Maddie Randall , sucking her thumb and blanket, cried amid the array of silver and red balloons and banners in Boston University's student union.
The pony tailed 7-year-old from suburban Pittsburgh did not want to be parted from her parents and older sister to attend BU's program for younger siblings of incoming freshmen.
"You're going to have fun instead of sitting here listening all day," said her mother, Lynn Randall , who hugged Maddie, then nudged her to join the dozen other children in last week's all-day sibling program.
A growing number of colleges are making freshman orientation a family affair, adding sibling programs to give parents a break and make a very early recruiting pitch to potential students.
"We know the traditional college-age population is shrinking. The better marketing we do on the front end is going to help at least keep those schools on the radar," said Craig Mack , BU's former orientation director, who created the sibling program in 2004.
Some colleges, including BU, fill out such programs with exposure to university life, arts and crafts, and excursions to area attractions. Shortly after the siblings start their activities, they receive red BU T-shirts from the guides , who are BU students. Other colleges offer entertainment and what they acknowledge is glorified baby-sitting, while a few, including Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, target teenage siblings with a program about applying for college.
An estimated 10 percent of colleges around the nation offer something for siblings, say leaders of the National Orientation Directors Association, based in Minneapolis. Most colleges charge a minimal fee of $20 to $30.
Orientation used to be just for incoming freshmen. Then, during the last decade, colleges incorporated sessions for parents.
But entire families began coming to orientation in increasing numbers because some parents were reluctant to leave younger children at home for days at a time, and others wanted to combine vacation with the visit, said Charlie Andrews , president of the national orientation directors group.
Mack, now associate dean of students at MassBay Community College and president-elect of the orientation directors' group, said BU initially was motivated to start the program as a convenience for parents. Younger children could not sit still very long in sessions with titles such as "Academic Perspectives," "Collaborating for Success," and "Money Matters." Parents often had to leave sessions to deal with fidgeting offspring, Mack said.
In 2004, the idea began growing after Northwestern State University's orientation director spoke about the concept during the national orientation directors convention. The university, in Natchitoches, La., founded Kid Konnection in 2002 for siblings ages 5 to 12.
At Northwestern State, children do activities in science labs, make picture frames, and use the computer lab to write to their freshman sibling so the student will get a letter as the school year starts. Later, the children pose for a photo with the school mascot, Vic the Demon, and learn the school's fight song in a pep rally. They see a dorm room and leave the program with a "future Demon" T-shirt, said Reatha Cox , the university's director of student success and new student programs.
"We want to start early with teaching them about the college and its traditions. What better time to start than when their big brother or sister is here," Cox said.
Alfred State College in western New York state began its sibling program this summer and divides the children into age groups, 5 to 11 and 12 to 17. The older children get tips on how to prepare for college, while the younger ones make birdhouses, using the facilities of the building and trades program.
"It's a marketing tool for our school, but it was created out of necessity for the parents," said Spencer Peavey , Alfred State's director of student activities and orientation. He created a similar program at Saint Bonaventure University about five years ago.
BU's program, which will serve 200 siblings ages 5 and up by the time orientations end this week , is half entertainment and includes a tour of Fenway Park. The other half is focused on the university .
After arts and crafts in the student union, three BU students led the 13 children, many wearing the just-provided BU T-shirts, through the campus along Commonwealth Avenue.
Maddie, her tears long dried, gabbed with the leaders as they pointed out residence halls, academic buildings, and eateries.
In an auditorium with a wraparound screen, the siblings watched a movie -- shortened from 30 minutes to 10 -- highlighting BU accomplishments, famous professors, and alumni. "Dare to dream," a female narrator concluded.
"Who's the famous Jewish writer who teaches at BU?" a guide asked. One sibling correctly answered "Elie Wiesel and was rewarded with a lollipop.
Afterward, the group returned to the student union food court for lunch, using meal cards similar to the ones their older siblings will receive this fall.
Jackie Connolly, 16, a high school junior from Monroe, N.Y., said she plans to consider attending BU.
"I love it. I liked walking with everyone on campus," said Connolly.
Sacha Ghalili , 15, of China , who went through the sibling program with his 5-year-old brother, Dima, said the activities were far better than sitting through orientation talks.
"It's a good idea. The younger siblings want to see where the older sibling is going," he said.
Maddie found several things to rave about, including getting a T-shirt, playing ping-pong in the student union, and making friends with the college students.
"It's my first time on a college campus. It's pretty cool," she said.
Her mother said she doubts the program will have a big impact on Maddie's college choice because she is only entering second grade. But the concept is terrific, Randall said.
"It gave her her own experience at the university where her sister is going to go," she said. "And it did give us a better impression of the university."
Mission accomplished, said Kenneth Elmore , BU's dean of students.
"This campus can be a great playground," he said. "I'd love the day when a BU student comes up to me and says, 'I was in the siblings program.' "
Linda Wertheimer can be reached at email@example.com.