Editor’s note: Since we published this article in 2009, it's consistently been one of our most popular during the holidays. We’ve left the original ideas since many can be adapted to work with local COVID-19 guidelines, and added some new holiday ideas, too.
Virtual holiday party: Encourage families to get festive and make themselves a nice snack or festive beverage and “meet” at a certain time. You can set an organizer to lead some simple, kid-friendly games or holiday songs.
Kid holiday dress-up: Lots of groups had virtual Halloween events by having kids dress up and show off their costumes. You can do something similar during the holidays by having them break out their Santa hats, reindeer antlers, and other holiday props.
Virtual holiday scavenger hunt: This involves some sleuthing and movement. Parents can facilitate a videochat where kids are asked to find holiday-ish items in their homes (a red decoration, something silver, etc.); the first person to bring it back to the camera wins.
Virtual gingerbread-building: Have families purchase DIY gingerbread house kits (or if your budget allows, provide them). Set a time to have families build “together” virtually. You can even set a few judges to pick some fun “winners” like messiest, yuckiest, etc.
Online holiday bingo: Search for online bingo templates. Decide whether you want to do classic bingo where the organizer calls out squares or another variation, like picture bingo. Send it to families and set a day and time to meet and play virtually.
Community gift boxes: This follows the idea of “giving trees” often displayed at schools during normal years—and are needed more than ever in many communities. Work with the school and community organizations to match families in need with those who are able to give gift boxes of requested items. When the boxes are ready, enlist volunteers to wrap and deliver them.
As a distanced alternative, once you have a charity selected to work with, ask if they have their wish list online.
Socially distanced Santa: Several schools and parent groups have suggested safer alternatives to the traditional setup of having kids sit with Santa for photos.
“In 2020, we had a Santa with a special face shield/mask that is built in to his beard. Instead of sitting on his lap, each kid had a turn to sit across from him at a holiday decorated table for a short visit and with good angles, we're taking photos to appear as if they're sitting beside each other,” says Brooke Marriott, PTO treasurer at Kelly Elementary in Benton, Mo.
“I have seen a Santa behind a piece of plexiglass and then gift boxes in front of it for kids to sit on so it makes them look like they are sitting on his lap,” says Robin Woodmansee, PTO president at Richmond Elementary School in R.I.
Holiday drive-by: Following the success of a Halloween drive-by in the fall of 2020, leaders at Pine Dragons PTO in Pine City, Minn., planned a holiday time follow-up. “Parents lined up on the one way which is decorated with inflatables, lights, elves, reindeer, and myself as the Grinch,” says Missy Lynne Milliman, PTO president. The group handed out "goody bags to each child which included tattoos, stickers, cocoa, candy canes, Hershey kisses, movie tickets to our local theater, free bowling coupon, and popcorn." They also sold $1 raffle tickets for a family movie bundle valued at $60.
They’ve also added in a giving element: “Children are invited to draw and/or color a card for someone living in one of our local nursing homes.”
Teacher Giving Tree
A giving tree solves the annual teacher gift dilemma for parents while helping teachers stock their classrooms with supplies they need. Put a real or artificial tree in the lobby of your school, or make one out of construction paper and post it on a wall. Cut colored construction paper into the shape of ornaments, thread with ribbon, and distribute them to teachers. Invite teachers to write their names on the ornaments along with an item they’d like donated to their classroom (for example, “Mrs. Maloney, hand sanitizer” or “Mr. Pierce, washable markers”). Teachers hang the ornaments on the tree. Parents who are looking for that perfect gift for their child’s teacher simply have to pick an ornament from the tree and return it with the requested item.
Multicultural Holiday Celebration
Invite families to share their holiday traditions with one another at a multicultural holiday celebration. Book your school gym or cafeteria and set up stations where children can learn about their classmates’ traditions and sample traditional holiday foods from other parts of the world.
Recruit a parent to don a Santa Claus costume or dress up as Frosty the Snowman. Invite parents to bring their children to pose with your costumed character. Parents can bring their own cameras, or if your PTO has access to a photo printer, you can provide photos on the spot. This is a great service to offer as part of a larger event, such as a community tree-lighting or holiday bazaar.
Invite kids to unleash their creativity on sugar cookies, and send them home with their tasty creations. Recruit volunteers to bake batches of cookies in assorted shapes and bring them to your school cafeteria on the designated day. Set out the cookies with a variety of decorating materials, such as colored frosting and candies. Give the children tiny paintbrushes to apply the frosting.
Holiday Toy Drive or Food Drive
Use your group’s organizing power to help others this holiday season. Contact your local food pantry, homeless shelter, or a national organization such as Toys for Tots to find out what they need and how your community can help. Get the word out to parents and place a bin in your school lobby for donations. Get together a large group to deliver the items.
Holiday Open Mic Night
Call it a talent show, a mini American Idol, or simply an opportunity for kids (and maybe their parents) to display their unique gifts. Set a date for your Holiday Open Mic Night, put out the call for holiday-theme acts, and see what you get. Maybe an a cappella rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? A Rockettes-style holiday dance performance? A scene from A Christmas Carol? The surprise is half the fun. And who knows—this could become a holiday tradition.
Winter Story Time
What’s more cozy than snuggling under a blanket in your pajamas and listening to a story? Invite parents and children to your school library for pajama story time. Encourage people to bring blankets or sleeping bags. Your group might hire a storyteller or ask a volunteer (your school principal, maybe?) to read a holiday- or winter-theme book.
This activity takes a bit of prep work, but it’s so popular with children that it’s worth it. Get a head count of the number of participants, then gather a group of volunteers for a pre-event “construction” party to assemble the houses. Keep it simple by using graham crackers instead of gingerbread. On the day of the event, each child decorates his own gingerbread house with candy canes, gumdrops, peppermints, and other varieties of candy. Take lots of pictures to post on your parent group’s website or newsletter!
Help your school community get into the holiday spirit with a showing of a classic holiday or winter movie. Invite families to bring blankets or sleeping bags. Set up a refreshment stand with hot cocoa and marshmallows.
Parents’ Day Off
Organize a “drop-off” event to give parents an afternoon to shop for gifts without kids in tow. Recruit plenty of volunteers—middle school and high school students are ideal—and take over the school gymnasium on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Organize party games, put out craft materials, prepare an area where kids can kick back and watch a video. When parents return for their kids with their shopping complete, they’ll thank you. Guaranteed.
Support Our Troops—and Their Families
Are there military families within your school community? If so, work with them to find out how your group can brighten their holidays and those of deployed service members. Collect items and assemble care packages for soldiers, or have students make cards to send. Organize volunteers to support families with a deployed parent: String their holiday lights, provide childcare while they shop for gifts, or schedule an “on call” list of drivers willing to transport their children to and from activities.
Make It and Take It
What parent wouldn’t treasure a gift lovingly crafted by their child’s hands? Your group can help bring a smile to parents’ faces and show their feelings of pride in their children by hosting a “make it and take it” craft event. Book the school cafeteria for a few hours on a weekend. Choose a craft that kids can make and take home that day. You might even put out supplies for kids to make their own wrapping paper using newsprint or butcher paper and markers, crayons, and stickers. By the end of the day, each child will go home with a gift, wrapped and ready for their mom or dad.
Elizabeth S. Leaver contributed to this article.
Originally posted in 2009 and updated regularly.