Here at Cox Farms, we have become experts at reuniting lost kids with their parents and teachers. Over the years, we have made changes to the Fall Festival, from procedures to staffing to fencing, to make it safer and easier for families and groups to stay together. Along the way, we have picked up some tips that we hope you’ll find useful. Let’s start at the beginning…
Planning Your Visit
- Consider visiting on an off-peak time, when crowds will be at a minimum. In addition to being way more fun and avoiding lines, it also is much easier to keep your group together when there’s more space on the farm. As an added incentive, we make it cheaper for you to visit during these times! On weekday afternoons, it can sometimes feel like you have the farm to yourself, and using our special Weekday Afternoon Value Cards, you can get in for just $7/person. You save $3 per person by coming on a “Regular” Weekend (Sep 21-22, 28-29, Oct 26-27, Nov 2-3) instead of a “Prime” Weekend. Less traffic, short lines, fewer than 200 5-year-old boys named Jacob wearing red shirts and jeans, etc.
On the day of your visit…
- LABEL each kid with your name and cell phone number (or the number of the adult responsible for chaperoning the child)- be sure to list a cell phone number that will actually be with you here at the farm! That way, when we find your lost kid, we can just call that number and reunite you.
- Stickers are best! We have stickers available for you at the ticket booth for just this very purpose. (Just make sure you remove them before washing the clothes… we’ve all been there!)
- Use a permanent marker on whatever label you use… or, if you prefer, write it in permanent marker on their arms. We won’t judge.
- Or, for a fun alternative, check out these “safety tattoo” temporary tattoo options: http://www.safetytat.com/ and http://tottoos.org/.
- If you have concerns about privacy, or to make sure your child does not shed the outside labeled layer of clothing as the day heats up, put the sticker on an under layer. (Sometimes I will put them inside and upside down on the front of their tee shirts. Then we practice: if you get lost, find a safe adult and flip up the bottom of your shirt to show them your sticker.)
- Do NOT use neck lanyards/yarn necklaces: the Fall Festival is an action-packed place, and your kids will be climbing, swinging and sliding all over the place. It is a safety hazard to have something long hanging around their necks.
- Safety pins obviously have disadvantages as well, since paper can tear off of them and they can open accidentally.
- TALK about what to do if you get separated. Some of this is standard and applies to any situation or location, but some of it may be specific to the venue. At Cox Farms, all of our employees are required to wear red Cox Farms smocks and a name tag. We have little signs up that show a person in one of these smocks saying “If you’re lost, I can help!” We also have uniformed Fairfax County Police officers at the farm.
- BE SPECIFIC: with my kids, we talk about finding a “safe adult,” but it is important to remember to define who a safe adult is, how your child should determine who is safe, and how to approach them.
- PRACTICE! It seems silly, but even the kids who have heard it a million times can freeze up and panic when it actually happens to them.
When you arrive…
- Find a Farmer! Point out a Cox Farms employee wearing the red smock, so your kid knows what to look for.
- Say ‘cheese!’ Take a picture upon arrival. If you have a large group, you may want to take closer individual photos of each kid; make sure the photo shows the kid head to toe. This way, if your child is lost, you can pull out your phone/camera and show us the picture instead of trying to provide a description from memory. (Yes, of course you know what your child looks like, but details like hair accessories, shoes and precise clothing descriptions are often crucial to helping us find your child quickly.)
- Make a plan. Remind your child that, if at any time during your visit they are unable to find you, they need to stop playing and find a safe grown-up to help.
The most common lost kid scenario we see is the one in which the parent is frantic or even hysterical, and the child does not yet realize that he or she is lost. Once a child is visibly upset, s/he will be incredibly easy to spot, and in the middle of a festival full of families, other parents will be very quick to flag down a Cox Farmer to assist. The trouble comes when the child is happily playing, going on the same slide over and over again, since then they appear to be just another happy visitor. (Sometimes these lost kids will even resist our attempts to bring them to their worried parents, since they don’t want the fun to be interrupted.)
- Slide Ups and Downs: decide on your plan for the slides. This is especially important if you have a single adult and/or more than one child. One solo adult cannot be at the top AND at the bottom of the slide at the same time. For this reason, we staff the tops of our slides; that way, you can settle your child in line, we help send them off, and then you can meet them at the bottom. Some parents prefer to stay with the child in line, which is fine, but you’ll want to plan to go down with or just in front of your child(ren) so you can meet them at the bottom. We allow a maximum of two people to slide together, either an adult with a child or two children together.
- “Wave Rule”: sometimes, when we’re worried that a child may be unaccompanied on a slide or other activity, we will enact the “wave rule.” The Wave Rule is simply that, from the top of the slide, they should be able to wave, and their grown-up should wave back. If nobody returns their wave, it is time for us to take a break from sliding and help them locate their adult.
- Get in the Zone… the Kiddie Zone! If you have toddlers or preschoolers, head over to the “Kiddie Zone!” This area is especially designated for our smallest visitors, with scaled down fun and a slower pace. It also is completely contained in fencing, with a single (relatively narrow) entrance/exit point. On busy days, it can be especially nice to give your little ones a safer place where they can run more freely. The entry/exit point is sometimes-but not always- staffed by a Cox Farmer who is trained to not let any children leave without an adult, but of course it is still your responsibility to keep your child from escaping.
