Family involvement benefits children, families, teachers, and schools. When parents and other primary caregivers participate in school activities, it validates for children the importance of the program in their lives, helps families and teachers develop strong relationships, and is another way early childhood settings welcome families as part of a caring community of learners. Hosting a family night that includes activities for all family members—children and adults—is a great way to promote parental participation and family support. For a successful family event, keep the following suggestions in mind.
1. Select topics that interest everybody. Family nights can focus on any one of a number of topics—for example, literacy, math, music, family yoga, or puzzles and games. Consider which topics you would like parents to reinforce with children at home, and survey families about what they would like. If families are interested in the evening’s focus, they are more likely to attend. One school organized Messy Art Night for children and their families, with simple activities that could be replicated at home.
2. Plan activities that will engage both children and adults. Often, either the child or the accompanying adult family member sits on the sidelines while the other participates in the activity. Include activities that will engage children and adults simultaneously—for example, have the child tell a story while the adult writes it down or illustrates it, or have the child and family member create a snack together, such as Ants on a Log, with celery, cream cheese, and raisins. Activities can be organized like centers, with several things going on at the same time; families can rotate through the different stations. Prepare handouts so families know what to expect and include a map of the classroom with the location and time of each center, so that families can move smoothly through the activities.
3. Plan activities for children of various ages so siblings can attend. Families that need to find a babysitter for siblings may be unable to attend, so plan an event that’s family friendly. Prepare name tags for everyone so families can get acquainted.
4. Actively recruit participation through direct contact. Send a pre-event survey to generate interest and find out when parents are able to attend. Your excitement can influence the children’s and their families’ enthusiasm. Remember to post and send home reminder messages— in your weekly newsletter and in individual notes to families.
5. Include whole group, small group, and individual activities. Much like the children in your classroom, some families will feel more comfortable in a group, while others may prefer to work alone. Be responsive to their needs. Similarly, offer quiet and lively stations and activities. Remember, some families may not appreciate taking home overly excited children, so include some calming activities toward the end of the evening, such as drawing or reading books together.
6. Offer simple instructions and support at each station and center. Have a volunteer or staff member at each station to describe the activity, answer questions, and suggest additional ideas. Make sure dual language learners and their families understand what to do. Invite bilingual helpers to attend, if possible, or translate directions in advance.
7. Provide activity bags with materials for families to use together at home. The day of the event, send home bags with an activity—materials and directions—for families who cannot attend the event. Give out the remaining bags at the event. The activity might include an inexpensive book and materials the child could use to create a puppet and retell the story. Or you could add a small bag of buttons for practicing counting and classifying. Prepare the bags in advance and make enough for every family. This helps families stay connected with what is happening in the program and reinforce learning.
8. Work with families on transportation—including parking. Your facility may have plenty of parking when parents are dropping off or picking up their children, but if everyone is present at the same time, can you accommodate all the cars? Consider holding an open house, inviting families to drop by at different points during the evening.
9. Clearly identify staff and volunteers so parents know who to ask for help.
Name tags are fine, but, if possible, have workers wear matching shirts to allow participants to quickly identify them when they have questions or needs. This is especially helpful during a schoolwide event. If you are hosting the program with a smaller group, make sure to introduce event organizers.
10. Ask teachers and a few adults to be photographers. With permission, take family photos to give to families or to share through your program’s social media. Photos serve as conversation starters for children and their families at home, remembering the activities and the fun. They can be emailed or printed out, and they make welcoming bulletin boards.