Family nights are a great way to create a sense of community. They help parents get connected to the school and show kids that school can be fun. These events can build on the curriculum, like a reading night or math night, or they can just be a way for parents and children to have fun together at school, like a movie night or a night of active games.
The best topics excite and engage students as well as their parents. Something new is often a draw. For example, a movie that has just been released to video on Tuesday is likely to attract an audience on Thursday or Friday. (Check movie release dates at www.videoeta.com.) Or connect the evening to an event like the Academy Awards (complete with a red carpet), Read Across America Day (held on Dr. Seuss’ birthday), the presidential election, Earth Day, or St. Patrick’s Day (when you might “go green”).
Something unusual tends to get attention. The PTA at DuVall Elementary in Dearborn, Mich., hosts Nerf Night, where everyone brings Nerf guns; Game Night, in which parents and students play each other in basketball; and Scout Night, which includes a “gender switch” where boys complete activities with the Girl Scouts and girls work with the Boy Scouts.
Playful activities and competitions are a draw, too. The PTA at the Sage Canyon School in San Diego hires a DJ for its annual Night under the Stars, where kids and adults get involved in a Hula-Hoop contest, freeze dance, and “name that tune.” The PTA also hosts Trivia Night, where families compete in teams, and Family Literacy Night, where the principal plays literacy hockey, challenging students to hit certain letters to make a word.
Multicultural topics appeal to families who ordinarily feel excluded. For its International Night, the Williams Elementary PTO in Newton, Mass., asks families to create posters about themselves. These posters are hung in the gym, where students on a scavenger hunt find out which family celebrates Diwali, for example. “That really opened things up a lot to talk to people you kind of knew but had never had a conversation with,” says PTO copresident Christine Lacey. “People discovered that their ancestors came from the same country. It was a real community-builder.”
A Creative Theme
When considering a theme, make as many connections as possible. For example, at Mt. Erie Elementary in Anacortes, Wash., Robot Family Night involved a robot demonstration by a high school robotics team and the showing of the movie WALL-E. A “go green” night might offer activities like a recycling relay and crafts that are made from recycled materials.
Movie nights can extend a theme through audience participation. One school showed The Wizard of Oz and passed out prop kits (clappers for when Dorothy clicks her heels, sunglasses to wear on the yellow brick road, glow sticks to wave when the group reaches the Emerald City). Another school showed Monsters, Inc. at Halloween and offered activities such as a homemade “scream machine” and a Pin the Eyeball on Mike game.
For reading night, one school hosted a “reading diner.” Families went to the cafeteria (decorated like a diner), where servers (teachers) brought them menus (a list of books). The family would place their order, receive a book, then read it together. Another school celebrated Valentine’s Day with the theme “For the Love of Books.” Shoal Creek Elementary in Liberty, Mo., recruited high school football players and cheerleaders for its “Line up for Literacy” theme.
An idea from the PTO Today Family Reading Night kit is to transform your school into a town called Readville, with streets named after well-known children’s books, billboards advertising products from stories (such as Click, Clack, Moo typewriters), and children dressed as their favorite characters. Invite your town’s mayor and other officials to read to children. And don’t forget to tie the snacks into the theme. You could serve dried banana chips for Curious George or cheese cubes for The Stinky Cheese Man.
Planning ought to begin at least two months ahead of time. Perhaps the most important decision is when to hold the event. Families are more likely to return to school on a weeknight but to have more free time on the weekend. Be sure to check school and community calendars for conflicts. The Williams PTO uses the website www.doodle.com to figure out the best date. “You put dates in, and people can fill in what dates they can make and what they can’t,” Lacey says. As for the time of day, if the event starts around dinner time, you’ll have better attendance if you serve food.
Be sure that the place you’ve chosen will accommodate the number of attendees, and configure the layout. If there’s a low stage or screen, set up chairs to keep sightlines unobstructed. If your event has stations, figure out rotation and timing. Post signs to direct people where they need to go and to identify different booths.
