There aren’t many Canadians in their 20s and 30s who haven’t at one time wished they could find a log in the woods to crawl through into a secret hiding spot.
There also aren’t many who don’t know at least the chorus to “The Cat Came Back” or “Sandwiches” or who have never heard of Word Bird.
Those people can share the magic of what they learned from Fred Penner in the ’80s and ’90s with their own children, thanks to events around the province this weekend, organized by the Provincial Association of Childcare Administrators.
The association is a non-profit group of daycare owners and operators which, for the past 25 years, has been working to ensure accessible, quality childcare for parents in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Group members lobby governments about the need for affordable child care for children and the importance of early learning, all on a volunteer basis. Finding this increasingly difficult with no office and no budget, the association members decided to come up with a fundraising plan.
They wanted something they could do across the province, and something that fit with their mandate of helping parents and children. The idea for an annual Family Fun Fest — which took place Friday in Gander and will happen today at the Clarenville Events Centre and Mile One Stadium in St. John’s — was born.
“We said, ‘Let’s have something that’s fun, that’s festive, where children and families can come together and explore and discover and just have a whole lot of fun. We really don’t feel there are enough of those opportunities here being offered to families,” said Ros Bennett, president of the association.
When it was time to choose a headliner for the event, one person came to mind: Fred Penner. Though he hasn’t been on TV since 1997, the magic of his music still touches children today, Bennett said.
“We’ve been playing the songs in the daycare for the children, and they love the music,” Bennett, who also owns/operates KidCorp Learning Centre, said.
“They may not be aware of who Fred Penner is, but his music is still everlasting.
Penner, of Manitoba, has been playing music his entire life and entertaining children with it since the 1970s.
“It came from so many sources,” Penner told The Telegram about his love for children’s music, adding he first recognized the therapeutic value of music through his experiences with a sister who had Down Syndrome.
After earning a degree in economics, Penner spent time working with physically-, mentally- and behavariourally-challenged children using music.
“Seeing how the music was able to cut through all the garbage that they were going through showed me the huge power it has to soothe. I think I understood very early in my career how that works,” Penner, the father of four grown children, said.
“I sing in a non-condescending manner and I appreciate the value of music and the growth of children in positive environments, and I think it’s some of the most important work in the world.”
Penner cut his first record, “The Cat Came Back,” in 1979, and went on to have his own popular CBC TV show, “Fred Penner’s Place,” from 1985-1997.
“A 13-year-run — not too bad at all, I don’t think. I’d still be doing it if they hadn’t pulled the plug,” Penner said.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with audiences. It wasn’t a stretch for me to be that guy on TV at all.”
Since then, Penner’s continued making albums — he’s got about a dozen all told — and regularly performs at schools and theatres around the country. He’s also often asked to give keynote addresses at Early Childhood Education conference across Canada and the United States, which he says is a fun tangent.
He was last in this province in the spring of April 2010, when he did a school tour.
He’s got no plans to retire — not now, not ever.
“The ‘R’ word is not a part of my vocabulary,” Penner said.
“They say if you can find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life, and that’s been true for me. It’s my 40th year of entertaining, which seems a little bizarre, but I’m very touched that my career is able to go as long as it is. Since my early 20s, this has been my only career. It’s a blessing.”
Penner will perform for about an hour and a half at this year’s Family Fun Fest events, and will hold a meet and greet after the show.
Audiences will hear their old favourites — including the log-crawling theme song to “Fred Penner’s Place” — as well as tunes from his newer CDs, which include a range of song styles, from the upbeat to the serious.
It’ll be all about the interaction with the children, Penner said.
“Participation is certainly the key. I hope to engage the audience in coming along with me on a musical journey.”
Interaction is a main goal of the association, too, who have also planned a children’s carnival to happen in the two hours leading up to Penner’s performance.
Originally conceived of as a sort of Regatta Day for kids, Bennett said, the carnival will take place at the same locations, and will feature jugglers, stilt-walkers, magicians, characters like Alice in Wonderland and a dressup photo booth, where kids and families can have their picture taken and given to them to be brought home.
A number of local companies will have interactive booths set up for the children to learn and play, Bennett explained.
“Music for Young Children will have a booth whereby they’ll explore music with the children, and The Little Gym will let the children explore what they can offer. Sharkey’s Cuts for Kids will be doing some hair dying and nail polish and tattoo applications, that kind of fun stuff. Red Rocket Amusements will be doing some face painting and balloon twisting and Magic Bean shop will be there, too,” she said.
“Everything is going to be a whole lot of fun.”
One of the best parts will come at the end, Bennett said, when the children are each given a loot bag filled with treats, coupons and others little gifts, valued at more than $50.
“That has come from the corporate community; their response has been phenomenal. We have so many companies that have come together, and it’s still growing,” Bennett said.
The association is planning to make Family Fun Fest an annual event, both as a fundraiser and a way to give back to the province; children, in particular. It’s Bennett’s hope that it will eventually become a free event, thanks to corporate sponsors.
Family Fun Fest takes place at the Clarenville Events Centre at 10am this morning, and at Mile One Centre at 5 p.m. Tickets are still available at the door for both events for $25 (plus tax and surcharge), carnival, concert and loot bag included.