Students throughout the Hopewell Valley will have a little bit of free time this month.

Hopewell Valley’s Night Off, is scheduled for Thursday, March 5. The event was planned by the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance along with the school district, who have organized school officials, sports teams, parents and community and religious leaders to take a break from overscheduling the district’s students and allow for personal time.

Bear Tavern students practice yoga on a recent Wellness Day, held in conjunction with the annual Hopewell Valley Night Off.

The Night Off initiative was started in 2003 in response to the hectic schedules and increased workload of students and to promote the benefits of spending time with their families. By encouraging families to devote themselves to this uninterrupted time together, the HVMA, school district and community members hope that it is an opportunity all families will take advantage of this month.

While superintendent of schools for Hopewell Valley Regional School District Thomas Smith manages coordinating the district schools’ schedules for setting a date, coordinator of the HVMA Heidi Kahme is responsible for reaching out to the community.

“Our kids are very involved in activities, which is a good thing at times. It keeps kids out of trouble, but then again we need to find that balance of home time and activity time,” Kahme said.

The Night Off is traditionally scheduled between the winter and spring sport seasons and before the spring musical gets into full swing.

By setting a date early on, Smith and Kahme look to reserve the day before anyone or any organization starts filling up their calendar. It is something that the Alliance, school district and participating families have come to see as a staple event that is eagerly anticipated each year.

“It’s something we really believe in as a district,” Smith said.

The HVMA is a volunteer organization that works with groups including local government, the school district and sports organizations to identify and address at risk behavior among the community’s youth population. The organization runs over 20 programs, including Hopewell Valley’s Night Off, focusing on drug and alcohol education and prevention.

The Alliance opens its table to all community members to hopefully include everyone down to preschools, daycares and local business. By encouraging more entities to partake in the Night Off initiative, more community members can enjoy its benefits.

“It really helped spur a lot of conversations about overscheduling our students and district activities,” Smith said.

The response that the HVMA received after sending out a survey a few years ago to crowdsource what families were doing on their Night Off showed over 400 people in the community who took advantage of the day.

“I think really that opportunity for families to be together helps build confidence in our kids, it helps teach children to interact with one another,” Kahme said.

The Alliance’s mission against substance abuse in the community is supported by its encouragement of sharing time together—especially by sharing a meal.

“I know that there are a number of studies that are out that say making an effort to at least be together for one family meal a week really can reduce a lot of negative behaviors amongst youth, primarily drugs and alcohol,” Kahme said.

By also relieving the pressures of homework and school and sporting events on the evening, children are given the mental space and physical time to dedicate themselves to their families.

JoAnn Markiewicz is also a parent who benefits from the Night Off initiative. Markiewicz is a member of the HVMA executive board, as well as the co-founder of Helpwell, a district-wide program that works to connect volunteers to appropriate organizations. The 20-year Hopewell resident has taken part in the Night Off with her family since its origin and has looked forward to it every year since.

Markiewicz, who has a child in high school, says that getting to spend that quality family time is a wonderful guarantee on Night Off.

“We definitely love it and we benefit by it because our kids are overworked and it’s a great night for them to just turn everything else off,” Markiewicz said.

Through her connection with the Alliance and her personal experience with Night Off, Markiewicz explained that it will be sad once her last child graduates, as this initiative has brought together a collection of great memories over the years.

“It brings us together and we all have a common goal, and it’s the safety and wellbeing of our children,” she said.

For the past few years the Night Off has stressed the issue of powering down devices as part of togetherness. A side effect of both children and adults being attached to their devices is a lack of personal interaction.

“We hope this is an opportunity for even parents to be putting their phones down and stepping away from the computer and really spending time together that will form these great connections between family members,” Kahme said. “I mean, otherwise, how are you going to get to know your kid if you’re not sitting down and having that face to face quality time with no distractions?”

Planning family events for the Night Off can be anything from having that family meal together to playing board games. The HVMA has even listed some other alternative ideas.

One elementary school has been taking the town’s Night Off date to spearhead its own event, Wellness Day, that encompasses similar ideals.

Bear Tavern Elementary School will be celebrating its third Wellness Day, which started as a mindfulness initiative that promotes kids to be present in the moment, be more attentive and feel more relaxed through participating in multiple activities such as meditation and yoga.

Although for the last two years Bear Tavern has held their Wellness Day on Night Off, they have opted to push it to a warmer date on May 27 this year in hopes that they will be able to utilize more of their outdoor spaces for activities. Coordinating with Night Off made sense, as the message of taking time for yourself, unwinding and unplugging were all themes that spoke to Bear Tavern’s initiative.

“For our Wellness Day, not only do we have mindfulness activities, but we also have yoga and gardening and cooking and all different types of activities and sports…all different things that kids might enjoy participating in that gives them a sense of wellbeing,” Bear Tavern’s school psychologist Dr. Beth Hoffman said.

The school still intends to highlight mindfulness on March 5. Through Kahme, the school has built further ties in the community, allowing for different activities to be offered to the students, including nature walks and workshops led by parents and community members.