We regularly hear from creative and savvy leaders who share ideas and shortcuts for every PTO activity imaginable. These clever hacks will save you time and help stretch your budget—and they’re all pretty simple to pull off.
Rock Painting Simplified
The secret to painting rocks that look good without making a huge mess in the process is to paint a background color in primer that kids can draw or write on top of. Kim Oliff, past president of North School Parent Group in Hillsborough, Calif., suggests prepainting rocks with primer days before the event. On event day, cover tables with plastic tablecloths and let students get creative with oil-based paint pens. Pro tip: Activate the paint pens in advance. Kids can decorate their rocks in as little as 15 minutes. When the paint is dry, seal the rocks with a clear acrylic spray sealant.
DIY Ping-Pong Ball Toss
Who said carnival games have to be costly? PTO president Kate Cancelliere created this simple (and cheap!) ping-pong ball toss game for the spring carnival at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish School in Niskayuna, N.Y. She used a large piece of cardboard, 12 plastic cups in four colors, and a package of ping-pong balls. Cancelliere scored each cup depending on its color—one point for orange, five points for blue, and so on.
Easy-To-Squeeze Ice Cream Toppings
Keeping ice cream from melting prematurely isn’t the only challenge for organizers at ice cream socials—hot fudge that’s not so hot can be a problem, too. Here’s a simple way to keep sauces hot, or pleasingly warm: Fill squeeze bottles with heated sauces and keep them in a water-filled slow cooker that’s set on warm.
Storage Bin Labels That Last
Keeping supplies organized is a challenge for many leaders. Kim Shepard, PTO president at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Naples, Fla., says a great trick for labeling bins is to use colored gaffer tape. Unlike painter’s tape, gaffer tape has a cloth matte finish and stays put on plastic tubs if the temperature and humidity changes in your storage space. It comes in many colors (think orange for Halloween supplies, green for fundraising bins), and the fluorescent neon tape can pull double duty under UV black light at a glow party. And unlike duct tape, gaffer tape is easy to remove when your storage bin contents change.
Upcycled Cold Coffee Cups
According to several coffee-conscious leaders, you can lessen guilt over your iced latte habit by repurposing those empty plastic domed beverage cups into no-spill cups for your next paint or art night.
No-Stain Slime Recipe
Now you can slime the principal without ruining her clothing. This recipe shared by Rescue (Calif.) Elementary PTC president Rebecca Snyder is inexpensive to create and can be doubled, tripled, or more as needed. For two and a half cups of slime, bring one-third cup of tapioca pearls and four cups of water to a boil, then add one cup of oatmeal, a splash of evaporated milk, and green food coloring to the mix. The slime coats nicely and has a lumpy texture, washes off easily, and doesn’t stain.
Book Swap Tips
Leaders suggest planning a book swap for right before winter or summer breaks (or every Friday if you have the volunteers for it!). A week before your event, send home a flyer and invite kids to bring in any gently used books. Ask local businesses to donate funds to buy more books, too. On the day of the swap, set the books out on tables according to reading level, and let kids “swap” one, two, or three titles, plus receive one complimentary book. Cleanup’s a breeze—save leftover books for the next swap, or donate them to a nearby Little Free Library.
Renee’ Herin uses her parent group’s Facebook page to share monthly meeting and event dates with parents. As president of the Stonewall Elementary PTA in Clear Brook, Va., Herin uses the Facebook layout in Canva to create eye-catching art with dates and times each month. She also uses the same post as a banner in bloomz, a parent/teacher communication app her group uses.
Note-Taking Made Easy
You don’t have to lug your laptop to meetings to take good notes. Kathleen Spencer, past president of John Muir Elementary PTO in Madison, Wis., recommends that leaders buy a Bluetooth keyboard to use with their smartphone for quick note-taking wherever parent group business takes them. When Spencer filled in for her group’s secretary, she took meeting notes in Google Docs. She also jotted down to do lists and caught up with emails.
