Sometimes adding a few outside-the-box touches is all it takes to make a classic school event feel like something special.
For the past several years, that’s been the case at Oxford (N.J.) Central School’s annual field day, which organizers transformed into a luau lunch complete with Hawaiian shirts, leis, grilled burgers and hot dogs, and treats. What’s more, they open the day up not only to school staff, but also to some special guests from the community who help bring on the fun.
PTA vice president Stephanie Isabelle says the group decided to reinvent field day—typically held at the end of the year on a half day—several years ago, after the idea came about to partner with Oxford’s cafeteria staff to provide a free lunch for all students on the day.
“Not everybody gets a school lunch, so it’s a nice treat for them,” she says, adding that the luau theme helps “jazz [the day] up. We hand out leis, volunteers come dressed in Hawaiian theme, and the staff wears Hawaiian shirts.”
Keeping the theme consistent lets the PTA reuse decorations each year. The PTA funds the lunch, with the cafeteria team buying all the food and preparing everything except for the hot dogs and hamburgers, which are grilled by enthusiastic parent volunteers.
Although the theme stays the same, the volunteers add new offerings to complement the day each year, like changing the type of ice cream or frozen treat they serve (one year it was soft serve, then hard serve, then frozen ices).
In recent years, both the local police and fire departments joined the students. Firefighters brought large tanker trucks and supervised water activities like a water barrel fight—moving barrels with the spray hoses toward the opponents’ goal—and other team-based water games.
Last year, the PTA supported Oxford’s efforts to raise money for its “Adopt-a-Door” program, which provides safe barrier doors for classrooms in the event of an emergency. It held a T-shirt design contest and a few days before field day, the students received a special delivery to their homerooms: the winning shirts, which they wore to the event.
On the day, the students picked up their leis and enjoyed a tasty mix of healthy and traditional field day fare: hot dogs, hamburgers, corn dogs, chips, fruit cups, carrots and celery sticks, cake, and an ice cream treat. Students could eat in the cafeteria or have a picnic outside on towels, then join the sports and activities.
Although the PTA requires only a handful of volunteers (a few for table setup, a few to grill, and a few to serve ice cream), it ends up with more than enough help with lots of parents wanting to get in on the fun.
The group says the genuine excitement, partnership, and camaraderie around the day each year are what make it truly successful.
“Parents enjoy getting into the theme of the day,” PTA president Christine Erhard says. “They dress up with their shirts, hats, and bare feet!”
She adds that families are also delighted by the presence of the fire and police departments; even the principal gets involved by going into a dunk tank.
“The parents, students, and staff come together,” Isabelle adds. “It’s a big picnic where everybody gets to talk and socialize, and the kids have their field day. It’s a big end-of-the-year bash.”
“The more the community can get involved, the better!” Erhard says.
Oxford Central School PTA
Approx. 300 students,
Pre-K through 8th grade
Tips for Planning Field Day
Block out enough time for preparation, depending on your intended activities, and keep in mind how long it takes for your school’s cafeteria to order and receive food shipments.
Have open discussions or host forums ahead of your field day that encourage parent input. Stephanie Isabelle, PTA vice president at Oxford, recommends posting a question on social media to start up a conversation with the wider parent community.
Have more than enough volunteers at your field day? Rotate them so parents have the opportunity to watch and play with their children. Oxford’s PTA rotated volunteers throughout each lunch period so families could participate in activities and have lunch together.
Oxford does buy some items new every year (like leis for the students) but also keeps costs down by featuring the same theme and reusing decorations.