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Fun family nights are a great way to build involvement. Get started with these ideas and tips for success.

by Evelyn Beck


Last year's most successful PTO event at Timnath Elementary School in Timnath, Colo., netted $25. And no, there aren't any zeros missing from that number. With free admission, more than 500 children and parents packed the gym for a 1970s-themed fall family night, where a DJ taught participants to do the hustle and led them in the hokey-pokey. Families garbed themselves in beads, tie-dyed bandannas, and temporary peace sign tattoos—all available for a very affordable quarter or 50 cents.

"It could easily have been a fundraiser, but we figured parents do fundraisers all year long. This is purely for fun," says PTO president Heather Binder. "We wanted to show parents that the PTO is not just fundraising." This year, Timnath held a luau in the fall (with the limbo on the dance floor and leis for sale) and is adding a similar event in the spring due to the great response.

Timnath's family night, like many such activities at schools around the country, was not undertaken for financial profit. Instead, the purpose was to bring families together at the school. And that, many agree, is the most important job of any parent group. Parent involvement improves student perofmance and behavior and makes schools better. That's the conclusion of "A New Wave of Evidence," a 2002 report from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, that reviewed 200 studies. Family nights have an added benefit for PTOs. Parents who enjoy themselves at these events are more likely to take interest in the PTO and become more active. Family events are the seeds from which active volunteers and even tomorrow's PTO leaders are grown.

More inclusion leads to better involvement; we’ll help you get started

Building Community

The New Wave report emphasizes contact among parents as well as with teachers, school staff, and the community. That parent-to-parent interaction is a big draw at Brentwood Middle School in Brentwood, Tenn., which hosts an annual family night tailgate party before a fall home football game. In a cafeteria festooned with school colors, families gather for a barbecue dinner, with tickets sold at $4 or $5 to cover costs. The event, attended by as many as 500, is a way to boost game attendance and encourage families to get better acquainted. "The kids sit with their friends at the game, and the parents sit together," says PTO president Susan Graham. "It gives parents an opportunity to visit with each other."

In Phoenix, N.Y., Emerson J. Dillon Middle School's Family Quality Time Night also allows parents to mingle. "Parents get a chance to chat with other parents they usually just see in passing as they drop off or pick up or at a teacher conference," says PTO copresident Connie Deshaies. "Sometimes they just want to ask a question, but it's not a big enough issue to call and request a meeting."

The Dillon event blends fun for kids with important information for parents. Under the watchful eye of students from area high schools and colleges, along with some parents, Dillon students compete in volleyball and basketball in the gym, work out in the weight room, play laser tag in the dark in another room, and sing karaoke in the cafeteria, where hot dogs, pizza, and drinks are available for sale. Meanwhile, the rest of the parents receive information on helping their children make smart choices about alcohol and drugs. Parents talk to county health educators, representatives from Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), and DARE officers, who bring along goggles that simulate alcohol intoxication. The PTO, which charges $2 or $3 per person up to a maximum of $10 per family, is also thinking about expanding the event this year by offering information about college funding.

A Friday afternoon picnic draws families to the school each spring at Patrick Copeland Elementary School in Hopewell, Va. Parents eat hot dogs in the cafeteria with their children, who play games and enjoy free popsicles and cotton candy. Last year about 300 people attended, according to PTO president Sherri McGrath.

A trip to the county fair was the theme of the fall family night at Oak Trace Elementary School in Westfield, Ind., complete with contests to bake the best pie and build the best roller coaster out of recycled materials. More than 400 people attended last year, a success PTO president Nancy Schmitz attributes to the fact that it's a casual, nonthreatening way to be involved.

Kiva Elementary School in Paradise Valley, Ariz., kicks off the school year with a luau. There are teriyaki chicken and beef bought at a discount from one parent who owns a restaurant, soda from another parent who's a distributor, and music from another parent who's a disc jockey for a local radio station. "It's a great time to see one another again at the beginning of the year and to meet new friends," says Janet Zbojniewicz, PTO copresident.

For some schools, family nights are a focus all year long. At the Loleta School in Loleta, Calif., some type of family night activity is held every other month, ranging from ice cream socials to a talent show to a focus on art projects. A PBS Family Fun Night centers on activities from PBS programs such as Arthur and Zoom. And a winter celebration in December featured booths about holidays around the world and a canned food drive for the needy, then culminated with a spaghetti dinner. "We want to get kids and parents interacting as a family, to get them out of the house and into the community, to help kids see there's more to do than sitting at home watching TV," says PTO copresident Stefanie Humphrey.

Engaging Families in Student Learning

The New Wave study also recommends curriculum-related family gatherings to engage family members in student learning. It suggests demonstrating an activity for parents, then having them role-play the parts. It advises, Engage parents and students in math and reading games at Family Nights. Explain where students skills need to be stronger. Use scoring guides in such projects as making kites to let parents know what a scoring guide is and how to use it.

