All 330 students from the Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 School had arrived at a city park last May for field day fun when the worst happened. It started to rain, then stopped—scattered showers and then sun.
Mother Nature was calling the shots and PE teacher Jeff Igims was faced with the dilemma of whether to cancel the event. The dozens of parent volunteers on hand promised to help in whatever way they could, so field day continued, just not as previously planned.
The blacktop had become wet and dangerously slippery, so the activity planned to take place on it was scrapped. One parent rented a movie that was shown on a makeshift screen inside the park’s gymnasium. When a generator that inflated one of the bouncy toys died, another parent came to the rescue and found a generator to replace the malfunctioning one.
“We could have just called it a day,” says PTO past president Michele Margittai. “What had been an extremely organized event became an on-the-fly event, and our awesome parents made sure it was a successful one.”
For the parents at Pittsburgh Phillips, saving field day was worth the extra effort. For them, field day is more than just a chance for kids to get out of the classroom. Fun physical activities like obstacle courses send the message to kids that exercise can be enjoyable. Field days can help build a sense of community, too. Parent volunteers enjoy socializing with one another and with teachers and, of course, seeing the kids have a good time.
Field day is also a favorite event for families at Swenke Elementary in Cypress, Texas. “When I think about our field day, I remember smiling when the noise in the background was laughter, smelling lots of stinky, sweaty kids, and watching the constant movement of the kids as they went from station to station and activity to activity,” says PTO president Stacie Keneker.
Plan Way Ahead
Running a successful field day requires two things: lots of planning and plenty of people.
Although a few schools schedule this day filled with outdoor activities in fall, most plan events for spring, usually very close to the end of the school year. Teachers, parents, and students welcome a chance to be outdoors as they anticipate the joys of summer vacation.
“Field day is a tradition at our school, and we start talking it up at kindergarten orientation before the school year even begins,” Margittai says. “Our parents are great ambassadors and they tell new parents ‘you’ve got to do this.’ ”
Parents start asking in January what day the Pittsburgh Phillips field day will be held so they can take off work and help out. (It’s best to plan for a specific date, but have another chosen in case of rain.)
The venue for each year’s field day is secured far in advance, almost immediately after the current field day ends. By January, the Pittsburgh Phillips PTO has given Igims the budget amount allotted for the day.
The PTO also builds in time to order T-shirts for each child, assigning one color to each grade. This makes it easy to tell students apart from others who may be in the park and helps identify any child who has strayed from the other students in his grade.
“Our children love their shirts and wear them proudly throughout the year,” Margittai says.
The Swenke Elementary PTO uses T-shirts to help promote upcoming field days. The PTO tie-dyes shirts early in the school year to start the buzz. Students can either bring in a white T-shirt or buy one from the PTO for $7. That’s a bit of a markup from what the PTO pays for them, so the proceeds from sales go to the PE department.
“Our parents often buy tie-dyed shirts to match their child’s,” Keneker says. That ups the contribution to the PE department even more.
Food and drinks are another key consideration. At the Pittsburgh Phillips event, lunch is just as much fun as the rest of the day. Parents grill hot dogs, and watermelon, granola bars, lemonade, and iced tea are available.
The Swenke PTO keeps it simple by asking students to bring sack lunches to field day. Adults also encourage kids to stay well-hydrated in the heat.
“This year we are providing nutritionally appropriate cold drinks and lots of water,” Keneker says. “It gets hot in Texas in the spring.”
Work Together With Staff
At Pittsburgh Phillips, Igims is in charge of field day and PTO members help him out wherever they can. He puts together all the activities and decides on the games and schedule, when lunch will be served, and which venue they will use. The PTO contributes money for the event. Parents also assist Igims by preparing and setting up for the activities and then monitoring them.
“You need to have a strong person within the staff who coordinates field day,” Margittai says. “If just the PTO organizes the event, you still need input from the staff because they know what’s important and what the kids can and will do.”
The teachers also participate in field day at Pittsburgh Phillips. They walk their classes to the facility and rotate through the activities with their students. Some of them participate and some take photos.
