Bringing students, parents, and staff together for a fun and enriching experience is a big part of the work of most PTOs and PTAs. But there’s no doubt that middle school event planning (and involvement in general) is quite different; what worked in elementary school often simply doesn’t as kids mature.
Following are some considerations unique to the middle school environment that will help increase the odds of success of your events, as well as ideas for enrichment activities, sports-related events, family or parent-child events, and just-for-fun activities.
Consider maturity differences. In middle school, the most successful events are designed with students’ ages in mind. In other words, just because an event was successful in the elementary school PTO world does not guarantee it will work the same way in middle school. There is also a noticeable difference in maturity within the student body itself to keep in mind. A 6th grader in September is more like an elementary student, and an 8th grader in May is looking ahead to high school. So it’s a good idea to organize separate PTO events that cater to different groups of students so that their own interests and needs are met.
For example, the Rosemont Ridge Middle School PTO in West Linn, Ore., created a series of grade-level events to help students adjust to middle school and prepare for high school and beyond. Sixth Grade Survivor helps incoming 6th graders get acclimated; 7th graders attend an event called Halfway to High School; and 8th graders attend Career Day/Real Life Fair. (Read more about Rosemont Ridge, our first two-time Parent Group of the Year winner, in “National Winner: Still Making Middle School Magic.”)
Involve the students. Young teens will decide for themselves whether they want to participate in a PTO event; if they don’t think it’s cool, they will stay away. You’ll have better success when you involve the students in planning events and activities. The coolness factor goes up significantly if kids feel they have ownership of an event. One way to initiate input from students is to have an official student representative join the PTO executive board. Another way is to hold a poster design contest to encourage student artists to help promote an upcoming event.
Set up an environment for interaction. Many middle schoolers feel awkward in groups of their peers. They wonder who they should stand with, whether anyone will talk to them, whether any of their friends will be there. They worry about how they look and what others think of them. If your event involves physical activity such as a game night or welcome-back picnic, acknowledge that awkwardness and try to encourage interaction among all participants. Even setting up a common area where kids can play on their devices (or with borrowed electronics) can help break the ice.
Stay away (mostly)—and don’t take it personally. As much as some parents might want to delay it, middle school is a time for spreading wings. Many middle schoolers simply don’t want to socialize with their moms and dads. (That said, if your group bravely decides to go ahead and plan a middle school family activity, check our list of suggested family and parent-child events.) It can also be a time when parents need peer support and bonding of their own, so consider planning some parents-only social events, as well.
Work with school staff members to extend existing activities. In middle school, the curriculum becomes more focused, classes become more serious, and the workload goes up. Teachers, counselors, and other staff members may want to take an existing student activity to a new level but are constrained by lack of time or resources. Work with your principal and teachers to identify ways the PTO can provide assistance and financial support to enhance an existing activity (or even bring a new idea to life).
When possible, add a trendy (or techy) element. Activities influenced by technology or pop culture can really get kids excited about an event. Middle schools can take cues from schools like the Batesville (Ind.) Intermediate School, which had a big hit at its indoor winter carnival with an activity based on an app called Escape the Room, and the Lincoln Elementary PTA in Lakewood, Ohio, which swapped out its carnival in favor of an event with interactive workshops on the game Minecraft, online gaming, coding, and other tech topics. Even the addition of a simple selfie station can get middle schoolers talking.
Arts showcase: In conjunction with the art and music teachers, plan an evening that showcases the fine artistic talents of your students.
STEM day: Partner with the secondary education department at a local university or community college to host a fun day of science activities for your students. The middle schoolers enjoy hands-on learning, and the college students get valuable experience teaching children in a real-life setting. The PTO can coordinate and promote the event, provide snacks, and oversee the logistics. For more information, download our guide to supporting STEM learning for PTOs and PTAs (free; registration required).