- The “Fun Tunnel” by the festival entrance is also fully fenced, so parking yourself at the single entry/exit point and staying alert should keep your group contained.
- At times, you may notice a Cox Farmer visually tracking your young child if they are more than a few feet away from you. We’re not trying to creep you out, and we realize how important it is for little ones to have some independence! This is just our way of making sure the child isn’t lost; if you notice us doing this, feel free to acknowledge us and say, “Yep, he’s mine, I got him,” and we’ll happily go on our way.
- All Cox Farmers are trained to handle lost children and parents, but our Entry/Exit team is especially prepared to handle these scenarios. They are alerted to all lost children and will actively be on the lookout, doing their best to ensure that kids and adults are matched up to prevent children from wandering out without their adults.
We know how scary it is to lose a child in situations like these, and as parents, many of us understand how frustrating it is to have kids wander off even after you remind them a million times to stay with you. That said, if you do lose your child, please don’t yell, scream at or hit your child when you are reunited. It is, however, okay to hug your child a lot and cry if you need to. (Don’t be embarrassed, we see it several times a day.)
Lost Kids/Parents FAQ
Q: Why don’t you follow the popular Code Adam protocol for handling lost children? Why don’t you lock down the exits?
A: For those not familiar with Code Adam, it is a popular “missing child” protocol for handling lost/missing children, and it has become the standard operating procedure in many grocery stores, shopping malls, amusement parks, government buildings, etc. Our protocol shares many of the same main steps, in terms of announcing, reporting descriptions, alerting exits, etc. There are some parts of the Code Adam protocol that are simply not applicable or logistically feasible in our setting. Unlike a building with walls or even permanent fencing, “locking down the exits” at the farm is not practical, since anyone intent on getting out of the farm could do so avoiding the exit. We also have the benefit of having law enforcement officers already onsite for many days of the festival. Given the size of the festival grounds, the number of things around to engage/distract kids, and the average time it takes for a lost child at the farm to realize that s/he is lost, the 10 minute time frame for calling in law enforcement is not practical; after all, in often takes longer than that for a child to go just once through the line for a popular slide.
Q: Why don’t you announce/page lost parents and children on the main stage?
A: We have found that while this is reassuring to many parents, its effectiveness is actually very limited due to the layout of the festival grounds. We do not have a farm-wide speaker system; we use walkie-talkie radios instead. That is the system we use to announce lost kids and parents to our employees all across the farm. (And yes, given the number of kids lost on busy days and the speed at which they are usually reunited, it would be really disruptive to announce and describe each child and then announce again when they are reunited minutes later.)
Q: What is the BYC (Big Yellow Chair), and how is it used?
A: The Big Yellow Chair is one of our oldest official “meeting points” at the Fall Festival. Many visitors simply know it as a perennial favorite photo opportunity! (Yes, the original has been replaced several times, as they do get a lot of traffic!) Between the big rope swings and the Milking Parlor, you’ll see two giant yellow chairs. Some parents designate this as their meeting spot, an agreed place that all parties will go to if they get separated. Depending on where on the farm the child/parent is lost, we sometimes use this as our gathering place for lost kids/parents, so that one or two employees (or police officers) can keep tabs on multiple kids, freeing up the rest of us to search more efficiently. Please note that the BYC is generally not a staffed/monitored station.
Q: Why do you insist on an employee staying with the lost parent? Wouldn’t it be more effective to spread out? The employee told me that they would end the search for my child if I didn’t stay with the employee.
A: Yes, our policy is that the adult MUST STAY with a Cox Farmer while a search for their child is underway. If a parent does not stay with the employee, the search is put on hold or called off. When we lose that constant connection with the searching parent, we have no way of knowing if and when the child is located. Understandably, finding an employee to update us on the status of their search is usually not so high on the frantic parent’s priority list… and with this many visitors, that means we may spend those precious minutes continuing to look for a child who has been found, diluting the attention paid to other ongoing searches. Also, if we find the child before the parent does, we have no way of contacting the adult to let them know, meaning that they needlessly continue to worry. We realize it is difficult and may be counter-intuitive to stay in one place or otherwise stick by the side of a Cox Farmer when your baby is missing. Please trust us and work with us; we share the same goal, to reunite you with your child as quickly as possible.
Full Disclosure: In addition to being an owner at Cox Farms, I also live here on the farm with my partner and our four children. Having four kids in 21 months means that we are personally all too familiar with the frantic headcounts and corralling of kiddos. Although our children are now (at ages 5-7) old enough and confident enough to either ask an employee or find their way home, for the first several years I insisted on pinning special Cox Farms employee name tags to their backs… yes, EVEN THOUGH WE ACTUALLY LIVE HERE at the farm. On these name tags, I had written “If I’m lost, call my mom on Channel 1,” so that any employee who came across them would know to contact me on my always-on walkie-talkie radio. Yes, this farm is their home, but during the Fall Festival, it was still unnerving when we ventured out from our yard.