“It’s fun to see the adults having fun, enjoying the games and activities outside of a school setting, and hear parents interacting and building friendships,” Igims says.
Some activities are individual, some require teams, and some involve the entire classroom.
“Make sure the activities or games chosen are age-appropriate,” Igims recommends, “and that you have the space and equipment, and that they are safe for the children to do.”
Line Up Volunteers
At the 1,000-student Swenke Elementary, 150 parent volunteers helped with the spring 2011 field day. Pittsburgh Phillips, which has less than half the enrollment of Swenke Elementary, had help from 60 parents for its spring 2011 field day. If you don’t have this kind of volunteer involvement at your school, Igims suggests asking the high school to line up some students to help out with activities.
No matter how many volunteers you have, it’s important to clearly define tasks. One approach is to assign parents to work shifts supervising games or activities.
“Our activities are grouped by grade level, K-1, 2-3, etc. We set it up so parents can volunteer to work the shift either before or after their own child’s so they are free to watch their child,” Keneker says.
The Swenke Elementary PTO also uses an online invitation tool to publicize and even organize its field day. “When we need tables and chairs, we send that message through evite.com,” Keneker says. “Instead of the invitations saying ‘you’re invited to a party,’ it says, ‘you’re invited to bring six chairs to field day.’ ”
The invitation system also lets parents know what is needed that hasn’t been assigned and summarizes who is bringing what equipment to the event.
A month before the field day, the Swenke Elementary PTO posts on its website a map of where each activity will take place on the school grounds. Teachers also email their classroom parents with more details about the event.
At Pittsburgh Phillips, parents not only help at the actual activity portion of field day but also gather materials, help set up, and provide at least some of the food and water.
“My favorite task is shopping for rubber chickens for one of the activities,” Margittai says. “Break what you need done into small tasks and then everyone can contribute.”
Margittai suggests trying to get the kindergarten and 1st grade parents involved so they will know what field day encompasses. The older students will be leaving soon to go to middle school, taking their parent volunteers and that knowledge with them.
Competition or Just for Fun?
Another key decision is what degree of competition you want in your field day. Some schools keep track of contests and award first-place ribbons. Others divide students into large teams and have the teams compete against one another. Still others leave competition out of the equation entirely.
“At first we tried to keep track of individual scores and give out the appropriate ribbons, and that really bogged us down,” says Igims, who has been coordinating field day for the past seven years. “Now everyone gets a certificate saying they participated—and their T-shirts, of course.”
Children at Swenke are given wristbands with the numbers 1 through 26 on each one. That’s the number of activities available. Volunteers mark off the number on the wrist band as each child completes that activity. Besides that, parents can give black marks, which are character points for a positive attitude or good sportsmanship. Later in the day the students get beads for the character points and for completing the activities and string them onto a necklace. It’s the character beads that kids compare the most, Keneker says.
More than a sporting competition, the Pittsburgh Phillips field day is a celebration of what students have achieved throughout the school year, Margittai says.
“You get to see all kinds of wonderful interactions between students, staff, and parents,” she says. “Plus you leave them with memories.”
Fun Activities for Every Age
Work with teachers to choose activities that are both fun and age-appropriate for students. Activities that are too challenging for young students can cause frustration, while older kids may lose interest in ones that don’t provide enough of a challenge.
Pin the Mustache on the Teacher
Enlarge a photo of a teacher to poster size. One at a time, blindfold students, spin them around, and have them pin a construction-paper mustache on the photo.
You’ll need several inflated balloons and a chair. The object is for the child to sit on the balloon until he pops it.
Bubbles, Bubbles, Bubbles
Fill four buckets with bubble solution and place a wand with a different shape in each. Caution the students about safety and not getting the solution in their eyes. Their goal is to make as many bubbles as they can.
Rubber Chicken Throw
Measure how far a student can throw a rubber chicken.
Car Wash Relay
Fill a bucket with water and place a sponge in it. The object of the game is for the child to run with the sponge to a cup and squeeze as much water into it as he can. (Great for hot days.)
Use feed sacks or pillow cases. Participants put both legs in their sack and jump to the finish line.
Record the amount of time a student can keep spinning a Hula-Hoop around his body.