Jazz Fest kids area, a festival stage that’s something different _lowres

Photo by Mark Guarino -- Juggling in the kids' tent at the Jazz Fest.

Just as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is not just about jazz, the festival is not just for adults either.

Tucked behind the winding food lines and supersized sound systems throughout the Fair Grounds is a children’s area where little ones and their parents can either take a breather from the marquee events or spend all day ignoring them all.

The space is a world unto itself. A performance tent features puppet shows and other performances while a series of smaller tents offers activities — And not the bouncy house kind.

On Sunday, depending on where you stopped, children were learning how to juggle, make kazoos, learning about coastal restoration, and more. Several toddlers were gathered around one table stringing beads together into a wristband — It looked like an ordinary crafts project except it had a lesson: Each one represented a line of defense for the fragile Louisiana coast. Zizi Sokolic of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation said it was important to raise wetlands restoration early in children because of a single harsh truth: “We’re fighting against the clock.” “It’s a good start to keep them thinking about it as they get older,” she says.

Next door, children weren’t just learning how to juggle; they were also learning how to make the balls themselves. Little hands grabbed rice, stuffed them into plastic shells and taped them up, all at the instruction of Meret Ryhiner, a circus arts instructor at the International School of Louisiana in New Orleans. Next Thursday her circus students will return to perform inside the big top, er tent.

“They take an item with them, but they also take a new skill with them,” she says. “Once you start to juggle, you have that skill for life.”

The area also had food — But instead of muffalettas and crawfish monica, it was peanut butter and jelly, cupcakes, and grilled cheese.

Omar Buckner of New Orleans stood over his daughters Kimberly, 6, and Omari, 4, as they made kazoos out of tissue paper and cardboard tubes. He said he didn’t mind missing any of the adult headliners on the other side of the Fair Grounds because, for him, Jazz Fest is about something different.

“I enjoy the music, but more often than not I enjoy being with friends and family,” he says. “To me, it’s about camaraderie.”