Editor’s note: These ideas can be adapted to fit your school, local, and state social distancing guidelines.
Reading Under the Stars
In May, students at Park Elementary in Holbrook, Ariz., gather for an event that’s part picnic, part carnival, and all about reading. The annual “Reading Under the Stars” evening is held on the school playground. Students and families enjoy hot dogs, visits from book characters, a song from the the school’s primary choir, and “celebrity” readings. Parent volunteers and teachers team up with community leaders, including local police officers, firemen, the mayor, forest rangers, business owners, high school athletes, and a featured local author, to read with students. When the evening ends, each child heads home with a bag of books.
While the event is lots of fun, it also gets kids excited about reading at an important time of year. “This is an opportunity to stimulate literacy within the home prior to summer vacation,” says Park Elementary principal Connie McPherson.
For your own Reading Under the Stars event, consider teaming up with your reading specialist or librarian to choose books by local authors or incorporate books that highlight units being covered by classroom teachers. Vary the types of books; include a mystery, something about sports, a fantasy book, etc. Seek book donations from local bookstores or your book fair provider to create book bags to send home with students. Find fun places to read: on the bus, under a playground slide, at a local pond. Ask high school students to dress up as book characters or run stations highlighting specific books.
Garden Planting Party
Many schools have incorporated a garden into the curriculum. A school garden can provide plenty of teaching opportunities as well as help stress the importance of nutrition and healthier food choices. W.G. Pearson Middle School in Durham, N.C., holds a planting party to kick off the growing season. Families plant vegetables and herbs in the garden’s raised beds. At the Colonial School District in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., students and parents join with school staffers, board of education members, and the local community to plant everything from tomatoes to poblano peppers to sage in the district’s garden.
Grab your boots, roll up your sleeves, and plan a planting party at your school. Get creative by planning an Alphabet Garden—a vegetable garden organized by letter—or a book garden featuring flowers that play a prominent role in children’s literature. Remind parents that kids are going to get dirty so they shouldn’t wear their best clothes. Have plenty of shovels on hand for planters.
Before guests arrive, clear out any wasps’ nests, poison ivy, or other hazards from where volunteers will be working. Have plenty of bug spray on hand. Ask a local greenhouse or farm to donate plants, and send each participant home with a small plant or flower to start their own garden. Don’t let families leave without signing up to help maintain the garden by weeding and watering during the summer.
School Cleanup Day
Norte Vista High School in Riverside, Calif., hit the target for a high school activity that attracts both kids and parents when it planned Spruce Up the School Day. More than 200 volunteers—students, alumni, staff members, parents, and community members—weeded, cleaned, raked, and planted. Some even scraped gum off steps and sidewalks.
At Bells Elementary in Turnersville, N.J., families participated in a cleanup day and even donated flowers to be planted on the grounds. Camino Pablo Elementary in Moraga, Calif., enticed volunteers with doughnuts, juice, water, and coffee as well as a raffle for gift certificates to Subway, Starbucks, and other nearby businesses.
Before your school cleanup day, contact a local rental company to secure donations of wheelbarrows, rakes, a leaf blower, and hedge trimmers. Encourage families to bring their own, as well. Seek donations from a local grower if you’re planting spring bulbs or new shrubbery on your school grounds. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished so that when families arrive, they can easily get started without having to find the person in charge. Find out in advance how to dispose of yard clippings and tree branches because most sanitation companies won’t take them.
Offering doughnuts or muffins is a nice gesture, and coffee is a must. Local restaurant coupons and movie rental passes make good incentives to attract families. School cleanup day can be a great way to get dads and older students involved, too.
Earth Day takes place on April 22 each year, and it offers a wealth of possible tie-ins. Students in Alexandria, Va., where the city sponsors an annual Earth Day festival, take part in a variety of activities. For instance, they participate in a Jeopardy-style game show; make crafts from paper towel holders and egg cartons in the shape of bugs, signs, and cars; plant trees; and decorate reusable canvas grocery bags.
