9 PTO Events Families Will Love


Special ideas and tips for successful family nights, school parties, enrichment ideas, and more, shared by PTOs and PTAs across the country.

by Patty Catalano


Was your PTO’s fall hoedown just ho-hum? Did last year’s spring fling lack zing? If it’s been a while since you’ve wowed parents and students at your family events, it might be time to experiment with a new one. You might celebrate your school community with a party, or get kids pumped up with a family night tailored to their interests. Or you could really get things moving with a focus on fitness. Here are some ideas and tips guaranteed to make your next family event anything but ordinary.

Score Big With a Tailgating Party

Eastern Greenbrier Middle School PTO in Ronceverte, W.V., hosted a tailgate party before the first home football game in September. In the weeks leading up to the event, leaders secured corporate donations for much of the supplies, including buns, hot dogs, cookies, bottled water, soda, chili, and even plates. They also ordered T-shirts, spirit clappers, and beaded necklaces in the school’s colors.

Parent volunteers greeted the crowd of 500 as they entered; others manned the grilling stations. Leaders set up several tents where families could purchase spirit items as well as food and beverages. A separate staging area offered tattoos and face painting for fans. Before the game started, the school’s marching band and cheerleaders performed for the crowd. During halftime, all fall athletes were recognized. Best of all, says parent volunteer Trish Bragg, “the stadium was full of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and lots of people within the community that had no ties to the school.”

PLANNING TIP: Get a fall sports schedule from the school’s athletic department well in advance so you can plan your event over the summer months.

Take Them out of This World

What kid wouldn’t get excited about astronauts and hovercrafts? The Cash Elementary PTA in Kernersville, N.C., held a Space Night with items borrowed from NASA and Lockheed Martin. Months before the scheduled event, parent group leader Paula Hurley entered the school’s name in a drawing and won a chance to have a poster with students’ signatures flown on a space shuttle. The poster and a certificate of flight were displayed at the Space Night event. A volunteer dressed as an astronaut, which was a big hit with students.

Throughout the evening, students at different grade levels completed a series of “space mission” activities for prizes. NASA donated temporary tattoos and photographs and sent a representative to speak about space. Kids dressed up as aliens, and menu items were given far-out names, like pizza topped with “craters” (pepperoni). PTA leaders also booked a science enrichment program that brought in a hovercraft.

PLANNING TIP: To have the school’s or students’ names included on a microchip on the Mars Science Laboratory rover heading to Mars in 2011, visit http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl.

Rev Up Their Engines

The Cash Elementary PTA also received some high-octane help from the Bowman Gray Stadium raceway in nearby Winston-Salem, securing two vehicles for their NASCAR Family Fun Night. “We had real Hoosier racing tires the kids had to race by rolling them,” Hurley says. The event also featured remote control cars racing around cones, plus an inflatable slide so big that it knocked out the ceiling tiles in the auditorium. Families enjoyed games, racing-theme arts and crafts, and temporary tattoos. In one activity, attendees guessed how many lug nuts filled a giant bottle. The PTA offered a slew of prizes throughout the day, including gift baskets donated by NASCAR.

PLANNING TIP: If there’s no speedway in your area, contact a local sports car dealership to loan a show car for your event. Additionally, a junkyard can help out with tires or even a clunker for families to “decorate.”

Throw a Birthday Party for Your School

If your school is celebrating a milestone birthday, mark the date with a family bash. One PTO celebrating its school’s 40th birthday is planning a dance party on a Saturday afternoon with a 1970s theme. Leaders will offer games for all ages set up in the gym and will serve birthday cake and other refreshments. Students and faculty will also play in a volleyball game; if the students win, they’ll receive a week’s worth of dress-down passes. If the faculty members win, the students will serve them lunch. Prizes will be awarded for best ’70s outfit and best ’70s dancer.

PLANNING TIP: Try to locate yearbooks or newspaper clippings from the school’s early days and display them at the birthday event.

