For years, fun runs have been a staple of school and parent group fundraising that offered the added bonuses of promoting fitness and building school spirit. In recent years, though, PTOs and PTAs have borrowed from trends in recreational running and put new spins on their events, launching color runs, races with obstacle courses, zombie runs, and more. The increased participation has made them even more successful fundraising and community-building events.

When interest in its long-running 5K fell, the Perry Harrison Elementary PTA in Pittsboro, N.C., added an obstacle course to its race five years ago. Students must clear obstacles like hoops and rope webs, as well as a mud pit that many crawl through on their hands and knees.

“It’s so important to be open-minded about new ideas,” says the PTA’s 5K coordinator, Jen Adams. “Our 5K had been going on forever, but it was lackluster and lacking participation.” After adding the obstacle course and making other changes, participation grew from 30 to 300 people.

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Fun runs raise money through registrations, runner sponsorships, or both, so enthusiastic student participation is key to success. Schools can also boost their profits by securing financial donations from corporate and community sponsors. In-kind donations can reduce the costs of organizing the event.

Participants run the length of a course or complete laps around a track. Runners usually receive a T-shirt, a wristband, a runner’s bib or race number, and sometimes small prizes. Music during the event adds to the enjoyment. In addition, simple refreshments like water and fruit are often provided after the run.

We talked with several groups that have added creative twists to their fun runs to see what advice they can share.

Make It Colorful

Color runs are a variation popular with students. In a color run, participants run through clouds of colored powder or have colored liquids sprayed on them.

The Cedar Springs Elementary PTO in House Springs, Mo., had its first “Color Me Fun” run in fall 2016. “Another local school did one in the spring, and it sounded like a unique opportunity,” says PTO treasurer Stephanie Sinclair. About 490 students are enrolled in the K-5 school, and approximately 375 students participated in the color run. The event also included a DJ, food trucks and vendors, and a photographer.

“Even though the company instructions suggested that it be used on grass, we did the color stations on hard surfaces because it was easier for our runners. We had nine liquid color stations and one powdered color station in the parking lot, and once it rained, all the color was gone,” Sinclair explains. “I was concerned about the color dye on clothes, but when I did the laundry all the color came out.”

The PTO charged an entry fee but also extended donation requests far and wide; it asked students to provide addresses for family and friends, then sent out mailers. “Our goal was based on what we profited last year [from a different fundraiser],” Sinclair says. “It looks like we will double that. We had donations coming in from California, Chicago, all kinds of places.”

Add Other Challenges

The Purefoy Elementary PTA in Frisco, Texas, knows that color isn’t the only way to liven up events—instead, its two-day fun run event includes laps and obstacles.

“We’ve hosted a fun run for seven years, but we’ve learned to spice it up,” says fun run chairwoman Sarah Pittman. “At first it was just running laps, then we added water and bubbles, then the last few years we added in obstacles.”

During PE class on a Friday, students run as many laps as they can during a certain time and collect pledges or a flat fee. On Saturday, they tackle the obstacle course.

Purefoy students don’t pay a registration fee. Instead, families create accounts on an online fundraising system and send emails to families and friends. The PTA pays a fee to use the site. The November 2016 event raised $30,000.

The PTA at Perry Harrison Elementary, a preK-5 school with about 650 students, always schedules its fun run and obstacle course the first weekend in May. The obstacle course is only open to kids 18 and younger. Student registration includes the obstacle course and the 5K run.

The run starts at 8 a.m., and the obstacle course begins at 9 a.m. “The obstacle course is a 1-mile course on a trail that goes through woods behind school. Kids wear wristbands and have an hour to run the course as many times as they can,” Adams says. Obstacles include cones, rope ladders, a big slide, and a mud pit.

Adams says organizing the obstacle course is more work than a regular 5K, but the PTA splits the work and proceeds with the PE department. “Our goal is to raise money but also encourage participation of as many students as possible,” she says, “and after adding the obstacle portion it was much easier to get corporate sponsors.”

Go Mad With Zombies

Zombie runs are also a popular variation on fun runs, especially around Halloween. Typically, runners wear three tags, similar to flag football, and try to complete the course before volunteers in zombie costumes can capture all three tags.

Corporate sponsorships played a huge role in the success of the Hyattsville (Md.) Elementary PTA’s first-ever zombie run in fall 2016. The event had 475 runners and raised more than $30,000, including through in-kind donations.

“We felt we were taxing our volunteers by doing events that didn’t give us the funding we needed and decided to go with a larger event and raise a larger amount of money,” says Kevin Blackerby, race director and PTA second vice president.

The Hyattsville PTA wanted a family-friendly event for all ages, so organizers adjusted their run to focus on comical zombies and costumes, not scary ones. Zombies did not chase runners at the event, but many student runners came in ghoulish makeup. “We stressed early on it was fun and not gory or bloody,” Blackerby says.

“Early on we got the city involved, and that legitimized the event. From there, we approached sponsors and offered a benefits matrix with different levels of recognition,” he says. “By the time the event came, we had fundraising done.”

Runners paid a registration fee to participate in a fun run, a 1-mile challenge, or a 5K run. The PTA also offered a chance for donors to sponsor a student by covering the registration fee.

Other schools incorporate the actual chase aspect into their zombie runs. The South Orangetown Middle School PTA in Blauvelt, N.Y., also hosted its first zombie run in fall 2016; the middle school has almost 800 students enrolled, and the race was open to the community. Racers started with three tags and tried to cover the course and go over and under obstacles like hay bales and netting—all while avoiding zombies, who were played by high school honor students. 

Ideas From Our Facebook Community

We have a local radio station bring their music van. Have it end near the playground so little siblings can play while they wait and grades that are done running can play. - Amy H.

Switch it up so laps aren't boring. Have the kids reverse and run/walk in the opposite direction, take a dance break, etc. - Sarah A.

We have a pancake picnic breakfast at the finish line (on our school field) and our local fire department cooks and serves the pancakes. - Kim O.

Also invite your mayor and other "local celebrities" to participate. Even if they aren't runners, you never know who might show up to cheer on the crowd. We also asked some exercise trainers/teachers from a local gym to lead a group warmup before the race. They plugged into the sound system and along with a parent DJ did a really fun warmup. They donated their time and of course we mentioned them as a sponsor. - Kim O.

We had music, local mascots, (and) cheerleaders from the high school next door. Some moms also wore those crazy t-rex costumes and that was a BIG hit. We also had two bubble machines that went over really well. - Nicole H.

Check out Organizing a School Fun Run for more great ideas and information.