How to Host a School Picnic (With Almost Zero Planning)

Hi Readers! As you know, one of the things that I believe makes folks feel safer and more ready to Free-Range their kids is COMMUNITY. The more connected we are, the less threatening the “world out there” seems, since “out there” is now familiar, even friendly. That’s why I love the idea of block parties and school get-togethers and all that, but I know (since I have never had the guts to organize one myself) that volunteering to make one of these wonders happen can be daunting. That’s why I loved reading this note from a mom in Portland, Oregon, named Mitzi. Here’s what she discovered about organizing an all-school picnic:

Dear Free-Range Kids: Our school started what we hope becomes a new tradition—a Fall Family Picnic on the school grounds one of the first evenings of school.

The idea is to have a low-key, casual picnic where families can meet, mingle, and re-connect after the summer break. We kept it super-simple: prep was limited to spreading the word about the picnic, putting up signs on the school yard for each grade so families could more easily meet others at their kids’ grade levels and having a pizza company come in to sell slices (and as a PTO fundraiser). Other than some ice-breaker games for Kindergarten kids, we had no planned activities: no bouncy houses, no rock wall, no clowns or face-painting or relay games. As PTO President, I was basically in charge of the event and wanted to keep it simple. I had a moment of panic about half an hour before picnic started: WHAT WERE WE THINKING?? What if we have 100 (or more) kids show up and they’re totally bored because we have nothing to entertain them with!? Will I have a bunch of angry parents shocked that I hadn’t planned activities? While there is a big play structure at the school, I hadn’t even requested to use the school’s playground balls and equipment. I threw some of our own kick balls, hula hoops and sidewalk chalk into the minivan, said a prayer and headed to the school.

And the result? Kids, everywhere, playing and having a blast. On their own. At least I assume they were having a blast—I was too busy mingling and chatting with other parents to pay much attention to my kids, other than to offer another slice of pizza when they came back to our blanket for a water break or to say hi. But if the shrieks of laughter and good-natured playing yelling were any indication, all the kids had fun. It’s amazing, isn’t it, what happens when we just let kids play? — Mitzi

49 Responses

  1. What a great post! I’m going to recommend to my husband (a youth minister) that we scale down the amount of “stuff” we set up for our children’s events and just let them PLAY! Thanks for this reminder of the simplicity of play!

  2. It’s a school tradition at my son’s elementary school to have a fall family picnic after the first week of school. There are about 400 kids at the school. We love it!! The only planned activity is a hulahoop contest by grade (no prize except a big high five from the principal). It is totally potluck (depending on your last name, you either bring dessert or a side dish), plus someone grills hamburgers and hotdogs. There’s also a table offering lemonade and water. Everyone pays a couple of dollars at the door to cover the cost of the grilled items. The “workers” are all parent volunteers. It is great!!!

  3. This is great. It reminds me of something we went to over the weekend. There was a lake beach clean up with a party after. They provided some bats, balls, and hula hoops. The kids ran wild playing while the parents sat and chatted. When I went to get my son he was in the water, fully dressed. Now this might have upset some parents, especially since this lake used to be pretty foul. But I figured one dip wasn’t going to kill him, it’s shallow where they were, and I was honestly glad that he had the nerve to do it! Boys need to jump in the water with their clothes on every now and then. (Girls do, too!)

  4. Yep, our school does that. It’s a bit more organized–we don’t have it at the school, but at a large city park close to the area where a lot of the low-income kids live. We do it there, b/c many of their parents don’t have cars or other access to transportation in the evenings, and are much more likely to come to an event within walking distance. We bring folding tables and large coolers with water and lemonade, and usually get a local ice cream company to donate 3-4 big containers of a couple of flavors, but other than that, it’s pot-luck. There’s a big playground, a basketball area, and a playing field, and the kids are on their own.

    And it’s just fine.

  5. You can do this in the neighborhood too. Last weekend we had a power outage (the one in Southern California, etc.) and all I could think of was that it was a perfect excuse to get together with our neighbors who had a firepit in their backyard. We brought dogs, a freezer cake and corn on the cob. Other neighbors started coming by and bringing food as well. There were probably half a dozen families with around ten children. The kids just played together while the adults sat around and chatted. Even when it started getting dark, no one wanted to leave. It was a great night and almost disappointing when the power came back on.