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Have a Parent-Child “Date Night”

Create an opportunity for some one-on-one bonding between parent and child, such as a fashion show, a mini-golf tournament, or a minor league baseball game. At the Mother-Daughter Spa Night held by the Holy Trinity School in Bucyrus, Ohio, attendees were treated to fancy finger foods, desserts, and hand treatments. “Then there were stations of homemade bath salts, fingernail polishing and nail decals, toothbrushing with different flavored toothpastes, and then some other types of girly crafts,” family night chairwoman Jill Burling says. A PTO at another school hired a motivational speaker and held a talent show featuring mother and daughter acts. Performers did skits, sang, danced, and read poems.

PLANNING TIP: Many groups now opt to call these events Guys and Dolls Night, Me and My Guy, She and Me, etc., to encourage students to come with other relatives or family friends if a parent can’t attend.

Celebrate a Holiday

The Holy Trinity School marked a religious feast in December by celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe Night. “Our priest is from Mexico and I thought it would be neat for the students to experience some of his culture,” explains Burling. “We had a Mexican-themed potluck, watched a cartoon version of the [Our Lady of Guadalupe] story, and made maracas and paper flowers.” Each family brought a dish to share, as did the priest, who brought a dip made of cactus along with pork rinds. The meal also included tacos, enchiladas, bean dip, salsa, and chips. “To end the evening,” Burling says, “we had piñatas filled with candy and holy cards and medals.”

PLANNING TIP: Select a holiday or historical observance of interest to the school community. Talk with teachers to see whether they would like an event tied to a country that students are learning about or an important date in your state’s history.

Dive Right In

PTO leaders at Garfield Elementary in Loveland, Colo., have a great way to get families’ feet wet with the group. They rent the swimming pool at an area high school for two hours on a Saturday afternoon. Admission to the swim day is free, but students must be accompanied by an adult. The PTO also offers healthy snacks like popcorn, granola bars, and juice. “We don’t make money on it, but everyone loves it,” says parent volunteer Lori Hvizda Ward. Attendance is restricted to families whose children attend the school.

PLANNING TIP: If your town does not have a public pool, organize a field trip for families to a water park or beach.

Make It Wet and Wacky

If going to a swimming pool or water park is not an option, consider a family event with water games. The Cash Elementary PTA held a Wacky Water Day for students during the school day, but the event can also make for one wonderfully wet and wild family fun day, too. The event featured two inflatable devices, including a giant slide that leaders rented from a recreational supplies vendor. Operating under a no-standing-water ordinance, leaders improvised several water relays among teams of students. The PTA arranged for donations of hoses and buckets and lined up parent volunteers who kept the day’s activities running smoothly. Parents also helped by manning the bucket-filling stations as needed. Chilled watermelon helped kids cool down on the hot day.The highlight of Wacky Water Day: watching the school’s principal ride down the inflatable slide in a chicken costume.

PLANNING TIP: Be sure volunteers and participants have access to shade stations and lots of drinking water, especially if your event is held on a particularly hot day.

Combine Fun and Fitness

One parent group in northern Michigan fights the winter doldrums with a Winter Family Fun and Fitness Night. Past activities have included sledding, snowshoeing, indoor activities such as jump rope and basketball, and an indoor climbing wall. At last year’s event, leaders of a Hula-Hoop exercise class taught attendees how to use the hoops to get fit.

PLANNING TIP: Have students sign up in advance; allow them a minute each to showcase their athletic abilities, such as gymnastics, karate exercises, or basketball dribbling.

Ways To Get the Wow Factor

Tailor the event to students’ interests and to your community. Are the kids really into racecars or dinosaurs? Would the school community be interested in observing a particular holiday or historic event?

Ask school officials to be involved. Kids love seeing the grownups in their lives in different settings than usual. Ask the principal to join a Hula-Hoop contest, or recruit a few teachers for a relay race.

Have one attraction or activity that students can get really excited about. Kids will be pumped to see something out of the ordinary at school, like a giant inflatable slide or a show car. Let kids and parents know about it before the event.

Keep it active. Offer a variety of activities to appeal to people with different interests. Let families try out a new fitness trend or learn how to do something new.


# Shannon Soares 2012-12-17 15:24
Great article! Thanks for all the fun ideas.
# shellie 2013-02-27 02:12
Wow!!! Great ideas! Thanks so much for sharing. I am planning some family and community events at our local YMCA. I realize these events are intended for school use, would you mind if we borrowed some of your fantastic ideas? Thank you.
Shellie Leeson

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