Plenty of schools have followed this advice. At family science night at DeMello School in Dartmouth, Mass., families build tiny cannons, boats made out of straw, and bridges whose strength is tested by piling pennies on top. Math family night at Douglas MacArthur Elementary in Waltham, Mass., is set up so kids and their parents move from station to station to solve problems together, such as a puzzle of different triangles that fit together only one way to make a large square. The family reading night at Rossman Elementary in Hartford, Wis., features children reading aloud from their own writing to their parents and younger children, bingo, bookmark-making, and a demonstration of how to make pop-up books. At Pontiac Elementary in Elgin, S.C., activities range from reading corners to tracking how many times a roll of the dice adds up to four to calculating prices of candy.

Alternatives to Parent Volunteers

One drawback of any event, even one held purely for pleasure, is the need for volunteers. MacArthur Elementary eliminated this problem at its game night by having families bring the games and their own snacks. The event was free, so there were no tickets to sell or money to collect. There were checkers and chess tournaments, as well as bingo, with a $10 gift certificate to the book fair awarded as a prize.

Seward Elementary in Seward, Ill., recruited high school volunteers to serve ice cream sundaes at its family sock hop. The PTO volunteers helped put things together but could relax at the event, says PTO president Dixie Mumm. "Parents volunteer for open house and different things. We thought, if this is family night, we need to stay focused on keeping families together."

Teachers provide the manpower at family nights at DeMello School. They make up the flyers inviting families to make birdhouses and they set up the tables. On family movie night, teachers rent the movies and supply popcorn; dads bring their children in pajamas and settle them on the floor with pillows while moms finish last-minute Christmas shopping. "It's strictly for families to enjoy," says PTO president Maria Carreiro.


Getting the word out about family nights is vital for good turnout. Brentwood Middle School has advertised its family activities in the usual ways, including a newsletter sent home to parents and posters in the school. The school is also fortunate in that the local paper has a daily section highlighting that day's events at every school in the area. But its biggest success has come by including a blurb in the weekly progress reports that teachers email to parents.

Promotional materials should make clear not only what the purpose of the family night is but also what it's not. "We emphasize that it's not a fundraiser," says Brentwood's Graham about the tailgate party. "Parents wouldn't be as likely to come if we charged $10 for dinner rather than $5."

Cost was a concern for Wildlife Family Night at Ledge Street School, too. The popular event, which features exotic birds, snakes, and monkeys used in comedy sketches, is offered by a company called Understanding Wildlife that sponsors a no-charge assembly during the school day in exchange for a ticketed event during the evening. Though prices were $3 per child and $6 per adult, 300 people came. That's because the PTO used the money it had budgeted for an assembly and bought 100 individual tickets as well as four family packs, all of which were raffled off for free. The PTO, which also holds a low-cost ice cream social and a pizza night, has set a goal this year to offer more family activities at no cost. "We're an inner-city school, and it's difficult to bring parents in, especially if we charge for an event," says Frothingham.

While participation in family nights can be a way to encourage involvement in other PTO activities, most agree that the focus should remain on having a good time. "Be sure to advertise that it's just a night for people to have fun," says Geri Nederhoff, PTO copresident at MacArthur Elementary. "People get burned out being asked to volunteer or donate. Tell them to just come and have fun."

Family Nights Made Easy

Family nights should play a key role in your year's activities. PTO Today feels so strongly about this that we have put together several free School Family Night kits, and we'll be adding new ones. Each kit provides complete content information and detailed instructions, as well as professional marketing materials to help you promote the event. Visit our School Family Nights website or call us at 800-644-3561.


# Rose 2009-09-08 22:37
We tried Family Fun Night. One this past May, which only 10 families attened out of 320 families. The next one was the first Friday night school was back in session with only 2 families showing up. While everyone I talked to say it's a great idea, we have problems with families coming to the event. In May, I was told to nice of an evening. This last one there was a big high school football opener. So, I am trying to get the word out and requesting families to RSVP. Parents have told me they think more will attend when weather is not so nice outside and less to do in the cooler months. I hope they are right!
# Lisa @ PTO Today 2009-09-09 14:14
Hi Rose- Sorry to hear you didn't get the attendance. Timing can be key. Getting the word out to kids and parents and giving people enough notice is important. Also, we hear from folks who have huge attendance numbers and multiple family nights that using theme suggestions in the kits also help boost attendance. Best of Luck!
~ Lisa
# Barbara 2012-03-30 22:11
Hi, My name is Barbara.I am starting a "PTO" in Columbus Ohio at Imagine Interity Academy.I was wondering if you could give me some helpful advice to build a strong PTO? I thank you very much.

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