  6. I’m going to store this idea away for when my kids are in school.

  7. Sounds like heaven.

  8. Sounds nice. I am not against having activities or toys or whatever for kids to play with either though. Adding a bouncy house or games still get the same result. Kids playing and having fun on their own and making friends. Great idea.

    I am hosting a playdate at my house for both preschool classes my boys are in sometime in Nov or Oct. I invite all the kids in both classes (last year I did this too in the Spring but only invited the one class they were in together) and their parents along with siblings being welcome to come to our house and play. That way the kids and the parents can get to know each other better. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and have fun. Our house is kid heaven so the kids play the whole time and the parents can talk.

  9. This makes my heart happy. I’m all about low-key gatherings. And what’s really more fun for a kid 1) running wild with your buddies or 2) waiting 20 minutes in line for your 2 minutes in a bounce house-probably with somebody telling you that every fun trick you try is not allowed.

  10. One year for our son’s birthday we held a desert potluck at our house with the whole preschool invited. Lots of families showed up, the kids took over the backyard, the parents hung out on the porch, in the kitchen, wherever, chatting and trading desert yumminess. It was the best! No plans, no rented pool/gymnastics place/whatever.

  11. So great, unorganised play is really important to being competant adult. They get expirience planning, organising, managing conflict ect. It’s where bossy kids become leaders instead of bossy adults, and whiny kids toughen up instead of being a bunch of scared and whiny adults. I really think that if more kids were just allowed to play we would have less children who are over the age of 30.

  12. Fantastic. I’m all for kids figuring out their own entertainment. I’m constantly baffled at parents freaking out about “entertainment” and games for birthday parties. They want ideas on all these organized games to play at parties so every moment is taken up with an activity.

    What the heck is wrong with just letting the kids play, run around outside, watch a movie? That’s how my parties were and if there were some kind of activity (I remember pin the tail on the donkey one year) it was organized by the kids while the parents sat around laughing at us. My friend used to have the huge organized bashes and I HATED going to them. There was no time to just hang out and chat, there was always some game to play and she was shuffled around to everyone playing “host”. It was boring and I always wanted to leave after awhile. It probably didn’t help that I’m NOT a competitive person so I would get aggravated with all the kids going crazy trying to win (I won’t go into my hatred of pinatas) and then throwing tantrums when they didn’t. Ugh.

    Back in Chicago our block used to do a block party every summer. The planner (a woman no one in the are likes at all) always tried to have all these organized activities and a bouncy house and those years always failed. They weren’t any better than the years she apparently pocketed the donations and families just sat in their yards and the kids ran around playing with each other. The bouncy house just created issues. A parent had to stand around telling the kids not to push each other and let the little kids have a chance. The kids would fight and someone (usually one of my kids) always got hurt. I hate them.

  13. I love this, and I hate it. let me tell you why.
    Our kindergartener’s school did something like this the first week of school, on the Friday after school started. Which also happened to be the first day of school for the kindergartners. And while I can only speak for this kindergarten parent, was a totally overwhelming day/week for our family (and was also for all the other parents from our daycare that I caught up with that weekend).
    I’m a working parent. Last minute word of mouth about a POTLUCK that occurs at 3 pm (yes, that’s what time ours was….) well, doesn’t work for those of us who have to arrange our schedules around a school schedule that doesn’t work for us anyway. My work schedule, while very flexible because I am self-employed, is not flexible at the last minute because it involves other people’s schedules too. Often, I make appointments with others 1-3 weeks in advance, and I respect their time as much as I want them to respect mine.
    I love that this event was unstructured and not overly prepared & orchestrated. I hate that with little to no notice, we working parents are left in the lurch — we either can’t prepare something wholesome & cart it to a potluck at the end of the work day, get looked down on for bringing something storebought, or we can’t make it without sufficient notice.

  14. Susan: I am with you on not liking short notice things. I am not even a working parent. I have a lot of support with a husband who works at home and gets off early, etc. But I STILL hate last minute deals. I have my life planned out just so and the earlier the better. For example, when I do that preschool playdate I will give the parents at least 2 weeks notice and not expect them to bring anything or do anything. I will handle it. We have a lot of family out of town all over the place and lots of friends and lots of parties to attend and lots of doctor’s appointments, etc and if you give me less than 2 weeks notice the chances of us being free are very very slim.

