The School Picnic That Didn’t Go According to Plan

Worth reading, and even bringing to your next PTA meeting:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I felt compelled to write you a little note, today, as I have a confession to make.

For the past two years, I’ve been in charge of the picnic at my son’s school, here in Winnipeg. Last year, I followed the bare bones instructions of the previous organizer, and did as had been done for years.

This year, however, changes were forced upon us due to a major construction project on the school grounds. We had to have the picnic to a park a couple of streets over. Only problem was that we had to forego bouncy houses on this particular site, which would be a disappointment to the kids, as this had become a tradition.

To make up for this, I started searching for large group game ideas and fell upon your blog post about a school picnic experience. I found it quite interesting, but did not have the courage to dive into letting the picnic go “Free-Range.” I spent hours over the past week preparing games, signs, collecting material for last night’s picnic.

Then, just as the party was about to begin, there was a problem with our hot dog vendor. While I was busy trying to figure that out, families were arriving. My games weren’t set up and I didn’t have time to give full instructions to the volunteers. I was panicking! But do you know what?

The kids had fun! They ran, they kicked balls they’d brought along. They rolled down the grassy hills, did their own face painting with the stuff I’d left on a table and meant to go back to set up, and just enjoyed being in an open space, running free. In other words, THEY ENJOYED THEMSELVES, without having any structure! The principal and the vice-principal, parents, kids… They all told me they LOVED the picnic this year because the kids were free to run and play.

You were right. I didn’t TRUST what you wrote. I should have. I know now. :)

Thank you for your blog. Our future picnics will be minimally structured, as they should have always been. :)

All the best, Joelle

No adult involvement needed.

No adult involvement needed!

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12 Responses to The School Picnic That Didn’t Go According to Plan

  1. tdr June 19, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    I follow this same philosophy with my kids’ birthday parties. Send them outside with a ball or two! Just too lazy to do it otherwise. Never had a complaint about it.

    Similar vein, but slightly more interesting — we had a biking party when my youngest (finally) learned to bike. Set up cake and ice cream in a bike friendly park. I fed the kids and then didn’t see them until the thunder/lightning/downpour started. :-)

  2. Emily June 19, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    I gave my oldest son the option of two different locations for parties. One, a restaurant he loves and the other (shudder) Chuck E Cheese. He asked if we could just go to the same park we went to last year. So we’ll pick up the food from the restaurant, I’ll make a cake that is awesome in my head, but belongs on Cake Wrecks and we’ll eat, play and laugh. Sounds perfect to me.

  3. Steve June 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    This is one more story Free Range parents can point to and say, “see, it works. Kid’s can play in an unstructured environment and have fun and not kill each other.”

    Thank you, Joelle, for sharing your story.

  4. lollipoplover June 19, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Kids left to their own devices will usually find activities to entertain themselves and enjoy THEIR free play time. We adults seem to think it will turn into Lord of the Flies if we don’t give them everyone-wins games, bouncy houses, crafts, and scheduled, pre-aprroved snacks and drinks. They don’t need all of this when it’s a beautiful day at a park. Don’t try to make happy children happier.

  5. Mitzi June 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm #


    I’m the Mitzi who wrote about our school’s Fall Family Picnic on the original post. I was thrilled to see that our tradition inspired others!

    This year, we’ll be doing the 4th annual picnic, and it’s still as low-key and simple as ever. In fact, last year, we had to cancel the picnic due to heavy rain and thunder the day it was scheduled, but even that was not a big deal (other than disappointed kids). When you have an event that’s “free-range,” and you end up needing to cancel, it’s very easy. The principal, the PTO Board and I made the decision early in the day, I called the pizza guy and other than communicating to the parents, that was about it. No costs we couldn’t recoup, no preparing enormous amounts of activities for naught, no running around returning things or trying to see if we could get refunds.

    Hoping for a clear sky this fall for our next picnic!

  6. SOA June 19, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    Thumbs up!

    When I play parties for my kids I never do the whole everyone do this one game at this time and then everyone do this game next. I just set up various games and there is a swingset or playground or bouncy house or pool and put out balls, bubbles etc and let the kids go do whatever they what, however they want, whenever they want. I think that goes better than trying to micromanage and control everything.

  7. Richard June 19, 2014 at 5:29 pm #


    I do kind of see the potluck comments – we’ve been in that situation before as well (both of us work during the day, two kids). Since many of the parties that are potluck happen during the week and we’re getting off work early to go to them in the first place, its really difficult to bring a homemade dish. We’d like to come – we actually wouldn’t mind chipping in some money for pizza or other catered food – but getting glared at my many (not all, but many) of the stay-at-home parents for grabbing something pre-made does get very old.

  8. KLY June 19, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    When my daughter started school and her parties able to include more than just family and family friends, we decided to have a Hallowe’en party because her birthday had been at the very beginning of the year before she’d really gotten to know any of her classmates. My attitude was “a costume party for Kindergarteners? No sweat!” and I said I’d do the planning. And it was no big deal, which is why I was so very confused when, early (EARLY, early) the morning of the party, I started getting frantic phone calls from her father (we were separated) and his mother, freaking out about not having games and activities and whatever. I was like “I have food, cheesy hallowe’en music cds, and face paint for an ice breaker (it helps with shy kids). IT’S FINE.” I mean, a decorated room full of kids who are all dressed up. That’s all you need.

    They doubted. I was right. It was such a hit that I *still* hear about my parties from parents of kids who were there (it was almost ten years ago).
    They still doubted when it came to birthday parties, which (being in summer) also added a swimming pool. Finally, they figured out I was right, and it has been the winning formula ever since.

    Why do people think kids need planned activities? Half the time, trying to organize kids when there is so much stimulation just leads to frustration on everyone’s part. Food, someplace to play, and a bunch of other kids is pretty much all it takes.

  9. Angela June 19, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    It works for birthday parties too! Kids are pretty happy just coming over and playing with someone else’s toys.

  10. SOA June 19, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

    Exactly KLY: My kids at least behave way better and have more fun at free play type parties. Especially when you have kids of varying abilities, maturity and ages. Not all kids are going to be patient or mature enough to wait in line for a game. Not all kids are going to be gracious winners or losers. I put out games at parties but make it more about hey if you want to play ring toss, there it is but there is no prize so it does not matter if you stink at it and there probably won’t be a big line because there are a bunch of other activities other kids are doing at the same time. Definitely cuts down on tantrums from all the kids.

    I also find kids seem more easy going when playing games organized by other kids than they do when adults organize them. If I try to get my kids to do a game they whine about losing or act impatient, but I notice when an older kid they look up to organizes a game, they are all for it. So I don’t micromanage and let them just have at it.

  11. tdr June 20, 2014 at 8:10 am #

    One more point I thought of while reading through the comments.

    When you make large-scale events like this low-key and simple (easy to plan and CHEAP0 they are much more likely to happen!

  12. derfel cadarn June 22, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    I have a suspicious feeling this kind of entertainment has been popular with human children since at least Lucy AL288-1( Look it up)