Easy DIY Selfie Station Frames
For an 8th grade celebration at North Oldham Middle School in Goshen, Ky., PTSA secretary Michaela Groth made her own selfie frames inexpensively and quickly using foam board, a construction ruler (a yardstick will work), a precision knife, spray adhesive, tissue paper, and wrapping paper and cutouts. Groth measured a 3-inch border and cut out the inside of the foam board. She attached the wrapping or tissue paper with adhesive, then finished each frame with letter cutouts and hashtags.
Book Fair Dos
Some ways shared by leaders to raise some extra cash during book fairs include using poster display copies as raffle, bingo, or incentive prizes, and selling lollipops for 50 cents each—if a child finds a colored dot on the bottom of the sucker, he can choose an eraser, pencil, or other small item from a prize bucket.
Keeping Pizzas Warm
Leaders have found some creative ways to keep pizzas warm during events, including electric blankets, pizza restaurant delivery bags (returned the next day), and the school cafeteria warmers. Some leaders even wrap pizza boxes in foil and keep them in a cooler—the heat from the food stays trapped inside until it’s time to eat.
Save some cash with these creative tablecloth alternatives. Fitted sheets make a bold, colorful statement on a table, fit well over most folding buffet tables, and can be washed and reused. Added bonus: Thanks to the elastic edges, they don’t blow off in the wind, either. Other options include buying inexpensive bulk rolls of tablecloth at party stores that can be cut to size as needed and purchasing butcher paper that can protect a table and possibly become a canvas for budding artists—just add crayons (see “Create Your Own Coloring Table,” below). Leaders also suggest browsing the clearance aisles for gift wrap on sale after the holidays.
Susan Green, president of the Naomi Pasemann Elementary School Parent Action Team in Taylor, Texas, made an “a-maze-ing” carnival activity without the mess and expense of dozens of hay bales by using plastic yellow caution tape. Her team tied the caution tape to sturdy, 2-foot-tall stakes placed strategically in the ground. Kids had a great time navigating their way through the maze (and had no after-event itchies).
Yard Signs Made Easy
Make a bold statement of appreciation or share good news with these inexpensive yard signs you can make yourself. For less than $10, Beechview Elementary PTA treasurer Lisa Bloch Holmes showed teachers at this Farmington Hills, Mich., school some love using poster board, duct tape, and campaign sign brackets.
A creative way to keep kids entertained at a meeting, event, or party is to outline a table-sized coloring design on white butcher paper. The design can be simple or tied in with an event or holiday, such as the Valentine’s Day table design volunteer Reyna Lopez created for a DuPont Hadley Middle School PTO event in Old Hickory, Tenn. Set out plenty of markers and crayons, and let children’s creative juices flow.
Supply Drives for Teachers
Are your teachers running low on supplies? Instead of being charged admission for a dance or family fun night, families attending a PTO Bingo Friday Night at Heron Pond Elementary and Jacques Memorial Elementary in Milford, N.H., paid an entry “fee” of a school supply donation.
Dress Swap Shop
Dress upcycling has become a trend among the elementary school crowd, and Daniella Clancy, a Joshua Dixon Primary School PTO leader in Columbiana, Ohio, shared how parents held a dress swap to help lower the cost of their father-daughter dance. The PTO sent home a flyer asking parents to send gently worn, clean dresses to the school. In exchange for each dress, students received a voucher to pick out a new-to-them dress. Proceeds from dress sales went to the father-daughter dance committee budget.
Effective Event Reminders
If you’re not sure parents are noticing (or remembering) your event notices, it might be time to get creative. When she served as PTO president, Kathy Walls from North Columbia Elementary School in Appling, Ga., had great success handing out glow dance reminder flyers in the drop-off/pickup line while her sons danced around in cute costumes to help drive the message home.
Originally posted in 2018 and updated regularly