Activities that actively engage kids are the heart of a school carnival or festival. These are the tried-and-true games and activities that schools rely on year after year.
Games With Prizes
Cake walk: This is an easy, beloved activity that utilizes volunteers and often works as a lucrative fundraiser. Parents make or buy single-serving sweet treats such as cupcakes or bags of cookies. With music playing, kids walk around a course marked with numbers, stars, or pictures. The person standing on a marked spot when the music stops gets a prize. If some volunteers donate more elaborate cakes, designate a special picture as the spot that gets to claim the bigger prize.
Ring toss: There are many variations on this simple classic. Choose what object to use to catch the rings. Milk jugs or soda bottles weighted down with sand or dirt work great. Kids stand back and toss rings, winning a prize when they get the ring over a jug. You might arrange several rows of bottles, offering smaller prizes for the nearest rows.
Gone fishing: Kids hold a fishing pole and try to catch fish made of plastic, wood, or fabric by using hooks, magnets, or Velcro.
Scavenger or treasure hunt: Give kids a list of items to find around the school. If you’re ambitious, provide a map to go with the list.
Obstacle course: Your PE teacher might be able to help you set up a challenging yet doable obstacle course. Use a timer and post the names of students who get through the course the fastest.
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Maze: Parent groups have made mazes out of every conceivable object, including boxes, plywood, and bales of hay. Reach the end and get a prize.
Mini golf: Set up a golf course with different degrees of difficulty for students of different ages. Be creative and enlist kids to help design the course.
Basketball: This one couldn’t be easier. Just set up a hoop and round up some basketballs. The older the child is, the farther back he has to stand. Another variation is to toss a football through a spare tire. For a fun twist, some parent groups use a toilet seat for a hoop and toilet paper for a ball!
Bowling: Set up plastic pins in a long hallway. Have the kids roll different size balls to try to knock down as many pins as they can.
Candy in a haystack: Instead of a needle in a haystack, try individually wrapped candies or small prizes. Some groups hide the loot in shredded newspaper, pine straw, or sand instead of hay. Set a timer, giving each child about 15 seconds to see how much she can find.
Activities Without Prizes
Face painting: This is such a hit that the line can get long. Some schools switched to temporary tattoos, which can be applied by parents and older kids to keep the line moving faster. Fancy fingernail painting has also gone over well at some schools.
Hayride: If you’re lucky, you can recruit a parent with a tractor. If not, hire a local farm or company to run a safe, fun hayride.
Photo booth: Kids love getting their picture taken, and parents love the opportunity to get the whole family in one shot. Many professional photographers will set up a backdrop and snap photos for free, taking orders from parents who want to purchase prints.
Bounce house: This might seem like a big expense, but parent groups that have them say they pay for themselves by bringing the crowds. Some groups have bought their own bounce house to use every year. Others rent one. Make sure you get a good quality bounce house and have ample supervision.
Karaoke: All you need is a karaoke machine, a stage, and a couple of attention-loving kids to get the singing started.
Active video games: Kids love playing musical video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Some parent groups have rejected this and other types of video games because they want their carnival to stay low-tech. Other groups say these types of games are just too much fun not to include. Dance Dance Revolution is another popular and active video game that works well for a carnival.
Dance party: Set up a stage and get the older kids to put together a playlist of all the hits. Children can be shy at first, so you might need to recruit some outgoing students to get the party started. Don’t be surprised if parents and teachers join in.
Craft table: Puppetmaking, cookie decorating, pumpkin painting...kids enjoy making something they can take home. Crafts don’t need to be complicated and should allow for some free-form creativity.
Police car or fire truck: Enlist your local firefighters and police officers to visit your carnival. Kids will love seeing these local heroes, and the officers can hand out informational brochures to parents. Your police department might even bring along its trained police dogs.
Pony rides: The pony may not walk very fast, but for many kids it’s still a thrill to get to ride one.
Petting zoo: Contract with a reputable company, farm, or zoo to safely run this activity. Keep hand sanitizer gel close by.
Jail: This activity requires clearly stated rules. Kids can put a classmate in jail, and then his friends can bail him out. Or you might recruit teachers and administrators to sit in a jail cell until a certain amount of donations are received. Some communities find this inappropriate, but others love it, especially for engaging tough-to-please tween boys.
Dunk tank: This is an old-fashioned but still beloved tradition at some schools. Others have retired the dunking booth at the request of the faculty member who was recruited year after year to get dunked.
Pie toss: Like the dunk tank, the pie toss has been retired at some schools, while at others the tradition lives on. Fill pie pans with whipped cream and let students toss at a teacher or principal.