Secure any needed permissions or licenses. For instance, if you’re showing a movie, you need a one-time public performance site license. Know what equipment is needed and where to get it. If you’ve invited guest readers for a reading night, you’ll need adult-size chairs and microphones. If you’re showing a movie outdoors to a large crowd, you’ll probably need to rent a screen, a projector, and speakers (but ask parents first in case anyone has access to such equipment). Test the equipment beforehand.
Decide whether you’re going to charge admission. In general, admission fees are not a good idea for family nights since the focus ought to be on community-building. If funds are needed to offset the cost of the event, you might sell food, snacks, or souvenirs. Or hold a raffle to award something connected to the evening, such as a copy of the movie being shown.
Have a backup plan in case of problems, such as a rain date or an alternate location in case of bad weather or extra snacks in case the popcorn machine breaks. Have experts on hand or on call to help with technical problems.
When you advertise the event, emphasize that it is a family activity so parents don’t just drop off their children. Tell parents what they need to bring, such as lawn chairs or sleeping bags, and whether a meal or snacks will be provided or sold.
Promote the event with posters in the school, banners as students are dropped off and picked up, a promotion on the school marquee, intercom announcements, and flyers sent home to parents, and include items in the school newsletter, on the school website, and in the local newspaper.
Attendance will depend on your success at building excitement. The PTO at Carver (Mass.) Elementary picks three popular movies that children vote on for its movie night. “The first time we did it, we got such positive feedback,” says PTO board member Dorene Allen-England. “Teachers said they’d never seen the kids this excited about something.” For a family reading night, students might guess the principal’s favorite book from a multiple-choice list, with winners receiving a copy of that book at the event.
And promote buzz following an event to increase interest for the following year. At Sage Canyon, the PTA encourages all the talk about its Night Under the Stars. “For us, word of mouth becomes key,” says PTA president Kimberly Twomey. “People talk about how much fun it is to go to it.”
The more smoothly the family night proceeds, the better the experience for participants. Be sure to greet attendees at the door with a program of the evening’s agenda and locations. And have plenty of volunteers to direct people, keep the flow going, and run the activity stations.
If you’re serving food, cut down on movement by providing or selling boxed meals or snacks upon admission. Or set up a snack bar in a separate area, such as a hallway. Have extra volunteers for multiple serving lines. To cut down on noise, a lack of open spaces will discourage kids from running around. And set up a separate area for socializing.
Keep in mind that children have short attention spans. At Mt. Erie, the activities on Craft Night are limited to 15 minutes each, and children complete five or six different crafts. “We try to make it simple and easy,” says family night coordinator Suzy Gilbert.
It helps to include varied activities. For Game Night at Mt. Erie, a fast-paced outdoor human pinball game leaves participants red-faced and sweaty. When the children need to cool down, they can play board games in the air-conditioned library. On Craft Night, children who want a break can escape to a quiet area in the back, where coloring pages and snacks are available.
Have tech support on hand in case of problems. And be prepared that things will go wrong. At Carver, the 21-foot inflatable screen for the outdoor movie night suddenly deflated when someone pulled an extension cord. Luckily, they were able to reinflate it easily.
Family Night Kits From PTO Today
PTO Today offers three School Family Night kits free to parent groups and schools. Each kit includes step-by-step information to plan the night, theme and activity ideas, a reproducible flyer, and more. You can download them at schoolfamilynights.com.
Family Reading Night
Tips to organize your reading night, ideas for fun read-aloud books, suggestions for finding guest readers, activity and craft ideas to complement your reading night, and fun themes to make the night special.
Family Movie Night
Movie night ideas and themes, tips on concessions and fun food suggestions, games to play at intermission, and key information on how to obtain a license (required for any public showing).
Go Green Night
Sponsored by the EPA and Department of Energy’s Energy Star program. Go Green Night features lots of creative games, crafts, and activities focused on preserving the environment and saving energy.