At many schools, carnivals are more than well-attended family events. They’re beloved traditions. One reason so many schools hold carnivals is that they can be easily customized to suit a particular community, becoming as simple or as over-the-top as people want.
Pulling off a successful carnival can be a big job, but you can make the event manageable by tackling the planning one step at a time. The reward for all your hard work is when you see kids, parents, and teachers having a blast. Here are the steps for a winning carnival.
Assemble a committee. A carnival has a lot of different elements that need to be in sync. Look for creative, enthusiastic parents who are not already bogged down with other commitments. Recruit volunteer leaders to head up food, games, and logistics.
Decide on your goal. Carnivals are often fundraisers, but sometimes the goal is just to provide a fun event for the school community. Some carnivals are offered as a safe alternative to trick-or-treating. Make sure everyone involved in planning the carnival is on board with your parent group’s goal.
Talk about a theme. Harvest festival and Halloween are good fall themes. In spring, think about a luau or barbecue. An international theme offering food and activities from a variety of cultures is a hit at many schools. And there’s nothing wrong with sticking with tradition: The Fort Belvoir (Va.) Elementary PTO chose a traditional carnival with games, a cakewalk, an obstacle course, a bounce house, fingernail painting, and a photo booth.
Choose your location. Will your event be indoors, outdoors, or both? If the event is held outdoors, work out a contingency plan in case of bad weather. Make creative use of space. Fort Belvoir’s carnival is held indoors, with each game staged in a hallway. That way, everyone isn’t crowded into the cafeteria or gym. At Gullett Elementary in Austin, Texas, organizers placed activities outdoors, using playground structures for a fortune-telling booth and for part of a maze.
Set the date and time. Think about weather and other commitments families have, especially youth sports. If your community is into college football, make sure your fall carnival doesn’t conflict with a big game. When you have a date in mind, check your town and school district websites for scheduling conflicts. Set a start and end time.
Apply for permits. Check with local government offices to find out whether any permits will be required for your carnival. Many cities require permits for rides or inflatables, outdoor use of electricity, and food preparation and sales. Liability insurance is often a requirement for obtaining a permit. Permit applications may be due 90 days or more before an event, so it’s important to find out your community’s rules early in the planning process.
Check on insurance coverage. If your parent group is insured, find out whether the policy covers carnivals. If your group is covered under a school insurance policy, ask whether a binder is needed to cover the carnival. Be sure to ask about coverage for carnival rides and inflatables like bounce houses; these often carry greater risk. For a fee, some carnival attraction rental companies will name customers as an “additional insured” on their policy.
Nail down your budget. This will drive your big decisions. Many parent groups have put on wonderful, well-attended carnivals with tight budgets. With a bigger budget, you may be able to afford rides, more elaborate games, and additional food options.
Whatever the size of your budget, look into ways to cut event costs. Common cost-saving strategies include borrowing homemade carnival games from another school or asking parents to make and donate them. Some parent groups defray costs with business sponsorships or donations. The Carmel Elementary PTA in Woodstock, Ga., kept its budget in check by obtaining thousands of dollars in donated goods, including wristbands provided by a tae kwon do studio. Many of the items were used for raffle gift baskets, says president Gary Parkes, who began seeking donations for the fall 2010 carnival in April. If your group gets support from businesses, be sure to publicly acknowledge them with a sign or banner posted at the carnival.
Staff your carnival. You’ll need plenty of volunteers to run your event. Keep in mind that parents, especially those with younger kids, will want to participate in the carnival with their children. Those parents may be limited to helping with event setup or cleanup. Some parent groups find teachers willing to help, and others don’t want to pressure their already stretched-thin faculty. Older students can be a great resource—at Fort Belvoir, high school football players in their team uniforms manned the booths, and the kids loved it! Some groups have arranged volunteer exchanges with other schools so that parents can join in the fun and games at their own child’s school. Other potential volunteer sources include scout troops, community organizations, and church groups.
Have some volunteers designated as runners, who can get more prizes for booths or retrieve a first aid kit if needed. If possible, provide walkie-talkies for the runners to use to stay in communication with the event chair.
It's also a good idea to have key volunteers wear matching shirts or aprons, or to identify them with name tags. That can make it easier for parents to know who to turn to when they have questions or need help.
Talk about food. With many of the logistics in place, you can start talking about everyone’s favorite subject: food. The first step is to consult your local health department to find out what rules you’ll have to follow to prepare and serve food. You can hire a company to provide carnival classics like hot dogs and cotton candy, or rent equipment and have volunteers make them. Although you’ll save on labor costs by using volunteers, equipment rental fees can vary widely, so run the numbers before deciding. If regulations allow, another option is to recruit parents to make crowd-pleasing dishes such as spaghetti or lasagna. Don’t forget to include drinks and desserts, which local businesses are often willing to donate.