The St. Ann School in Quincy, Mass. (now part of Quincy Catholic Academy) has held an environmental festival for students and families in the school gymnasium. Local nonprofit groups and school performers offer hands-on learning activities such as creating a tornado in a bottle, making pinwheels, and learning about tidal pools. Information booths are also set up to provide parents with tips on topics including recycling, all-natural cleaning, and organic landscaping.
Earth Day is a good time to promote the Environmental Protection Agency’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” theme. Set up a few exchange tables for a book or sports equipment/sports shoe exchange. Collect old towels, blankets, and newspapers for local animal shelters, or hold a recycling drive for plastic, glass, and aluminum to make a few dollars for your school. Have a craft night where families make art projects out of found objects.
There’s no better way to kick off the summer than with a school swim party. The Hans Herr Elementary PTO in Lampeter, Pa., holds an annual swim party at the local YMCA. Parents and students are welcome, and start times are staggered to accommodate all grade levels.
Some schools are fortunate enough to have their own pool or use a pool at a school nearby. Others use a community or hotel pool. If your location isn’t large enough for your entire group, you might assign every hour to a different grade level. Inviting a DJ to provide activities for students when they aren’t swimming keeps everyone engaged. Consider offering food such as pizza, chips, ice cream, and drinks. Remind swimmers to bring their own towels and sunscreen. Add an element of fun by having a cannonball competition among teachers and office or kitchen staff members. Offer gift certificates for local restaurants, bookstores, or family activities as raffle prizes.
Outdoor Movie Night
Reading isn’t the only thing you can do under the stars at school. With today’s technology, you can also host a movie night. The Meadow View School in Eugene, Ore., took advantage of a popular movie release to hold its first-ever movie night. The event was so popular that they already have another movie night on the calendar. The Meadow View PTO gave away free popcorn and drinks to encourage attendance. (PTO Today offers a free Family Movie Night planning kit.)
Get kids excited by having them choose the movie. Offer three choices, then have kids vote for their favorite. Moviegoers can bring blankets or lawn chairs, and kids can wear their pajamas. Encourage guests to wear bug spray because being close to the ground may stir up a few mosquitoes. Set up a concession stand with popcorn (of course!) as well as drinks and boxes of candy. Other choices you might consider for concessions are nachos, hot dogs, or ice-cream bars. Inexpensive glow necklaces and bracelets sell well, too!
Key Planning Tips for Spring Events
Consider schedule conflicts. A lot of activities begin in spring. When scheduling an event, check with other schools and community organizations in your area—you don’t want to hold your spring event on the soccer team’s tournament weekend.
Be mindful of the weather. Springtime is unpredictable, so have a plan B in case the weather changes. Can you move the event indoors or schedule a rain date? If you’re planning an outdoor movie night, let families know you’ll move inside or reschedule to another date.
Make sure you have enough volunteers. This is key to all event planning, but particularly for large-scale spring events like carnivals or festivals. Ask room parents or teachers to help recruit volunteers, and ask groups in your community to pitch in, if needed. If the event will take place in more than one room or outdoor area, create a map to help volunteers and families find their way around and hand it out as families arrive.
Be tech-prepared. Arrange for outdoor electrical and audiovisual needs with school personnel in advance of your event. Check your audiovisual setup before families arrive so you don’t have to fix issues in front of an audience.
Dress for changing temps. Spring evenings are generally much cooler than the days. Encourage attendees to layer clothing or bring a jacket.
Find a clean, safe space. For safety reasons, hold your event in a well-lit area that’s free of potential outdoor hazards like poison ivy, bees, standing water, etc.
Encourage sun safety. If your activity is during the day, encourage attendees to bring their own sunscreen.
Plan for photos! Taking photos can really help generate interest in your events, and spring can be a great time to do so. Check our helpful tips on taking photos that pop.
Know the rules and policies. If you want to have activities like bounce houses or dunk tanks, check your school district’s rules and your group’s insurance policy. Some districts have banned inflatables, and some outdoor amusements may not be covered under your insurance policy. (Have questions about what events are covered with our parent group insurance? Check our insurance page for information.)
Originally posted in 2011 and updated regularly.