Simon Says Grown-ups make better "Simons" than kids (who get corrupted by the power and will never step down). Everyone must do whatever Simon says, as long as Simon prefaces his or her request with the phrase, "Simon says ..." So "Simon says, stand on one foot" must be complied with, but "Jump up and down" should not. Anyone who compliles at the wrong time is out. Last one in the game wins -- and, if you're willing to risk it, becomes the next Simon.
Red Light, Green Light You're in the middle, with your back to a lineup of panting kids. At "Green Light!" they'll creep/walk/run toward you -- until you spin and holler "Red Light." Anyone who doesn't instantly freeze is sent back to Start. First to touch you switches places.
Hot and Cold Hide a toy or other prize in a room with one person absent and everyone else in on the deal. Bring in the absent one, and as he looks around, the crowd hums like bees -- louder when the seeker is looking in the right place, quietly or softly when he's not.
Hide and Seek Try the sardine version, where one person goes off to hide, and the rest stay behind. After a count of 100, everyone scatters to look. If you're one of the lookers, and if you find the hider, you have to squeeze into the same hiding spot and keep quiet. Ditto for the next one who finds the two of you, until everyone is squeezed into the one spot, and only one looker is left. A great opportunity for the giggles.
Sneaky Patty Gather everyone into a circle with a chair in the middle. Under the chair, put a teddy. On the chair, put the birthday child, wearing a blindfold. Turn on some music. One by one, the guests try to sneak up (hands and knees) to snatch the teddy away. The blindfolded child has to stay seated, but can flail around with her hands, trying for a blind tag. If she gets somebody, that child has to switch places with her.
No-Reading Treasure Hunt This treasure hunt works for pre-readers. On 10 individual 3x5 cards, draw pictures of 10 things from around your house and yard. Hide all the clues but one before the party. When it's time to play, gather the group around you. Hand out the first clue and away they go. (Example: If the first clue has a fridge drawn on it, they'll race off to the fridge where they'll find the clue with the welcome mat drawn on it. Then they'll race off to the welcome mat where they'll find the clue with the next item drawn on it.) The last clue, of course, has a picture of you on it. When the group finally gets back there, it's probably cupcake time. If you can't draw, cut out pictures from magazines or photocopy some snapshots.
Duck, Duck, Goose The kids will know the rules to this, but in case they're fuzzy... Make yourself "It" and walk around the outside of the circle, tapping each sitting child on the head and announcing "Duck" until you get to the chosen "Goose." The moment you say "Goose," take off running around the circle with the Goose in hot pursuit. If the Goose tags you (and let's hope he does) before you circle back to the empty spot, switch places with him and start a new round. On it goes; just make sure everyone gets a turn as Goose.
Crawl-Through-the-Hoops Game Put a couple of Hula Hoops on someone's arm, and have everyone join hands in a circle. The trick? Get one hoop around the circle going one direction and the other hoop going the opposite direction. But no fair letting go of hands! Squeeze, crawl, and shake your way through them.
Balloon Bouncing Everybody lies down in a circle. Try to keep a balloon up as long as possible. Start with five balloons and let the kids pop each one after it hits the ground.
All of these relays need a referee, if only to blow the whistle.
You'll need prizes and music to go with any of these. If you want just the classics, try: Wheelbarrow, Leapfrog, 3-Legged Potato Sack, and the old Balance a Beanbag on Top of Your Head relay. But if you want to go beyond the classics, try these:
T-Shirt Quick Change Every racer puts on a big T-shirt and runs the course. At the hand-off, he has to pull it off and the next racer puts it on, then runs.
Crayon Relays Supply one box of crayons per team. Distribute the crayons, one per runner, and put the empty boxes at the finish line. Goal? Fill up the boxes, crayon by crayon. (Or use easy puzzles and assemble them piece by piece.)
One Off Gather a shoe from everybody and pile them all up. The goal? Run to the pile, put on your shoe, and dash back to the next runner.
Baseball Bat Spinner Your goal? Run to the halfway line. Pick up a baseball bat that's lying there, pin it between the ground and your forehead and spin around it 10 times, keeping it vertical. Then wobble back to the finish.
Wethead Relay Your goal? Carrying a paper cup of water, run to the halfway line where your partner is lying on her back with a sports-drink bottle on her forehead (no hands allowed). You have to pour your cup of water into the bottle and go back for another cupful.
Balloon Relay Another race for pairs. The two players must keep a balloon in the air, batting it back and forth, as they run to the finish. You can play with no hands for additional challenge.
Backball This relay is run in pairs. A ball (or sweater) is stuck between the backs of two players. No hands are allowed! They have to "run" that way without dropping the item, or back to the start they go.
Water Balloon Toss Last but not least on our list, this is probably the best relay ever invented. Players form two lines, one step apart. Your partner is the person standing directly in front of you. On the first round, toss a water balloon to your partner. If it's caught and doesn't break -- or if it hits the ground and doesn't break -- then each of you has to back up one step and try again. A broken balloon means you're out. The winning team is the last one with an intact balloon.
You know the basic rules of tag already: Somebody's "It" and the rest get chased and tagged. First tagged is the next "It." Unfortunately, this plain-vanilla form of tag can turn into a teasing kind of game, with the slowest kids always being "It". For new, improved models of the game, check out these variants. All of them need some outdoor space to run around in, and work best with four players or more.
Poison Tag Someone is chosen as "It." Everyone puts their hands on their chests (the "It" person can use a hand to tag) and takes off. If the "It" person tags you, no matter where they tag you, you have to put your hand there and now you're an "It" too. Soon everyone is running around with their hands on weird parts of their bodies. Last person tagged is "It" for the next round.
Freeze Tag A player who is tagged must immediately freeze and sit down. They can be unfrozen only if they are touched by another free player. Tunnel Variation: Frozen types stay standing and can be unfrozen only if the unfreezing player crawls between their legs. (Works well for the under-6 crowd.)
Blob Tag A great variation, but it needs a ref and a larger, birthday-party-size group. Starts out the regular way, with one person as "It," but every person who gets tagged joins hands with the "It" person, forming the "Blob." As the Blob gets bigger, the field has to get smaller (hence the ref) until only one person is left loose, being chased by a Blob of five or six (or more).