Pro Tips for Planning a School Carnival
A school carnival or fall festival is a fun tradition that PTA/PTO parents everywhere love and hate. They love the social, fun-filled atmosphere that promotes a strong culture and community, but they often hate the headache that comes with planning an event that has a high cost, both monetarily and in volunteer time.
As the chair of this type of event, you may be really overwhelmed with everything there is to accomplish and unable to sleep at night wondering what you might have missed. We’ve created a robust guide to help take the stress out of the planning process and ensure you’ll get to have as much fun as everyone else! Start here to wrap your head around the basics and then check out the links to additional resources and posts that share more detail in each area.
Get Organized: Budget, Timeline & Checklist
First things first, with most PTA/PTOs and booster clubs, there is a pre-defined budget to follow. It is probably based on previous events, so use it as a guideline when planning your event. If you are starting from scratch, or want to make a change to the previous budgets, some things to consider include how much the community families will be willing to spend on wristbands or tickets, how much is likely to be raised in local business sponsorships, and how much the PTA/PTO/booster club has in reserves to cover hard, fixed costs in case of a shortfall. Then, gather the costs of all the rides, games, and activity options you will want to rent or purchase to keep your number of attendees entertained and engaged. Add in the cost of game prizes, candy, and custodial fees that may be charged by your school maintenance staff or district. This is the start of your budget. Here is an example budget for a school carnival with an expected 500 attendees:
Next, you’ll want to firm up your Event Planning Timeline. Many school volunteers note that planning starts as far as a year in advance when dates need to be solidified with the district and placed on the school calendar. However, the bulk of the work in planning for a large carnival or festival should start about six months in advance when the rentals need to be booked and committee members recruited for their roles. About three months in advance, signs and supplies need to be ordered. And crunch time comes the month or so prior when all the final details need to be completed. Here’s a handy timeline we created to make sure you keep on top of the tasks for each time frame leading up to the big day!
Finally, having a Master Checklist of school carnival planning tasks is very helpful to keep organized and to share responsibilities with other leaders and volunteers. It includes items like necessary equipment, rides and inflatables you plan to rent, games, other activities (like face painting), entertainment, and food trucks and vendors.
Find Help: Committee, Parent & Student Volunteers
Finding a great school carnival planning committee is not always easy. Many parents are busy working or caring for younger children at home. I like to start by asking parents who have been involved in the particular event before (if it is an annual event). Some experienced parents can be very valuable because they know and can help others visualize how things have gone before. Even if you want to change some things up, they have a wealth of knowledge that can be very helpful.
If the previous committee members are already committed in new roles, perhaps they can suggest a friend that may be a good fit for a previous role. These experienced parents can also help with recruiting the new committee members. Next, I like to ask home room parents for suggestions of new parents or parents of the youngest students in the school. These parents often have amazing energy and want to get involved, but often don’t know how they can be helpful.
Some parents want to help at the event, but can’t commit to a role on the planning committee. Keep a list of these parents and send them the link to volunteer for a shift instead. We like to use Signup.com to manage all of the volunteer shifts for our school events. It helps get the roles organized and takes care of communicating details with the entire group and reminding each person of their shift time and reporting location.
Finally, in recent years, we switched to using high school and middle school students to volunteer for the majority of roles at our school carnival. It was a HUGE success! The students earned volunteer hours for National Honor Society, Boy Scouts, and other organizations. These students are so much fun to have at the event, and you can make it fun for them by letting them pair up with a friend and providing snacks or drinks.
Get Creative: Rides, Games & Food
This is where the fun really starts! Planning the myriad of excitement for the day can be overwhelming, but just focus on a few mainstays to get started or decide on a theme. A classic carnival might include a rock climbing wall, a spinning tea cups ride, and a bounce house. Themes can really help narrow down the choices that otherwise seem unlimited.
For instance, an elementary school in our district planned what they called the School Jam, with the primary entertainment being local musicians and even student performers who take lessons at a nearby studio. So, their rentals followed the theme. We started with a stage rental, audio equipment and tent. This year, however, the school wanted to move the event from it’s traditional spring date, to a date in October, so we are going with a new fall theme and providing a petting zoo and a trackless train ride. Another school we coordinate rentals for does a School Olympics theme, so most of the rentals are inflatables like obstacle courses, an inflatable jousting ring, and a euro bungee trampoline. Others do a western theme, starting with a mechanical bull.
It really is easiest to start with the theme, select the big rides and then start to fill out with other games and activities. Smaller carnival game rentals can include classics like ring toss, skeeball, basketball shot or a dunk tank. And activities like face painting, balloon animals, and sand art are always a hit. Utilize those student volunteers for manning these smaller games and activities, and you can really free up your budget for those bigger ticket rentals!
The best solution we have seen for food is to bring in food trucks, if they are available in your area. They should be permitted and approved to handle food by your local regulators and will often donate a portion of the day’s sales back to the school. For a 500 person event, we typically see 2-3 options in food trucks and maybe 1-2 dessert vendors. Popular options include burgers, hotdogs, pizza, and barbecue along with cotton candy, ice cream or snow cones! If you want to provide your own concessions, we have a bunch of concessions rentals available, just be sure to check on local regulations regarding food handling to be sure you follow all mandatory guidelines!
Get Started: Calendar, Reserve & Order
Once you’ve made some decisions about the date, theme, rentals, and food, start putting pen to paper and get your school carnival reservations done. Let the school and other stakeholders know about the date so it can be checked against potential conflicts. Reserve your rentals and book the food trucks as soon as your date is confirmed to avoid missing out on your top choices or complicating things with too many vendors. Go ahead and order the supplies you know you will need like decor, candy, prizes for games, face paint and sand art kits. Just starting to check some of these big items off the list will really help you feel on top of the planning. Grab our checklist and timeline to make sure you’ve got all the details in one place!