For one day each spring, the population at Grimshaw Elementary in Lafayette, N.Y., almost doubles. The 415-student school welcomes as many as 350 visitors for Grandparents Day, an event that has grown every year since it started six years ago.

The event is a collaboration between the Grimshaw Association of Parents and Staff, the school administration, and the community. Proud grandmas and grandpas have flown in from as far away as Seattle. Many time their visits to coincide with the event, and event chairwoman Donna Knapp says some grandparents come year after year and have become friends with the other grandparents they see every time.

The goal of the program is to give students a chance to bond with their grandparent or special friend at school. Children who don’t have a grandparent available are welcome to invite anyone they have a close relationship with: an aunt, uncle, godparent, family friend, or grown sibling. Parents are encouraged to find someone other than themselves, but if they want to be substitute grandparents, that’s OK.

The school also recruits retired teachers to serve as stand-ins, especially for families with several children at the school and just one grandparent to share. In many cases, a student who has two or more grandparents in attendance will share with a student who doesn’t have one. “No one is excluded,” Knapp says. A few years ago, she had three children at the school and just two grandparents to attend the event. Her daughter shared with another child’s grandparent when her own were with her siblings. “My daughter still talks about that,” she says, “even though it happened a long time ago.”

Something for Everyone

When the parent group first brought the idea of Grandparents Day to school administrators, assistant principal Jen Blossey thought it sounded daunting. “You just get nervous about how much it would upset the makeup of the day,” she says. “We always want learning to occur.” Fortunately, the event proved to be a perfect fit, although Blossey does spend a lot of time creating a master schedule so things run smoothly. “Our staff has embraced it,” she says. “We try to mimic a regular school day, but with special activities.”

Parent volunteers have learned that staging a successful Grandparents Day is about knowing your audience, learning from your mistakes, and changing things up just a little bit each year.

The first year, the event started at 9:30 a.m., but attendees started arriving at 8:45. “We ran out of coffee,” Knapp recalls. Visitors received maps to get around the school, but some found the maps hard to follow. The event ended before lunch, to the disappointment of grandparents who had come from out of town.

Now the parent group rents commercial coffee pots. Volunteers stand in the hallways, poised to guide visitors. And grandparents are welcome to share lunch with their grandchildren.

Parent volunteers worked with teachers and staff to add to the event each year. One time, they scheduled the book fair to coincide so grandparents could buy a book for their grandchild. Teachers have become more involved, planning classroom activities that engage visitors while still giving them a sense of the curriculum. For example, a social studies teacher created a basketball quiz game that lets visitors join in the competition.

Guests often say their favorite part is seeing what goes on inside their grandchild’s classroom. Another popular feature is Grimshaw on Display, an opportunity for grandparents to view artwork and science fair projects. “It’s a day for students to show off what they’ve done,” Knapp says.

The parent group sends guests home with a commemorative gift, such as a mug, a notepad, or an assortment of refrigerator magnets. The gifts eat up most of the $1,200 budget for Grandparents Day. This year, a surprise will be a professional photographer on-site; guests will also receive a commemorative frame bearing the school’s name and the date.

The event requires about 30 volunteers, half of whom pitch in from home by sending in baked goods or working on a display. This way, working parents can be a part of its success. Volunteers sign up at the beginning of the school year; by the time the planning committee, which consists of two parents and an administrator, gets going in February, they have their volunteers’ names handy. “It is by far the most well-attended event by parent volunteers, whether it be preparing ahead of time, baking, or working the day of the event,” Knapp says.

Organizers also depend on logistical help from community partners. Nearby businesses let teachers park in their lots so guests can use the school’s parking lot. Some guests park at a fire station and ride a school bus to and from the site. The before- and after-school programs make decorations for the tables.

One of the most daunting tasks is putting together a slideshow that runs continually on the day of the event. Volunteers make sure every student appears in the presentation at least once. Organizers also depend on community partners to help out with logistics. Nearby businesses let teachers park in their lots so guests can use the school’s parking lot. Some guests park at a fire station and ride a school bus to and from the school. The before-school and after-school programs make decorations for the tables.

“This is such an awesome tradition for everyone,” Knapp says. “The event strengthens the reputation of the parent group and the school; the event is viewed very positively and is well-regarded in the community.”

Grandparents Day is held in May, when families are itching for some excitement after being cooped up all winter. The parent group sends information home about the event well in advance so families can make travel arrangements. Most of the hype is through word of mouth. “The kids get excited about it and go home and talk about it,” Knapp says.

Many grandparents love the little details, such as the opportunity to ride a school bus from the fire station to the school. “They want to see what their child does during the day,” Blossey says. “It’s a great opportunity just to see what their grandchild’s school looks like.”

Big Event: Grandparents Day

Tips for a successful event from the Grimshaw Association of Parents and Staff:

  • Plan ahead. Three or four months will give you ample time to iron out logistical kinks and order personalized items and give out-of-town grandparents time to book flights. Consider including a grandparent or two on the organizing committee.

  • Focus on the idea of students connecting with a relative or family friend, not necessarily a grandparent. Recruit volunteers to serve as stand-ins so no child feels left out.

  • Keep opening remarks short. Your guests will be anxious to get on with the school day. Give them as much of an “inside look” into school life as possible.

  • Encourage teachers to include visitors in the lesson but to remain focused on the curriculum. Your guests will want to see what their grandchildren are learning.

  • Fill the hallways with student writing and artwork so guests can get a glimpse of the creativity that goes on inside your school.

  • Have plenty of volunteers to show guests where to go, along with large signs and maps with large print. Big, bustling schools can be intimidating for those who haven’t stepped inside since their own kids were little.

  • Try to avoid a rushed, harried environment. You want your guests to enjoy themselves.