    So it is doable to arrange a low key event and still give notice about it.

  15. Mitzi here. I just have to pipe in and say to Susan and Dolly that I’m not sure where you got the idea that this was a last-minute/short-notice thing. In fact, a “Save-the-Date” was sent out last spring to everyone at the school. Admittedly, most (but not all) of the communication about the event did happen the first week of school, since final email lists of school families aren’t ready until then and notices can’t be sent home with kids until there are actually kids at school to be given things!

    So, “hate” it if you must, but I will say that some of the best times in my life and in my kids’ lives are when unplanned, unscheduled things happen. And to any of my friends out there who may read this: You don’t have to give me two weeks notice to get together with me. Your kids don’t need to be scheduled out weeks in advance to play with mine. In fact, anyone free this afternoon? 🙂

  16. The exact opposite happened last spring for my son’s last-day-of-school party. The party was held at a well-equipped park: playground, jungle gym, swings, slides, open fields. But someone felt we had to have organized games (sack race and things like that) to keep the kids occupied. Groan.

  17. Mitzi, I don’t schedule many things for my family weeks out. But because I am WORKING, I do schedule my workday several weeks out. I’m in a health profession, so my patients require appointments, which I honor for them and expect them to honor.
    I do believe that unless an all-school party specifically does not include the kindergartners and the kindergarten families, then it should have been scheduled for, perhaps, the second week of school so at least those families would get more than 1 day’s notice.
    I don’t think this is malicious on anyone’s part, just enough people not thinking about how others-not-exactly-like-me might deal with this. And I think the demographics are such that in many districts in the 21st century, one should assume that at least 50% of the households have either two working parents or one working single parent.

  18. Mitzi: No hating on the event. It sounds great. Giving notice the previous year sounds like that would work just fine.

    I am guessing you either don’t get together with family or they all live close to you? Well when you have your father living 3 hours away in one direction and your mother living 1 hour away in another direction and your grandparent living 2 hours away in another direction and more relatives 5 hours away in another direction: For my kids to have ANY relationship whatsoever with their family, we have to plan stuff ahead of time. You can’t up and go out of town last minute. My relatives have lives too so we have to make sure the date works for both of us and that takes advance notice. It would be nice if my kids could just up and go visit their Mimi whenever they wanted, but our life does not work that way.

    My kids are popular and get invited to birthday parties almost every weekend. Parties are not typically planned last minute either. I get invites weeks ahead of time and that takes up a spot on the calender. Playdates have to get scheduled ahead of time since my mom friends work full or part time and they have relatives they have to visit and parties to attend etc as well. Our kids are not at drop off age yet and even then their parents still have to be available to drop them off.

    Having kids with special needs and medical problems we also have a lot of speech therapy and doctor’s appointments and state meetings etc set up ahead of time. Plus they have friends all over town and in other cities so you have to plan ahead of time to work out the driving time. Our city is a very stretched out city in that someone can live in the same city and it still takes an hour to get to their house.

    If you don’t live a scheduled life and that works out well for you, go for it. Is not possible for us and actually most of the people we know. The few people I do know that live their lives unscheduled have crazy lives and that kind of life would drive me insane. I am way too type A for that. I like to know what is going on so I am prepared.

  19. Wanted to add another reason we are always booked on the calender is I am always trying to plan fun vacations or outings for my kids to Nature Centers, Botanical Gardens, Zoos, Amusement parks, museums, etc in other cities and I usually take a grandparent with us so they get a visit with a grandparent and a fun and educational outing. My kids do not stay cooped up inside or spend all their free time at Little League or Soccer every weekend. They are doing varied things and getting to spend time with friends and family. We would all get SO bored just sitting at home all the time. Even with outside free play or whatever. We are a get up and go family but that takes planning too. I have to book hotel rooms and research the new places we are visiting, etc. Very good family bonding time.

