Unplugged Fun and Games

Kids love games and they’re great for family bonding, especially in this era of constant screens. Sponsor an evening of classic fun, or put your own twist on a popular TV game show.

1. Game show night
Some schools have turned standardized tests into fun and laughs by using questions from actual tests in the style of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Variations abound, but try pitting parents against students or teachers against each other. They can use students as their “lifeline.” Parents will have a better understanding of what their children are expected to know. (And if they miss a question, their kids will never let them live it down.)

Other game show formats that you might replicate include Jeopardy, Family Feud, and Deal or No Deal. Make sure games involve a number of participants, and include one that draws contestants from the audience. For extra fun, include low-cost door prizes and snacks.

TIP: Make sure your game host is personable, quick-witted, and funny. Cap the evening at two hours.

Game Show Night Flyer

2. Minute To Win It challenges
Nothing makes people laugh harder than a goofy 60-second challenge like moving a cookie from your forehead to your mouth using only facial muscles. Invite families to participate in an evening of challenges inspired by Minute To Win It. Ensure the event is emceed by a fun game show “host,” either a staff member or parent volunteer. It’s easy to find all kinds of challenges online—just search “minute to win it.” 

TIP: Choose challenges appropriate for a range of ages. Some are easier than others.

3. Board game night
Host an evening of board games, either for open-ended fun or a tournament-style competition. Games that work well for elementary students include Pictionary, Rat-a-Tat Cat, Farkle, Backgammon, Trivial Pursuit, and Sorry!

TIP: Be sure to include games for children who aren’t reading yet.

4. Carnival
Begin or end the school year with an outdoor carnival for old-fashioned fun. The games don’t have to be complicated or expensive to run, but if your PTO can afford it, a couple of well-chosen rental items can expand the fun. Consider a bouncy castle, dunk tank, or photo booth. 

TIP: Plan a range of activities for all ages and abilities.

Carnival flyers
Carnival resources

Put On a Show

Build community with an evening of entertainment for school families. Some groups organize school talent shows or even variety shows with parents in starring roles.

5. Talent show
A talent show offers kids the opportunity to display a particular skill. To ensure the acts fall within school mission guidelines, have kids try out in advance. If enough kids showcase a similar talent, consider suggesting they combine into one act to minimize redundancy. To keep it low-key and celebratory, skip the contest element of judges and prizes.

TIP: Keep things moving by setting a time limit on acts.

Stage a Successful Talent Show
Event Flyer Template

6. Student play
Plays are a lot of work, but they offer rewarding learning experiences for kids. Buy-in from school staff and faculty is key, particularly if the play will involve teachers and class time for rehearsals. A well-chosen play can help quieter children shine and bring together a school community. 

TIP: Ask for help with costume organization, line-reading, and in-the-wings supervision.

A Play's the Thing

7. Variety show starring adults
In a twist on the student-centered talent show, consider showcasing parents, teachers, and staff in a variety show for the kids. They’ll love it, and the adults will develop new friendships. The key is to start well in advance.

TIP: Designate a kid-friendly theme for the show. 

8. Movie night
Show a movie in your school cafeteria. Invite students to wear pajamas and bring a pillow and blanket. Rent or borrow a popcorn machine to provide free popcorn, or sell concessions at low prices to cover expenses. For something different, try working with a local cinema to rent out one of the screens to watch a first-run movie together as a school community.

TIP: Make sure you test audiovisual equipment ahead of time.

Free Family Movie Night planning kit
Printable Movie Night Tickets

Parents-Only Events

Increasingly, PTOs are organizing events just for grown-ups. These events provide great opportunities for parents to socialize and learn more about their school’s parent organization, which is good for membership. Consider low- or no-cost venues to make attending more affordable.

9. Wine and cheese reception
Invite parents to an evening social of wine and cheese so they can get to know each other and learn more about what’s happening for the school year as well as the different ways to volunteer. Consider hosting a speaker with expertise on a topic that will appeal to parents.

TIP: Host the event in the school library where acoustics are better for listening to speakers.

Wine Night Flyer

10. “Night in” for parents
A casual get-together at someone’s home is an easy, inexpensive way for members to get to know each other. Consider having a potluck to take the pressure off the host.

TIP: Provide some written questions as icebreakers to keep the conversation flowing.

Printable conversation-starters

11. Social painting or art event
Partner with a local “painting” studio or other venue where participants create art while socializing. Many people feel more comfortable getting to know each other through an activity.

TIP: Ask parents to RSVP to the venue in a timely way so they can be seated together.

12. Parent social at a local restaurant
Similar to the paint night event, consider partnering with a local restaurant for a parents’ night out at a discount, if possible. Choose a restaurant with plenty of space or a separate area for large-group seating.

TIP: To help parents mingle, ask them to include the names and grades of their children on name tags.

Back to Nature

Bringing families together to interact with nature can foster a sense of belonging and promote physical activity.

13. Group hike
Choose an accessible park with easy hiking trails, and invite families to explore together. Talk about other family-friendly parks and trails in the area that people may not know about. Bring along low-cost snacks to share after the hike.

TIP: Be sure to have a first aid kit on hand.

14. Go fishing
Partner with your parks department or other local agency to host a family fishing event at a lake. Look into whether it’s possible to reserve a dock for a specified time frame. Invite families to participate in a catch-and-release session that includes tips on fishing and safety around water, or turn it into a larger-scale tournament contest. Offer prizes for the smallest, largest, ugliest, and most fish caught. Have business partners donate or loan fishing rods, bait, snacks, and special prizes.

TIP: For hiking and fishing activities, remind parents that they’re required to accompany kids.

15. Family mini “campout”
This activity isn’t a real campout, but families will have fun. Reserve a local park’s picnic shelter for an evening that includes a “bring-your-own” picnic dinner and outdoor activities. Supply charcoal and ensure grill access for burgers and hot dogs. Plan activities to engage families, such as a nature scavenger hunt or hike, a game of capture the flag, or constellation-viewing in the night sky. Round out the evening with a campfire, s’mores, and an old-fashioned sing-along. Perhaps you have a talented parent who could read a ghost story!

TIP: Have a plan in case of bad weather. Also, make sure families know you’re not really camping.

16. Harvest trip to a pumpkin patch
Invite families to take a trip to a local pumpkin patch to choose carving pumpkins for Halloween. Find out if the farm offers hayrides and orchard apples for purchase, and let families know in advance to bring along some cash for incidentals.

TIP: Remind families to wear boots in case of muddy fields.