A fall festival or international night is more than just a fun time out for families. For many parents, school events like these are their first exposure to your parent group. It’s an opportunity for kids and parents to make memories together, meet others in the school community, and learn more about what your group does! Members of our PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers group on Facebook named the following events among their favorites.
There’s no doubt that holding a family event can be a lot of work. Make it easier with these planning tips along with free resources like our Family Event Planning Kit.
Carnival or Festival
In our (admittedly unscientific) poll of leaders, carnivals and festivals far and away received the most votes for favorite school event. The great thing about them is how they can look so different from place to place. One school might have a fall festival with a Halloween costume contest and hayrides. Another might offer an outdoor spring carnival with musical cakes and a crafts station. Whatever type of event is in the works at your school, our Complete Guide to Planning a School Carnival can help.
Tip: Staging a carnival or festival is a big undertaking that requires a lot of volunteers. Ask room parents or teachers to help recruit volunteers, and ask groups in your community to pitch in, if needed. If the festival will take place in more than one room or outdoor area, create a map to help volunteers and families find their way around and hand it out as families arrive.
School dances with the whole family are popular (at least until kids get old enough to think their parents aren’t cool anymore...too bad, so sad, Mom and Dad). Around Valentine’s Day, many PTOs and PTAs hold sweetheart dances, where students can invite a parent or another important adult in their life. Glow-in-the-dark dances with blacklights and theme dances like “back to the ’80s” are also popular options.
Tip: While families love father-daughter and mother-son dances, take care when naming such events. PTO-sponsored dances have made the news in some communities where parents raised concerns that a father-daughter dance would make families without fathers feel excluded. Make clear that students can attend with any male or female figure who is important in their life. Names like Special Guy/Gal Dance or Me and My Pal Dance can reinforce the inclusive message.
At many schools, teachers and parent groups work together to stage international festivals where a variety of cultures are celebrated and students visit stations to learn about different parts of the world and have “passports” stamped. Simpler events like a potluck dinner can also be part of building a multicultural PTO.
Tip: If you want to represent the cultures in the student body, ask parents from those cultures to be involved in planning the event. Don't let a language barrier stand in the way. If parents not fluent in English are willing to help, put them in charge of a part of the event they feel comfortable doing.
Family movie night is a big attraction at many schools, with students often coming in pajamas and bringing blankets and pillows to lounge comfortably during the show. Besides choosing a family-friendly film, groups need to have a movie license. Our Family Movie Night kit walks you through the process and provides ideas for carrying a theme into snacks and decorations.
Tip: Even the best-planned movie night can run into technical problems. Check your audio/visual setup before families arrive so you don't have to fix issues in front of an audience. If you're planning an outdoor movie night, have a backup plan for bad weather; let families know you'll move inside or reschedule movie night to another date.
Students like fun runs and jogathons because they shake up the school day routine. Parents like them because the family can participate together! PTOs and PTAs mix things up with color runs (using powdered dye), zombie runs (braiiinnns...), and even mud runs (get down and dirty). Get started planning your next -athon with our School Fun Run Fundraiser Guide.
Tip: Crank some music and have a microphone for announcements. Keep participants engaged by periodically announcing that students should skip, dance, or walk in reverse during the next lap.
Who doesn’t love field day? The event’s positive reputation might have as much to do with its typical end-of-school-year scheduling as with the mix of activities offered. Dunk tanks, relay races, and bubble stations are often popular activities at field day. You can find lots of other creative ideas shared in our Facebook group, like musical chairs with Hula-Hoops and fishing for marbles in a kiddie pool—with your feet!
Tip: Talk with the principal or a relevant teacher to ask whether your PTO can use the school's outdoor recess equipment and PE equipment at field day. Pair an elementary school's youngest students with older students who can explain the activities, count money, and provide supervision.
At events like Family Science Night, kids just might have such a good time that they’ll forget they’re learning! A curriculum-related event gives parents a window into what their kids are learning at school, and often families go home with suggested activities to continue the learning. Broader events like Family Tech Talk Virtual Event teach the whole family about digital citizenship and making good choices online.
Tip: Before planning an enrichment event, talk with the principal to find out her academic goals for the year. If the main goal is to improve math skills, a math night would be the best way to focus your time and energy. Work with teachers to make sure activities are tied to the curriculum and are appropriate for the school's grade levels.
Plain old bingo is a favorite school event of many leaders—dare we say it’s because kids sit still for minutes on end? PTOs and PTAs have developed many variations on this classic game, from the ever-popular glow-in-the-dark version to events where winners receive books, Thanksgiving turkeys, or designer handbags. Find a slew of game cards and more in the Bingo File Exchange.
Tip: Use the school's equipment to project bingo numbers onto a screen as they're drawn. It will help kids who have attention issues and parents who are trying to keep an eye on their kids and play bingo at the same time.
Whether you call them bounce houses, moon jumps, or just plain inflatables, it’s hard to overstate how excited students can get when they see one (or more) at their school. Parent groups often rent an inflatable or two for special events, and in some cases they get enough to make them the focus of the entire event. Some school districts have set policies preventing inflatables at school events, so check with your district before signing a rental contract—and check your insurance coverage, too, so that your group (and the kids jumping) are protected.
Tip: Besides confirming your insurance coverage, make sure the company renting you the inflatable is insured. Ask the vendor whether it can name your parent group as an additional insured on its liability insurance policy and get a copy of the certificate of insurance that names your group as an additional insured party.
Ice Cream Social
While it might be messy, many parent group leaders think serving ice cream to school families is worth it. For some, the ice cream social is the main event. Others add the icy treat to another school event, like a back-to-school event or open house. If you’re not up for all the scooping (and the cleanup), another option is to hire food trucks that serve ice cream, shaved ice, or other sweet treats.
Tip: If you're expecting a large group, think of ways to move people through the line faster. You might scoop ice cream in advance and store it in the school freezer or set up more than one station for ice cream toppings. For easier cleanup, hold your ice cream social at a playground or park.
Winter Holiday Events
When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than a warm night in with friends. Some groups love holding Santa-centered events (think cookies or pancakes), letting students meet and have their photos taken with the jolly guy in the red suit. Kids can make handmade gifts at a holiday craft night or winter paint night, or shop for gifts during school hours at a school holiday shop.
Tip: Students might have difficulty choosing gifts for family members and staying within budget. Have volunteers on hand to guide students through your holiday shop and keep track of running totals.
You might think of book fairs as mainly in-school events, but they can also entice families to school after hours. Consider scheduling a book fair to coincide with parent-teacher conference week or an event like a literacy night or Family Reading Night. Or make a standalone book fair a bigger draw by adding activities parents and kids can do together, like book-related crafts or a school library scavenger hunt.
Tip: Older students can help run cash registers and might be able to provide book recommendations to younger students. Ask teachers to recommend students or invite members of a student club to help. Schedule short shifts during school to reduce the pressure on parent volunteers.
Family Movie Night®, Family Science Night™, Family Tech Talk Night™, and Family Reading Night™ are trademarks of School Family Media®.
Originally published in 2019 and updated regularly