5 Creative Ways to Design Programs in Limited or Less-than-Ideal Spaces

As we turn our focus back to in-person programming this fall, our student leaders are already abuzz about the possibilities of a return to the type of engagement opportunities they have missed out on this past year and a half. 

The demand for space is already at a premium, and you may find yourself shut out of your desired programming space. Fortunately, with a little creative thinking, you can still find ways to host your programs and draw students to your offerings. 

Here are some ways I’ve gotten creative in solving  my own event space challenges:

Program Outside

When space is lacking, the first and most obvious option may be to hold your program outside. While this presents additional challenges — including requesting that your facilities department deliver tables, chairs, stages, and garbage and recycling containers — it provides a variety of exciting opportunities too. Your programs can now be bigger, more visible, and messier. 

Outdoor programming works fantastically if the fates are smiling on you and it’s not rainy, too hot, or too cold. It’s for this reason that I often seek out covered outdoor structures, including gazebos and pavilions. To cover your bases, however, you should probably still attempt to book an inside location as a backup that you can release if and when you become more confident that the weather will hold out. 

Take To

In a previous post, I suggested the idea of take-to programming. Taking students as a group to another existing campus program is a great way to support other program planners and to drive up attendance for already-planned events. If you lack space (and budget), this might be a good option for you. 

Go To

If your budget allows, consider taking students off-campus for events. 

If your campus does not provide some sort of transportation, and hiring busses is out of the question, consider asking students to meet you at the location. They (or you) can organize a carpool, or you might consider looking into offering reimbursement for gas or mileage. 

Or better yet, make navigating public transportation part of the program. Teach students where the bus/rail/subway stops are, how to purchase tickets, and read the maps. This is particularly useful for first-year students who live on campus and may still need to figure out how to navigate their new surroundings efficiently. 

Programming On the Cart

As a residence hall director, I often struggled to get students, especially those living in suites or townhouse-style housing, to come out of their rooms and engage in campus programming.

One way to combat this is to take the program to students’ homes. To do this, consider purchasing a trolley cart and going door to door. 

There are a variety of programming types that lend themselves well to cart-based programming. If you are looking to educate students on healthy eating habits, consider buying components to make a healthy trail mix. Then stock the cart up and invite the students to build their own custom snacks. 

Or appeal to students with kitchens in their suites by providing them with soil, seeds, water, and a small planting cup to plant their own garden herbs. 

With the lowering price of large power banks, you might even consider putting a tv and video game console on the cart and setting up impromptu gaming tournaments. 

For any of these scenarios, you can have RAs (who are knocking on students’ doors with the carts) provide participants with small handouts offering tips. Also, consider knocking on multiple doors at once so that students who come out end up engaging with their neighbors.

Programming On the Go

One challenge I faced as an RD was a requirement to do all-hall programming — a large-scale program that required the planning and staffing of every RA in the building or area. This had been easily accomplished in halls with a lot of common space, but my high-rise tower had limited group space. The building was occupied exclusively with upper class and graduate students who had busy lives and little interest in participating in hall programming. 

One way to meet challenges like the above is to take a traditional in-person program and break it down into parts. 

For example, perhaps your program is about sustainability. You can pair your RAs off and have them staff tables throughout the first few floors of your building. 

As residents walk into the building, have staff provide them with a water bottle from the recycling bin. Send them around to each station, where they will learn various ways to repurpose their bottle, along with facts about recycling and waste. Our students created a way to seal bags, planted garden herbs, and made crafts, while learning about trash island, how long it takes plastic to break down, and the benefits of water filters in lieu of water bottles. 

Even when you have the best of intentions, however, busy students will tell you they don’t have time for your program. The most common excuse I’ve heard is that they were tired from their class/work/internship, and still had to cook dinner. 

So, I’ve promised students dinner for 10 minutes of their time, and had take-out waiting at the end of the program session. Other prizes for the water bottle program I described might be themed around sustainability; think Brita pitchers, reusable water bottles, and the like. These can also be billed as ways to not just save the planet, but also to no longer have to buy and haul heavy cases of plastic water bottles. 

Program Planner Social Card

Regardless of how you conceptualize your program, don’t let lack of space be a deterrent for creating an event that students will enjoy. Think of all the reasons you can’t do the program you want, and the barriers that prohibit student attendance, and build your program around these challenges. This type of thinking will help you create a solid offering that students won’t be able to refuse.

How else you designed programs in limited or less-than-ideal spaces? We’d love to hear your ideas @HelloPresence and @Russcular.

Dr. Russ Smith

About the author: Dr. Russ Smith is the Associate Director of Residence Life at Hofstra University. He's also a proud graduate of NYU’s Higher Education and Student Affairs MA program, as well as the Educational & Policy Leadership Ed.D. program at Hofstra University. He's passionate about advocating for first-generation students and loves films of all types. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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