Are you ready for some football? Or at least a football-theme event that will help get students excited about reading and math and encourage them to exercise, too? If so, you may want to copy a few pages from the playbook of the Durbin Creek Elementary PTO in St. Johns, Fla. Leaders there executed a winning combination of a student pep rally and tailgating event to kick off their school’s Healthy Body, Healthy Mind campaign. The spirited activities took place over two days during fall 2010.

“We chose football because it symbolizes teamwork, and we all know that working together is one of the most important things to learn,” says Durbin Creek PTO copresident Reisha Rust. Rust and former PTO vice president Angie Conlan also found inspiration from the NFL’s Play 60 Back to Football Friday contest. The program encourages kids to be active for an hour a day to help prevent childhood obesity.

On the Monday before the tailgating event, PTO leaders and former school principal Patricia Falaney orchestrated a high-energy pep rally to educate students about the school’s Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math program. Kids, teachers, and parents went all out, wearing everything from cheese-head hats (like those typically seen on Green Bay Packers fans in Wisconsin) to painted faces and vibrantly colored hair. As the high school’s drum line performed, Falaney tore through a banner held by a pair of cheerleaders, inciting the crowd of students to “score touchdowns” through reading and math. A local fitness instructor warmed them up with lively football music, and the PTO distributed classroom fitness kits that they had purchased with help from local business sponsors; each kit contained a football, a kickball, and two jump ropes.

The fun culminated at the Friday night event, dubbed “Tailgating, Durbin Style.” More than 600 people attended the event, which was held at the school from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Admission was $10 per family, and each attendee received a lanyard and a “field pass” entry to the event, which featured a DJ, Zumba dancing, face-painting, and an area with giant oversize tricycles, football relay games, and an obstacle course. Says Rust, “They zigged through a course, did run pumps [throwing drills], jumped rope, then threw the ball through a Hula-Hoop tree.” Families could also meet Jacksonville Jaguars mascot Jaxson de Ville, purchase a barbecue dinner, and watch local middle school cheerleaders perform. As families mingled, wandered, and played, leaders showed an NFL bloopers movie on a huge screen outdoors and also coordinated a book fair in the school’s media center.

Another popular activity among families—and especially Rust’s daughter, Delaney, then in grade 5—was the corn hole game, a kind of bean bag toss. A dad at school built several sets, and a few mom volunteers painted them. “We made five sets,” Rust says, “and at the end of night we auctioned them off.”

Rust isn’t certain which aspect the kids enjoyed most at the tailgating night. “Children loved seeing Jaxson de Ville, and they loved the trikes. But then the boys loved the obstacle course and the younger girls loved the cheerleaders,” she says. One thing she’s sure of: “There was something for everyone!”

Durbin Creek Elementary PTO

St. Johns, Fla.
1,050 students, grades K-5
$80,000 annual budget

Tailgating Night
A football-theme family night, paired with a pep rally that promoted physical fitness and academics

Team win: PTO copresident Reisha Rust says the tailgating night was a success because of Team Durbin, which consisted of 50 volunteers, more than 600 attendees, and 20 local businesses. “Our business partners manned the games that night and had a blast,” she says. A mom at the school offered her services as the event’s Zumba instructor.

Top recruits: Volunteers could sign up for a variety of assignments, including checking in guests, handing out food, timing participants at the obstacle course, handling face-painting and tattoos, helping with the book fair, and directing parking. Others helped run stations such as the giant trikes, football throw, and concessions (glow sticks, spiritwear, etc.).

Spending cap: Rust says the tailgating event cost her group about $2,000. Expenses included hiring the DJ and the NFL mascot, renting inflatables, and purchasing supplies for the obstacle course and a few games.