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.
Mixed prize 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.
Prize buckets prizes from value .10 to .30
And best of all, no one goes home disappointed!