Kids just want to have fun. Should schools provide it?

Halloween illustrates one of the land mines that schools must traverse

Educational leaders often tell me their biggest headaches don’t emanate from the classroom but all the extra “fun” activities that schools take on, such as proms, sports and even such seemingly innocuous offerings at the elementary school level as crazy hair day or dress as your favorite book character.

The tribulations of proms and homecoming dances are obvious, from the policing of attendees for alcohol and drugs to the financial costs to students now that these events have escalated to rented limos, expensive outfits and after-parties. Sports and cheerleading — and any other extracurriculars predicated on tryouts and auditions — can upset parents if their children don’t earn a spot.

But what could be the minefields with elementary school spirit weeks?

A local parent complained to me after her elementary school canceled spirit week, which often falls on the week leading to Halloween. Each day offers a fun theme for the young students, including dressing as their favorite book character. At this parent’s school, there were apparently complaints that the dress-up day amounted to a Halloween costume parade. The mom felt this was another example of extreme political correctness and said her daughter was crestfallen.

Some schools sidestep Halloween parties or parades because of concerns the holiday could run counter to religious beliefs of some families in the community. Many Georgia elementary schools participate in Red Ribbon Week, which also leads up to Halloween and teaches children about the risks of drugs and alcohol. A superhero day is among the daily themes — “Superheroes have the power to say NO to drugs” — which also enables kids to wear costumes to school.

A standard feature of these weeks used to be crazy hair day, but that’s been jettisoned in many places. The “crazy” tended be any style outside norms for white hair, so many students showed in cornrows, braids, Bantu knots or Afros.

(Here is an excellent piece from a Black parent who explains that she understands it’s hard to come up with theme days “that include all the cultures of the rainbow, that are also safe, easy school board-approved.” Tanya Hayles, founder of Black Moms Connection, writes, “But while these days may feel like throwaway, easy wins for student morale, they aren’t always. Not unless there is an emphasis on inclusion for a diversity of perspectives and experiences.”)

The teacher site, We are Teachers, offers an inventory of problematic theme days. Among them: Twin Day, in which kids dress the same as a best friend. For children who don’t have a best buddy, Twin Day does not foster a sense of belonging — the intent of spirit week — but makes them feel apart and alone.

Parents have long been the driving force behind schools sponsoring a wide range of fun and enriching extracurricular activities for students. These activities often depend on the good will of teachers to make them happen, so it’s demoralizing when educators find themselves criticized for their efforts.

I attended a no-frills Catholic school where any fun occurred at recess on the playground. We had no field trips, after-school chess clubs or strings programs. Nor did we have any theme days, unless you count celebrating the feast days of saints, which just meant more time in a church pew.

I was amazed at the number of fun programs held at my children’s public schools. As a parent with a job outside the home, I will admit some of the fun necessitated late-night runs to the store for pajamas since my children’s bedtime T-shirts and sweatpants would not suffice for wear-your-PJs-to-school day. There were frantic dashes, too, for the popsicles or juice boxes we pledged to provide for field day.

The amount of effort educators devote to making school more fun for students impresses me, and these events certainly appeal to the kids. But there can be fallout.

Not everyone finds all the events enticing. I’ve known parents who dreaded the annual field days because their children hated the hullabaloo and wanted to stay home. And there are parents without the time or money to outfit their third grader as Hermione Granger for favorite character day or Amanda Gorman for favorite author. And schools still struggle to be fully inclusive in designing all of these feel-good activities.

Your thoughts?