Arts alive: Create a weeklong event during the student lunch period that introduces a new artist or work of art each day. Use music, video projection, and table tents to present that day’s featured topic. Have the event culminate with an extended lunch hour to allow for a hands-on art activity.
Career exploration: Another weeklong event during student lunch; this one introduces a new career each day. Use video projections, table tents, hands-on displays, and strolling guest visitors to present that day’s career. Work with the staff to extend the lunch period by a few minutes during the week to allow time for students to take it all in.
Reading appreciation program: Along with the school media center staff, support a special program to encourage students to read. PTO members can help promote the event, provide funding to purchase copies of selected books, and provide adult volunteers to evaluate the students as they complete each book. The PTO can also assist with a culminating activity such as a “meet the author” celebration.
Running club: Coordinate and supervise a running or walking club. Track miles completed and celebrate the accomplishments of participants as they achieve various goals.
Theme jogathon: Similarly, theme runs (color run, costume run, glow run) have picked up steam in recent years. You’ll ramp up the fun for middle schoolers by giving thought to the timing (zombies at Halloween, colors to celebrate the end of the year) as well as adding an element of competition.
Field day or Olympics day: Work with the PE teacher to plan and coordinate an afternoon of fun, sports-theme activities and friendly competitions. Many of the activities in “11 Favorite Field Day Games” can be adjusted for older kids.
Dodgeball tournament: Coordinate and supervise an after-school dodgeball tournament. Students sign up in teams or you can assign teams (coed or single-gender, you decide). The top student team faces off against a team of teachers for the big finale. Sell basic concessions, invite parents to watch, and award prizes for best performance, most spirit, and best uniforms.
Bingo: Organize a fun evening in the school cafeteria. Provide door prizes and simple concessions like pizza and a beverage. Consider setting up your bingo night specifically for students and grandparents (or other elders). Be sure to check local regulations that might restrict bingo as a gaming event.
School carnival: Carnivals are a lot of work, but they’re always a hit. Engage your middle schoolers in advance by inviting them to vote on the games they would like to see at the carnival. Hold a poster design contest to further increase excitement. Don’t forget to order the dunk tank for the principal! And download our complete guide to planning a school carnival for lots of great tips and ideas (free; registration required).
Parent-child basketball (or a variation): While moms and sons dribbling on a court has become a popular event, other events also work well for parent-child pairs at the middle school level, including bowling, cooking, and laser tag.
Doughnuts With Dad, Muffins With Mom, or a lunchtime visit: Set up your event for October or November, and expect mostly 6th graders. That’s OK; it’s still a nice way to start the day. Another option is to set a couple of dates for an optional lunchtime parent visit.
Welcome-back picnic: Plan and coordinate a big back-to-school event with inflatables, group games, food, and fun. Consider having a special event just for 6th graders and other students new to the school.
Game night: Plan and supervise an evening of friendly competition and fun. Provide a variety of activities: board games, games in the gym, group games, and card games, along with simple food and beverage items. Encourage interaction by requiring multigenerational teams, coed teams, and teams made up of students from specific grades or former elementary schools.
Community service: Working together on a community service project is a good way to create a sense of togetherness within your school. And for many middle schoolers, a certain number of community service hours are required. Read “PTO and PTA Community Service Ideas for Families” for suggestions.
Kids’ night out: Kids-only evenings at school are a popular idea. Activities might include games, an age-appropriate movie, music, and fun food. But this is an event where you’ll want to be especially aware of maturity differences; many schools opt to hold separate nights for each grade.
Student dance: There’s still a place for middle school dances, but you’ll increase your chances for success by keeping things simple. Avoid themes in favor of a DJ, concessions, and a few games or an area for students to play on their own tablets or smartphones. Some groups have also found it helpful to include a dance behavior contract in their plans for the event.
Video game tournament or showcase: With borrowed games and consoles, organize an event where students can play single- or multiplayer games and spend time discussing gaming strategies and preferences.
Originally published in 2011 and updated regularly