Kids spend an average of nearly 20 hours a week in front of the TV. So any parent who takes away a child's television privileges for an entire week had best be prepared for the inevitable wail: I'm bored! There's nothing to do!
At Big Hollow Elementary School in Ingleside, Ill., the PTO demonstrated that—believe it or not—there's plenty of fun to be had without the TV. The occasion was TV Turnoff Week, an annual national event in which families are encouraged to spend time away from the tube, with five nights of activities at the school.
Liz Cook, president of the Big Hollow PTO, ran across information on TV Turnoff Week while surfing the Internet. She brought the idea to the group, and members expressed enthusiasm. She also brought it to the local school board, which approved it as a districtwide event.
Susan Thandupurakal was named chairperson, and it was decided that there would be an event each night of the week. An extra incentive was added: students who came three nights would be allowed to pick a book from the Scholastic Books list. Those who came more than three nights were allowed to pick from the next higher tier of books.
Initial planning, including developing the concept more and brainstorming ideas for events, started in February. Nitty gritty planning, as Cook calls it, started in March.
As the week approached, students took home flyers announcing the upcoming events. Separate flyers were created for each night. Flyers sent home on Monday announced Wednesday nights event, for example. Big Hollow is a small district, with 720 students in grades K-8, so reaching families is easier than it might be in a larger district, says Cook. The event was publicized as Turn off your TV and come do something you wouldn't normally do.
Students and their families paid $1 per person as admission. A card file was kept at the door and used to record student attendance for the book prizes.
One PTO volunteer directed each night, which in addition to the chairperson was staffed with five PTO volunteers and some teacher volunteers.
Each night was open to kids in grades K-6, but the participants were mostly K-4 students. The events were intended to be all-age appropriate. The Big Hollow PTO incorporates three schools, grades K-8.
Monday featured a family sing-along. A local musician came to the school with her guitar and donated her time to lead the audience in an old-fashioned sing-along. The PTO created songbooks—actually sheets printed with the words to songs that the guitarist knew—and the audience gathered in the gym, calling out requests. Each night snacks were provided, all donated by a local grocery store (the soda) or parents who work for Keebler and Pepperidge Farms distributors. A local fast food restaurant donated paper goods. Activities started at 7 p.m. and were generally done by 8:30.
Students arrived in their pajamas for story night on Tuesday. Twelve teachers staffed six reading stations set up in classrooms. Students moved through the classrooms in 10- or 15-minute intervals. While books were not age-specific, rooms were grouped in two wings, one for younger children and one for older children.
By far the most popular night, Wednesday was gym/craft night. A local nonprofit craft organization donated supplies and sample craft projects, which were arranged on cafeteria tables. Cook stresses that the samples were there as guides, not required projects. We didn't want it to be hugely structured, she says. We just wanted them to have fun.
Popsicle sticks, felt, sequins, beads, feathers, and a hot glue gun transformed into anything that the children could imagine—even some pet rocks emerged.
At the same time, the gym was open and what started out as relay races and structured games became a free-for-all. "We had games planned," Cook says, "but (the kids) ended up doing their own thing. It was hard to keep teams even for the relays, so we just let them go." Children had access to basketballs, bean bags, and square scooters (in which kids sit and push with feet or hands). In an unintended benefit, students moved freely among activities, which worked very well, she says. This event lasted until 9, longer than any of the rest.
Another popular event was bingo night. Who doesnt love bingo? This was bingo with a twist. Concerned that they would need a gambling license to give away prizes, the PTO decided instead to ask people to bring a toy to donate. The prizes, including Beanie Babies, Tupperware, and even old toy give-aways from McDonald's, filled two large tables. "It was great," Cook says. "The three- and four-year-olds were delighted with the old McDonald's toys. There was something for everyone."
The PTO borrowed the bingo equipment, complete with a light-up bingo board and hand-cranked number picker, from a local retirement community center. Markers and sheets were donated as well. According to Cook, people enjoyed being able to come and go as games ended or began. Prizes unused at the end of the night were donated to the local Boys and Girls Club.
Friday was open game night. Board games were set up on cafeteria tables. Paint stir sticks served as labels announcing "Monopoly here" or "This way to Candyland." PTO volunteers borrowed and brought the games, which also included Toss Across for the younger kids, checkers, and an air hockey table. A principal donated chips and salsa he had gotten through a customer rebate offer.
In the end, the PTO raised $718 from $1 admissions. The group spent $144 on books, as prizes for attendance, and a few extra sodas. The donated supply ran out due to higher than expected attendance on Wednesday and Thursday.
The difference went to the library, particularly to aid the reference collection, which according to Cook desperately needed updating. We have way out of date books, she says. I like to joke that we have books from the Civil War and books that still list the Soviet Union.
After the event, Cook received a lot of positive feedback from board members, teachers, and her own kids, a first- and a fourth-grader. She attributes much of the success to the organizational skills of Thandupurakal.
The PTO is planning to hold the event again this year, although only on Tuesday through Thursday evenings. The Monday of TV Turnoff Week is the Monday after Easter and a district day off. The PTO decided not to include Friday, because attendance was low. Bingo and craft/gym night will stay along with another activity yet to be decided.
There was no discussion about whether to hold the event again, Cook says. Instead, she had forgotten to put the event in her yearly budget, and there was an outcry from at least five PTO parents.