  20. Love it!!! Last weekend was my son’s 8th Birthday party. I rented a small campground (pavilion, lake, sandy beach). We had 25 kids. The boys loved playing on the beach, swimming in the lake, and taking out all variety of boats. It was a sight to see 20+ 7&8 year old boys all piled into canoes, paddleboats, and kayaks with no parents! I did insist that a parent stay at the party with each child. I was not about to be responsible for that many kids on a lake by myself. All of us parents hung out in the pavalion watching the kids have a great time. We also had a friend bring a cotton candy machine and a snow cone machine. The kids thought it was the best thing ever, unlimited sugar and freedom over the whole lake 🙂 After everyone else left I let my son have one friend spend the night. My mom bought him his own 2 man tent. He and his friend put it up and slept in it all night 🙂

  21. That sounds like a fun birthday party Nanci! Camping theme parties are so cute!

  22. Sounds like alot of fun. My daughter’s school has playdates at the school playground once a month during the summer. The kids play while the adults talk. The principal brings out a cooler full of popsicles but that is the extent of the activities involved.

    I do understand how these type of things can be very inconvenient for working parents – particularly at 3pm on a weekday (Susan’s event, not Mitzi’s) – if short notice. Most employers want more than a day or two notice for people to take off work.

    While I’m all for plans for major events, if I have to constantly make appointments to hang out with people/have play dates 2 weeks+ in advance, I’m not going to be hanging out with those people very often. Who has time to do all that planning? I plan very little during the week now that the kiddo is in school and I don’t like a lot of obligations on the weekends. I like being able to decide to go out of town at the last minute, stay home and veg or find friends to hang out with. I don’t know weeks in advance if I’m going to really want to do A, B or C.

  23. We have a couple events – new families, class posting, etc. like this and never have anything beyond a few ball the kids argue over, soccer ball of course as there’s a large population of latino families, and music from parents and teachers for dancing. And for those who get looked down upon for bringing store brought stuff to a potluck? Ignore those idiots 🙂

  24. Donna: Yeah I had friends more like you too that would cancel last minute or were hesitant about making plans ahead of time. Our friendship did not last too long just because that is not how I roll. It was cool. Birds of a feather and all that. If someone asks me to do something last minute and I am free, then I am all for it. The problem is that I am probably not going to be free last minute most of the time. I found a group of friends where we all show up when we say we are going to and can make plans ahead of time.

    It is all about finding friends on the same wavelength as you and trying to compromise if you find a friend that is different than you.

    I was just validating Susan that other parents prefer advance notice for whatever reason on events as well. I had to actually say something to the preschool teachers last year because they were only giving me one week to two weeks notice on projects or costumes for school and since I have twins I have to do twice as much work. I told them I need more advance notice if they can handle that. Otherwise I start to get stressed out if I don’t have things done.

    I was the nerd in school that had her final paper done a month before it was due and I buy and wrap birthday presents months before the party. I am just a nerd like that.

  25. This is pretty much how I have done the best birthday parties for my kids. I bring the cupcakes to the park after school, and invite everyone to come and play. A few balls, some pool noodles (that become light sabers and swords) and everyone had a grand time. I did give notice a couple weeks ahead of time. Most parents would bring some snacks too, so it ended up being pot luck. And because of how I did it, other parents started doing the same thing. Low key, the only games were the ones the kids wanted to play on their own.

  26. I have yet to do party games at one of my parties for my kids too. Mostly because all the kids were little and it is hard to get little kids to all play a game because they are just wanting to run around and some don’t really understand how games work. We do our parties at attractions so that the kids are entertained but they mostly free play within said attraction. If that makes sense. Like a children’s museum birthday party or a carousel birthday party etc. When we do stuff at our house it is the same of just letting the kids play with all the toys and run around.

  27. This is brilliant and yet completely COMMON SENSE. LOVE it!

    I am trying to get my neighborhood to get more involved with one another. My grandmother called our street a “ghost town”. Ugh.

  28. I agree that kid’s events do not need to be extensively planned and structured. Every party I’ve ever thrown for my daughter (except one at a mini-golf), I’ve set out food (some nutritious, some not), balloons and decorations, and let ’em play. I interfere if someone’s being unsafe or unhappy, but mostly just let the party happen. I’ve never had a bouncy house, and never had a plan, never had a problem. Kids don’t need planned activities to have fun; strap a kid into a carseat with no toys, no music, and no friends, and they’ll STILL find a way to have fun.

