Perhaps you’re new to your parent group, and while you’ve heard the words “boohoo” and “yahoo” used in reference to a breakfast, you don’t quite know why. Or maybe you’re an old hand at planning events for your group, but you could use some new ideas.
We’ve broken down some popular events that newer leaders may know about but have never planned as well as offer tips to help any leader—new or experienced—plan an event that shouldn’t be missed.
Did you cry at the thought of your child going off to kindergarten? Or were you just a little bit pleased at the thought of having some time to yourself? “Boohoo/yahoo” breakfasts—so named for kindergarten parents’ typical reactions to their child’s transition into elementary school—are a popular way for parents to bond and connect casually. They’re also a good way to introduce the PTO to parents in a low-key setting. The event is usually held on the first day of school after children report to their classrooms. Planners typically serve muffins, fruit, and other easy-to-assemble foods
Helpful tips: Lots of parents will have younger children in tow, so it can be helpful to provide paper and crayons or simple crafts for kids to allow parents to mingle. As well, though the event is most often a breakfast, you could also consider having a casual early evening event for working parents of kindergartners.
Festival or Carnival
Early fall and spring are typical times for parent groups to hold carnivals, fairs, or festivals. One reason so many schools hold carnivals is that they’re highly attended and can be easily tailored to suit your community—you can go as simple or as over-the-top as you want. Some crowd-pleasers include simple classic carnival activities like a ring toss and hallway bowling as well as face-painting and crafts. Some schools get more elaborate with outside attractions like bouncy inflatables and petting zoos. Getting your principal to participate in a zany stunt like taking a seat in a dunk tank or kissing a pig is a surefire way to gather a crowd.
Helpful tips: It takes a lot of volunteers to run a festival or carnival, and many parents will want to spend time at the event with their children. One option is to recruit volunteers from outside the school to run booths. Some PTOs have recruited volunteers from high school service clubs, arranged a volunteer swap with another school’s parent group, or even had help from employees of the school’s business partners.
Doughnuts With Dad/Muffins With Mom
Breakfast-theme events are a simple and inexpensive way to welcome parents who are new to your school and give them a chance to spend some time with their children during the school day. While the doughnuts and muffins themes are among the easiest to orchestrate, your parent group could serve whatever it wishes (fruit and bagels, for example).
Helpful tips: Instead of holding two events, one for mothers and one for fathers, some parent groups host a single event. And being creative with the timing can help make yours more successful. Students at Mary H. Matula Elementary in La Plata, Md., had school on Columbus Day. But knowing that it was a federal holiday and that many people had the day off, the PTO held a special Doughnuts With Dads event just before the school day started. It drew some 150 fathers—many more than the 10 or 12 that planners were originally expecting
Breakfast With Santa
A popular idea during the holidays is to organize a Breakfast With Santa event. In addition to being an opportunity for family fun, the event provides a service to families who want to have their child’s photo taken with Santa without the hassle of mall lines. Some groups hold a pancake breakfast in the school cafeteria (serving additional items like coffee, sausage, and fruit); when families finish, they line up for a photo. The breakfast can be simpler, along the lines of bagels and juice; generally, groups charge a small fee for the event, the photo, or both.
Helpful tips: This is an event that can be as elaborate or as simple as you choose. For example, you might organize simple crafts or even a small holiday shopping area to take place during the breakfast. But whatever you decide, it’s almost a guarantee that it will get crowded. Make sure you have plenty of volunteers on hand for crowd control, and consider handing numbers to families and calling them up for their photos in groups.
100th Day of School
After the holidays, many schools start anticipating celebrating 100 days of school. The actual date varies, with most schools reaching the 100th day at the end of January or sometime in early or mid-February. There are lots of fun and simple ways to mark the day. Some popular examples include having kids wear shirts with 100 of something on them (like safety pins, buttons, or fuzzy balls), and sending each child home with a small plastic bag to be filled with 100 small items.
Helpful tips: This is one type of event where you can really encourage kids, families, and classrooms to get creative. Enlist a few especially crafty volunteers (and those who enjoy math) to come up with ideas.
Winter is a great time for a family event at school. It can help break up the long season, and a successful event can give your group the boost it needs to keep doing great work for the rest of the year. A popular idea in some areas is to hold an indoor Winterfest at school with different areas or stations for kids and families: Games, crafts, concessions, a book swap, local vendors, a basket raffle, and even musical cakes are some of the many options that can make your Winterfest a great night for everyone.
Helpful tips: With so much to choose from, it’s a good idea to appoint a committee early in the school year to brainstorm and plan the event. It’s particularly important to communicate with school staff about any rules concerning whether volunteers are allowed to serve food, or whether cafeteria staff need to be on hand.
Held every year during the first full week in May, Teacher Appreciation Week is when parent groups and families take the time to show their school’s teachers and support staff how much they care. Efforts vary from luncheons and creative gifts to volunteering time to help teachers with tasks like photocopying. The ways to say thanks are endless, so don’t feel overwhelmed by your choices; the important thing is making the effort.
Helpful tips: While lots of parent groups go all out for Teacher Appreciation Week, celebrating your teachers shouldn’t be a once-a-year endeavor. Other opportune times include the beginning of the year, to help build a strong relationship from the start, and the holiday season. Staff development days and parent-teacher conference days are also great occasions to provide snacks and meals.
Children should get an hour of physical activity a day, but many don’t get the exercise they need during the school week. A family fitness night is a relatively inexpensive way for parent groups to get kids moving and put a positive emphasis on physical activity. Typically held in a school gym (or similar space), a fitness night can be run as a “sports sampler” that offers kids the chance to try out different sports. Have stations for activities like using Hula-Hoops or jumping rope, or set up an obstacle course where kids run around cones, shoot a basket, and use jump ropes, for instance. There are lots of options; a conversation with your school’s PE teacher should help your group come up with a great evening.
Helpful tips: Ask instructors from a local gym or martial arts studio to give short lessons, and enlist community organizations to provide services such as health screenings, chair massages, and bicycle safety demonstrations.
A potluck dinner at school is an event that serves a number of purposes: It’s low-cost, it’s easy to organize, and it brings people together in a comfortable, familiar way. It’s an event that can be held any time of year—as a warm-weather cookout with families contributing side dishes, desserts, and beverages, or as a traditional indoor potluck when the weather is cold. Many PTOs provide the drinks and paper goods, which can be bought cheaply in bulk. A door prize drawing can encourage families to stay for a while, and name tags can further promote socializing.
Helpful tips: If your school community is multicultural, encourage families to share dishes that represent their heritage. Ask them to bring a small sign that identifies the meal and lists key ingredients.
School Family Night Planning Tools
PTO Today’s School Family Nights create a sense of community and help parents get connected to your school. A Family Tech Talk Night helps parents navigate helping their kids use the Internet wisely and safely, and Family Science Night is a great way to promote interest in science. PTO Today offers free planning kits for these events, as well as for Family Movie Night and Family Reading Night, that include everything you need to plan a fun and successful evening. Go to ptotoday.com/sfn for full descriptions and to order your kits.
Originally published in 2014 and updated regularly