you decide will be wrong. A possible midcourse is to "programme" a specific slot each morning and afternoon.
Bits and Pieces
You also need a good supply of boring things like tissues, cloth, plastic cups and a large waste bin. Parents should be asked to bring a spare set of clothes and any trainer cups nappies etc. children should preferably have soft shoes, trainers or slippers. A First Aid kit should be supplied, though hopefully not needed.
Most of the usual furniture will need to be removed from a normal hotel room, particularly anything breakable. The quiet room needs some cots and perhaps a mattress on the floor, an easy chair and curtains dense enough to darken the room.
The play room mostly needs as much floor space as possible, and some tables and upright chairs, for drink and biscuit time, and drawing. If you have a contact with a local playgroup you may be able to borrow small size furniture. If you are using hotel chairs, try to get plastic rather than plush!
Food and drink
The creche should have a supply of juice and biscuits for a mid-session break, together with tea and coffee making facilities for the adults. The latter may already be in a hotel room, if you can find somewhere safe to plug in the kettle. At Contrivance we got the drinks sent up by room service, though this may be expensive; at Beccon we provided our own. We also asked parents not to leave a supply of sweets, or crisps with their children as it could lead to jealousy.
I quite like the Idea of having a limited creche programme though of course it depends on the number and age of the children. I'm thinking of a maximum of one item per session, such things as
The major elements of the cost of the creche are the room and the staff. If you can find a suitable function room, it should be included in the general convention facilities but if you have to use a regular hotel room they may well wish to charge for it. This should be less than the con room rate though... no beds to make or breakfast to serve!
There are minor costs too - refreshments, and some "consumable" items of equipment such as playdough and felt-tips. Most of the toys can usually be borrowed from committee and friends children, though Contrivance did buy some locally. Follycon got quite a lot donated or lent by local toy shops and manufacturers - Early Learning Centre were particularly helpful.
Novacon and Contrivance could run a free creche, but usually the cost is shared by the convention as a whole and those parents whose children use the creche. The charge should not be so high as to discourage use of the creche. I think something like the rate for a playgroup is about right say around £1 - £1.50 per session - but it is unrealistic for the con to expect to cover its costs on this.
So there you have it. The creche is one of those con facilities that hardly anybody notices or comments on unless of course it is not there or goes badly wrong! It is quite a bit of work to plan and run properly and if it goes well you will get thanks from the parents and silence from everyone else, but if it goes wrong you will get cursed by everybody, but that's conrunning for you.
The only thing is - don't let those kids get into a bidding session they might just win!