When deciding how much food to prepare, consider a best-case scenario for attendance and assume everyone will arrive hungry. Then prepare enough food for a crowd of that size plus 10 percent. Once you have a few years of data from previous carnivals, you’ll have a better idea of how much food to make or buy. If you work with local restaurants, see whether they can accommodate last-minute orders of pizza or chicken should you run out.
Play games. Interactive games are one of the hallmarks of a carnival. They can also cause anxiety among parents who fear kids will reject homemade games. Test-market new games on your children, and don’t be surprised if they’re just as happy throwing a ball in a hoop as playing an active video game. Standard go-to games include a cakewalk, a ring toss, and a fishing activity. Fort Belvoir carnival organizer Jamie Marshall makes sure to check out games whenever she goes to an amusement park to see what she can adapt for the school’s carnival.
Plan other activities. Beyond games, carnivals often feature pony rides, face painting, hayrides, and even amusement rides like a small Ferris wheel. Musical performances by students or local bands are a good way to draw a crowd. Contests such as a bake-off or a chili cook-off are also popular.
Make a map. If your carnival will take place in more than one room or outdoor area, you'll find it helpful to have a map showing the location of each activity. Draw a map by hand or use simple shapes to sketch one on a computer, and make plenty of copies. A map is especially helpful if your carnival will have multiple volunteer shifts, with parents arriving to help out after the carnival has already begun. As new volunteers arrive, a map can help them find their way through the crowd and to their post more quickly.
Figure out prizes. Kids like prizes. It doesn’t seem to matter what the prizes are; they can be small and inexpensive. One year, the Fort Belvoir PTO tried a punch card that allowed participants to claim a big prize at the end of the day. Another year, they gave children a bag of trinkets as they exited. They found that kids would rather get a little prize after playing each game. Order enough to allow each child to win a prize at each game, plus at least 20 percent more. Extra prizes can be saved and used the next year, so it’s better to have too many than to risk running out.
If kids will move freely between games with prizes and activities like bounce houses, think of a way for kids to keep track of their trinkets. You might ask families to bring a small bag from home or ask a local business, like a dentist or an insurance agency, to donate plastic bags printed with an advertisement for their business. Kids can keep their small prizes and pieces of candy in the bag as they move through the carnival, and parents can easily hold the bags while kids try out the rock climbing wall or rope ladder.
Here are some other methods for handling prizes at carnivals:
One Prize. Instead of giving small prizes at each game, give students a “passport” that is stamped at each station. Students bring the filled passport to the treasure box, where they can choose a single, higher-value prize.
Prize Table. Volunteers running each game give students a ticket after they play. Students collect tickets throughout the event, then redeem them at a prize table. (If your parent group sells tickets that are used to play games, use two different colors of tickets, one for playing games and one for earning prizes.)
Goodies to Go. Fill goodie bags with assorted carnival prizes and hand a bag to each student as they leave the event.
Think (hard) about money. Your goal is to have as few people handling cash as possible to reduce the risk of mismanagement and theft. One way to keep money in a safe, central location is to sell tickets or tokens at the door and have participants redeem them for food or activities. Another approach is to charge a flat fee for admission and give each participant a wristband that covers all food and activities.
If your goal is to raise money, tickets may be more profitable since you can charge a higher price for more elaborate and popular activities. If your community is value-minded, parents may welcome the wristband. At Carmel Elementary, the PTA had both: Wristbands were sold for $20 each with a $3 discount for siblings, and tickets went for 50 cents each. That way, parents and children had options. Still, some parents lamented that $20 was steep, says Parkes.
Setting prices is a challenge, especially if it’s the first year for your event. The delicate balance is to price your carnival high enough to cover expenses while taking care not to price families out. The less money you spend, the less you’ll need to charge. It’s a good idea to send out surveys asking parents how much they can afford to spend at the event. For a baseline, estimate how many kids will attend and how many activities each will do. Determine the per-child price needed to cover expenses.
The common thread among successful carnivals and festivals is a keen understanding of what the school community wants. With that knowledge, your parent group will put on an event that students will talk about until next year...when you do it all over again.
School Carnival Activities Kids Love
Photo booth: If the price to rent a photo booth is too steep, make your own with sheets of fabric, a digital camera, and a photo printer. Provide fun props like silly glasses, colored wigs, and felt mustaches. For added fun, let participants post their photos on card stock and decorate them with glitter and other craft supplies.
Group art project: Help students make handprints on a bedsheet using several colors of washable paint. Provide markers for kids to sign their name next to their handprint. After the carnival, display the artwork in the front entrance of the school.
Toy swap: Ask children to bring a toy they don’t use anymore. Each child receives a voucher for the toy. At a designated time, announce that kids can redeem their vouchers for a different toy.
Dance fever: Designate one room as the dance hall. You can let kids bust a groove to popular music or give quick lessons on crowd favorites like the chicken dance, basic square dance steps, or line dances.
Find more crowd-pleasing games and ideas in “Classic School Carnival Activities.” For more tips on planning your school carnival, download our Complete Guide to Planning a School Carnival for PTOs and PTAs.
Originally posted in 2011 and updated regularly.