Capture that excitement of a new school year and being part of the school community with a party or gathering where kids can play and parents can socialize. And if you have to wait a bit before parents and volunteers are allowed back in the school, rebrand your event as a welcome-back party and throw the doors wide open when you can.
We’ve rounded up some popular back-to-school events, from small to large, with tips on how to connect with more families.
Ice Cream Social
Tried-and-true ice cream socials are a favorite way for families to celebrate going back to school and meeting the teachers.
Keep it simple and hire a local ice cream truck for the evening or hand out single-cup servings. Or, if you have the volunteers and funds, create a “scooper bowl” event with tubs of ice cream, hot and cold toppings, and options for smoothies or for people with dietary restrictions. Enlist teachers and the principal to scoop, giving parents the opportunity to meet the staff in a fun, low-key way before school starts. And have hand wipes ready to clean up drips.
Open House Standouts
If your parent group traditionally has a table at the back-to-school open house, registration night, or meet the teacher night, make it welcoming and fun so families will be glad they stopped by. To introduce yourselves without being pushy, market your group in a memorable way (see “Back-to-School Event Success Tips,” below). Trot out the mascot, tempt them with shaved ice, or set up a selfie station. Work with the front office staff and offer to hand out car line numbers, bus schedules, or other information parents will need.
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.
Usually held on the first day of school for parents of kindergartners, this year’s event could easily turn into a welcome breakfast for all parents, especially if your school’s learning model was remote or hybrid last year. Think about holding the event on the weekend before schools starts so working parents can attend and spend more time socializing.
A simple menu of muffins, bagels, and fruit works; be mindful of prepackaged food guidelines in your district. Offer alternatives to people with food sensitivities and allergies so everyone can be involved. Serve coffee, tea, water, and juice, or kick it up a notch and hire a coffee truck or local shop to provide specialty beverages.
The weather this time of year is perfect for a back-to-school carnival, festival, or fair—events that set the tone for a fun year ahead. Go for classic games like a ring toss, obstacle course, and a dunk tank—which is always popular when the principal or a favorite teacher is sitting in the hot seat.
If your budget is bigger, think about renting inflatables (make sure you have the necessary insurance riders) or a wet play area with water toys. If you go that route, remind people to bring suits and towels. Provide tents and seating in the shade to help people stay cool on hot days. And arrange for school-theme prizes, delicious food (see the next section about food trucks), and music.
Make dinner easy on back-to-school night by arranging for food trucks to be at school. With dinner handled, parents can eat, socialize, and meet the teachers without rushing around. Check with your town’s health department to make sure food trucks are even allowed—and if so, pull the necessary permits early.
Stuff-your-own mascot events were popular during the pandemic, and they’re a fun and interactive way to build school spirit at the beginning of the year. For in-person events, have kits available for sale; set out tables and chairs for families to sit with friends and assemble their mascots.
If your group has more funds, you can prepurchase mascot kits and give them to each student for free. While kids are making their stuffed mascots, you can tell parents about your group’s mission, plans, and events and have them sign up to volunteer or get updates.
Say “cheese”! A group photo with students, teachers, and staff is a good way to mark the beginning of the school year; if this is the first time students have been back to learning in person, it’ll be historic and perfect for the yearbook, too! Depending on the size of your school, you might be able to add a backdrop or decorations, like a giant “Year of the Comeback” banner. Also think about unique camera angles—an aerial shot from a drone or a photo taken from the roof of the school gives a different perspective to the new school year.
A get-together at a local park or on school grounds is a laid-back way families can meet, mingle, and reconnect after summer break. A picnic is great for families new to the school, like kindergarten students, and for middle schoolers. Have lawn games on hand so kids can play while parents get to know each other. Keep costs down by asking families to bring their own food while your group provides drinks and paper products.
If your open house night includes a tour of the school building, turn it into a scavenger hunt. Families can search the building to find school-theme items, like an award in the trophy case or a certain book title in the library. Provide snacks in the cafeteria, frisbees with the school logo on them in the gym, and a craft project in the art room. Once they locate all items, the hunt will take families to their child’s classroom to meet the teacher.
School Supply Drive
Kick off the school year with an act of service that teaches students about the importance of community and giving back. Before the event, share a school supply wish list with parents to benefit the school’s teachers or a backpack-stuffing project for the larger community. Families purchase an item and bring it with them to meet-the-teacher night. While teachers speak to parents, students can help sort supplies and fill backpacks or bags. Our sister site TeacherLists.com has free digital wish lists that are easy to set up by teacher or grade level.
Have a parking lot? Host a tailgate party (no football game required). Set up football-throwing challenges, Zumba dancing, obstacle course races, and more fun for families. The Lorenzo de Zavala Middle School PTA in Amarillo, Texas, hosted a party where parents could buy spiritwear and fill out volunteer forms while kids ate hot dogs, listened to music, and socialized. And for one of Durbin Creek Elementary’s annual tailgate parties, the Jacksonville, Fla., PTO arranged for a performance by the high school drum line.
Learning new routines before the first day can make students feel more at home, so the Peaster (Texas) ISD PTO invited kindergartners and any other students new to the school to go through the lunch line in the cafeteria and practice buying a slice of pizza and a drink. The kids learn the ropes and the parents get a night off from cooking. The group also set up information and spiritwear tables in the cafeteria, along with a back-to-school photo booth.
School Bus Intro
Just like the lunch line might be new, the bus can be intimidating for younger students. Arrange for a bus and driver to be at the school during open house so kindergartners can try out riding before that momentous first day. A quick trip around the parking lot is usually all it takes to make younger students get over the jitters.
Want to make a real splash? Take a cue from the Decorah (Iowa) PTO, which marks the start of school with a pool party. For a small fee (with kids younger than 6 admitted free), kids can swim at the municipal pool, eat pizza, socialize, and more. What’s more, many teachers attend the event, giving parents a chance to meet them sooner than they otherwise might have.
Back-to-School Event Success Tips
Plan (and create materials) early. You don’t want to be up painting a sign or building the dunk tank the night before your event if you can help it.
Give volunteers easy jobs that don’t require a big time commitment. If your event is large, talk to the high schools about students volunteering for community service hours.
Put on a mascot costume and greet families at the entrance. Remember: Be welcoming but not pushy). Remind people they can volunteer to be part of the fun.
Make a selfie station or Instagram-worthy background and include your group’s website or social media URL.
Give away food. Shaved ice, popcorn, candy, and hot dogs are always popular.
Offer face painting or washable tattoos for kids.
Display a volunteer sign-up sheet and give parents easy options they can do from home or in person.
Sell spiritwear. Offer older inventory at a discount.
Hand out your contact information on something parents will use, like a fridge magnet, pen, or pop socket.
Take a lot of photos. You’ll want them for the yearbook, and shots of families having fun will do great things for your group’s reputation.
Hand out name tags to help parents and teachers meet and get to know each other more easily.
Wear group T-shirts so officers and members are easy to spot in a crowd when someone has a question.
Hold a raffle or impressive giveaway to help pique parents’ interest. Announce the winner at the first PTO meeting of the year.
Originally posted in 2014 and updated regularly