The Family Reunion Planner
For nearly 25 years, Janice Maxine Jones of Carrollton, Alabama, has created games to encourage relatives to mingle at the biennial Windham family reunion. The wagon-cover pull and Hula-Hoop chain game are so popular that they’ve become regular events.
Whether you’re planning a small backyard barbecue or a 200-person jamboree, fun activities are key to keeping people entertained, bridging multiple generations and maintaining momentum. When people are engaged in activities, they are forming connections, telling stories and sharing family history.
“If you’re going to get people together, there should always be an element of fun,” says event planner Corrine Thomas, owner of Absolute Events by Corrine in Kearny, New Jersey. “The more fun they have together, the more they will want to get together again.”
That’s especially true for relatives who drive long distances to a reunion or make it their annual vacation, says Sylvia Ford-George of Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, who serves on the Family Reunion Institute’s advisory board. Also, “activities are a way to get the younger people interested and involved in the reunion planning to keep it fresh,” she says.
Relatives may not have seen each other for some time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so incorporating some icebreaker activities can be helpful to getting everyone reacquainted or acquainted.
When the Christian Bush Tinsley family reunion takes place in September for the first time in about 30 years, many of the 100 attendees won’t know each other, says Jackie DesChamps, 60, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, one of the reunion planners. “People need to get to know each other,” she says. “You do as much interacting as you can.”
DesChamps recommends arranging dinner seating by birthday month (everyone born in June sits together). Another idea for both in-person and virtual reunions is to create 10 questions such as “Do you speak another language?” or “What is your favorite movie?” to jump-start conversations, she says. Check out 100 icebreaker questions from SignUpGenius, a digital platform for planning and managing events.
Ford-George suggests another icebreaker called Whisper Down the Lane. The first person in a line or circle says her name and where she lives. Each person after that must introduce themselves as well as all the people who preceded them. “People forget,” she says. “It’s hilarious.”
For children and teens
The trick is to draw the youngsters away from their phones and video games by offering activities they’re interested in, Ford-George says.
Face-painting, temporary tattoos and a crafts table are always big hits with young children. Consider renting a bounce house, or buy one if you’ll use it multiple times over the years.
For young adults, plan a series of sports tournaments like basketball, softball and volleyball. Arrange teams by age or home state.
Jones finds many ideas for playing Minute to Win It on PlayPartyPlan.com, with over 200 games from the former television show where contestants completed tasks in less than a minute to win money. One game that’s popular with her family is Face the Cookie: You lean your head back, place a cookie on your forehead and use only facial muscles to move it to your mouth.
Activities to connect the generations
The challenge of reunions is in planning activities for relatives who can range from babies to 90-somethings — all with different interests.
“One of the things that’s really important is getting to know our older family members,” which is how family stories are passed on, DesChamps says. “You have to do different sorts of things. What might be fun for a 50-year-old is not fun for a teenager.”
Here are nine generation-spanning activities:
- Board games: Devote one night to playing board games. Kids may be surprised that their grandparents played games like Battleship and Candyland that they still enjoy. Plan a tournament, mixing older and younger generations on the same team.
- Movie night: Set up chairs indoors or blankets outdoors and provide popcorn to watch a family-friendly film like Luca or Soul.
- Water balloon toss: Two rows of people facing each other toss water-filled balloons back and forth. When your balloon bursts, your team’s out, and the team left standing with a full balloon wins. It’s a great game on a hot day.
- Relay races: Make sure there’s a race for every age group, with prizes like small trophies or ribbons, Ford-George suggests. Options include a baby crawl, sack hop or potato race.
- Family photo bingo: Players match photos of family members instead of letter-number combinations.
- Scavenger hunt: Participants search for listed items, like a type of flower, or solve clues leading to treasure. Create duos of cousins or pair an adult with a teenager to foster fellowship.
- Talent show: Everyone has a talent, even if it’s reciting a poem. Reunion planners should notify attendees early enough so they have time to prepare.
- Dance contest: Before the reunion, have younger and older generations suggest music for a playlist. “Older folks like to swing dance and younger folks think they can dance,” DesChamps says. “It’s a lot of fun and it brings the generations together.”
- Water sports: If your reunion is near a beach, lake or river, consider swimming, kayaking, canoeing or fishing.
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For longer family reunions, people like to plan an off-site excursion, Thomas says. The cost is either built into the reunion registration fee or people pay separately. Some ideas include:
Theme park: A trip to a nearby amusement or water park is a guaranteed hit, especially on a warm day.
Escape Room: A game in which a group of people must work together to find clues and solve puzzles in a set amount of time to exit the room.
Hayride: Family members young and old can enjoy a hayride in the country on a beautiful day.
Fruit-picking: Find a local farm where all ages can pick fruit like apples and blueberries. The best part is that the family gets to snack on the delicious bounty.
As Ford-George says: “You try to strike a balance so everybody has something they enjoy about the reunion."
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association’s website.