  29. Our school does this a couple of times a term and it is fantastic! There are no activities planned, the kids just play and the parents chat, a win win!

  30. At my son’s elementary school each class would have a potluck picnic at the end of the year to say goodbye to their teacher. It was on the school playground. The only “planned activity” was when the parent representative presented the class’ parting gift to the teacher. While the parents ate and chatted with each other, the kids played on the playground’s grassy area. Sometimes a child would bring a ball. If that happened, the boys would play soccer. If nobody brought a ball, then the kids would play tag or other sorts of games that they would make up. The girls would either join the boys or play in the playhouse that was part of the school playground. I didn’t really pay attention to what the kids were doing, but judging from their laughter and not wanting to go home afterward, they had a great time. The kids didn’t need any jumping castles or other organized activities to entertain themselves. They were quite capable of organizing their own fun with zero or minimal equipment. As Aussie Sarah said above, it was a win-win situation for both the adults and the kids.

  31. Ha! I’ll try something like this for our next birthday party… Something like adding BYOT (Bring Your Own Toy) on each invitation.
    On another note, a new tradition was born last year at our school, as a side-effect of this recession. All the kids invited to a birthday party put a little bit of their money together, and buy just one present. The birthday kid gets one excellent present, instead of lots of little crappy toys, the guests only have to spend about half of what they intended, and best of all, they have to spend some time getting together to think what the best present could be, purchasing it…

  32. @ Lola, My son and his friends have chipped in to buy their friends one nice birthday gift. It has worked out very well. The other thing that many of the kids do here is give gift certificates to local stores and let the birthday kid pick out his own present. At one party last year each of the invited kids chipped in 10 euro (about $13.60) for a gift certificate to a shop that was the birthday boy’s particular favorite. The birthday boy was able to buy himself a nice skateboard with his gift certificate. If each of the attendees had brought their own small presents, that boy would not have been able to get his skateboard. It works out well for the parents of kids who are invited to parties because they don’t spend as much as if they went to the local toy store and bought something (there is just one toy store in town and it’s very expensive). The kids like getting gift certificates because they enjoy being able to choose something and not deal with returning duplicate gifts or getting something “lame.”

  33. Lola and gap.runner, my friends and I started doing that sometime around 7th grade. Partly because with half of our birthdays in the same week as Christmas (what are the chances?) and when babysitting is your only form of income chipping in works best. Birthdays aren’t really an issue for my little ones yet but I do wonder if I find willing parents if I try to bring up the idea. Trying to convince my in-laws to do draw names for holidays has been a complete failure so I’m a little gun shy.

  34. It’s funny, I stared something similar earlier this year. My kids aren’t in school yet, but we’ve begun a tradition – in the late winter (I’m in South Florida, that’s the ideal time of year for outdoor events) we rented a pavaillion at a local park with an awesome playgroud. We invited everyone we new from our community and jobs that had playground-age kids. This year we invited about 30 families, asking each one to bring a small dish and come for some playtime and socializing – nothing fancy. It was a HUGE success! The famalies that couldn’t make it were really disappointed. We are planning to do it again next upcoming February, and the guest list is closer to 50 families already.

  35. Fantastic! It is only us adults, that get caught up in the frenzy of feeling desperately insatiable about needing to constantly “entertain” our kids. And what’s the result? Anxiety ridden children, over-diagnosis of ADD& ADHD, inflated senses of entitlement, you name it. The list goes on.

    Hats off to you Mitzi for thinking out of the box. What a success, more PTA/O’s should take heed.

  36. At my daughter’s school picnic the kids played on the playground and my almost ten year old “checked in” with me when she was ready. I watched the food and drink and talked to the other parents. The only tough decision for my daughter was who is play with. The grownups had a short PTA meeting and enjoyed the beautiful September day.

  37. I like this. My kids go to a new charter school, so the PTA or PTO isn’t set up yet, but this looks like an easy event once things get more organized. It’s similar to how I run birthday parties. Cake, food, go play kids.

  38. Thanks, Mitzi, and thanks Michele! This is so inspiring. Funny, how easy it is to forget that kids just know how to have fun. (If ever they need ideas, the last place they would turn to would be to the adults!) It sounds so simple and festive, the way you did it, and the best way to kick off the school year. Way to go!

  39. My kids preschool had a welcome and a good-bye picnic every year. The school named the space and provided watermelon at the good-bye picnic. Families brought their OWN dinner and blankets….kids ran around and had a blast. Amazing time socializing and having fun and even less organization required. No one cared/judged if a family brought pizza or store bought for their own family/kids.

  40. Something to throw out there: I am always a big fan of each family bring their OWN food. Simply because with families that have food allergies (we are one of them) it is really hard to deal with events where you are expected to bring a dish to share, but you know you probably won’t be able to eat anything else others brought to share. I would just rather bring our food and leave it at that.

  41. You could always bring a dish to share and then bring something small you know your kid (or your spouse or yourself or whomever has the food allergy) will eat. That way, that person is covered, you’re still participating in the potluck and those without food allergies can try out new stuff.

    How do you suggest the idea of the kids attending a birthday party to pool their money to buy one present? Is the birthday kid’s parents bringing it up? Because that seems… strange. Like dictating what kind of generosity you want out of the guests. Is another parent bringing it up? I think it’s genuinely a fantastic idea, just curious as to how to get the ball rolling on something like that.

  42. this really hit home to me, as a high school student, i try to maximize the school day fun. picnics are a great way to do this, but the reactions that i get from parents are atrocious and make me feel as though students of all ages are frowned upon when they are out during school

  43. Kiesha: That is what I do. I have to make something to share and then bring my own family’s food too. So just extra work on my part, but you know I am used to it. It is not just ONE family member that has trouble eating food from others. My husband has a shellfish allergy, my son has a peanut allergy, and I am a vegetarian. So yeah, finding something we all can eat is not easy.

    I suck it and up and do the extra work, but honestly since we don’t eat the food brought by others I kinda resent having to contribute food to others as well. I usually try to bring a peanut free dessert if that is allowed and we can eat that and that way my son has at least one dessert he can eat.

  44. I agree with Keisha about bringing up pooling money for a present for birthday parties. If the host brings it up that is kinda the height of rudeness. Hosts are never supposed to mention gifts or solicit gifts. If a group of moms or friends all get together and agree to do the pooling thing that is fine. Of course, if one person does not want to participate in the pooling, that should be respected as well.

    I often buy birthday gifts for kids way ahead of time and even wrap them ahead of time. I know some kids who we always will be invited to their parties so I do it way ahead of time. So if I already bought the present and had it wrapped, I am not going to pool money if someone brings it up. I buy nice toys when they are on sale and save them up so I always have gifts to give. So the idea of just giving someone $15 is not something I particularly would want to do.

  45. Dolly I don’t think it’s necessarily rudeness. We live in a multicultural society (downunder, anyway, and it must be the same in the States these days, surely?). For my Chinese rellies, money is the preferred gift, and they are not shy about saying so – not being rude, either, just stating a cultural preference.
    As for organising party games, must confess I’m a bit anal that way – maybe next time I’ll just leave it up to the kids, like I do when it’s not a prty, just friends hanging out….

  46. Hineata: You have to follow the cultural norms of the culture you are in. So here in the US at least, it is still considered rude to solicit gifts or ask for money. So if you do it, know you are being rude even if in your culture, it is not rude. If someone asked for money, they would not get it from me and I might just return the gift I was going to get them and get them nothing. Now if someone ASKS you “What do you want?” You can say “I would really prefer money to save up to buy blank, but whatever you want to get me would be fine.” That is okay because they specifically asked. If they don’t ask though, you better not tell.

  47. My neighbor throws a block party every year. This year was a breakfast. The pass out invites to everyone with a requested ingredient (we brought bread for french toast) and then we just hang out and get to know each other. I found out that we’re known as the “big dog” house.

    My daughter is 3, so we haven’t exactly had a lot of parties. But I learned on her first birthday that big parties are NOT for me. Since her birthday is in August, now we just invite over a couple kids, assure the parents that they don’t have to stay, and that we don’t want presents, and then they just play in a wading pool and the sprinkler with a couple sponges and plastic cups.

  48. Good post

  49. Good post you have. A great help for those who are planning to have parties not costly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: