It’s not easy to resist the trend toward children's birthday parties produced by hired specialists or that are exorbitant "activity" events. But with a little prep work you can balance your busy schedule and plan your child's party on a sensible budget.
Start by choosing a theme— such as farm animals, dinosaurs, or camping—to create a unified impression. Themed parties may sound complicated, but they actually make the planning easier and provide a framework for decision-making. A jumble of unrelated games and crafts adds to party chaos, while a theme gives the birthday celebration coherence.
With your child, consider his or her interests: horses, model rockets, ballet. For little children, focus on a favorite color or activity: puzzles, tricycles, painting. Then build the invitations, decorations, games, and food around the theme.
Save some cash and personalize your child’s birthday party by putting your DIY skills to work on some party details. For a baseball party, cut invitation "pennants" from felt, or pen the invite onto plastic balls that you hand-deliver. Fishing theme? Tie the invitation to a small bag of fish crackers or worm-shaped candy. Keep it simple, and remember that this isn't an art contest. Let your birthday child help.
Give surefire classic activities (such as a dress-up relay, treasure hunt, or breaking a pinata) a thematic twist. For example, pass a stuffed bear as "hot potato" at a party with a teddy-bear theme. "Survivors" (or shipwrecked castaways) might follow clues to find a coconut and trinkets—then crack open the coconut, an experience kids will remember.
If space permits, host parties at home. Granted, it can seem easier to dial up your local bounce house, trampoline complex or indoor race track and speak with a party planner who will take care of all the bells and whistles than it is to open up the doors of your own home to a pack of amped-up kids. But a simple gathering at home, planned with your child’s input, may actually mean much more than a party orchestrated by a stranger.
If your home simply can’t accommodate a friend-filled party, look to other spaces in your community that may be available. A church, school, local library or community rec center may have a space you can reserve for little or no cost. In good weather, consider a local park. It’s the perfect place for kids with lots of post-cake energy to run!
If the convenience of a hired location outweighs the benefits of an at-home party, you can still personalize the event: Make the cake, provide your own prizes, and plan a game that centers on the honored child, so her celebration is not a clone of every other burger-joint or pizza-palace party.
As a rule, the number of birthday party guests should equal the age of the birthday child. But tender feelings take priority: Include friends who play together regularly. It's not OK to exclude a close friend because of a recent tiff. Nor is this the day to convene a dozen kids who've never met before.
Ask for a reply by a specified date and follow up with phone calls two to three days before the party (or sooner if you need to place advance orders for supplies or food).
When you’re dealing with toddlers or preschoolers, invite parents too. Arrange three or four "play centers"— with clay, water toys, cupcakes to decorate—then mingle with your guests as they move to the centers.
The best way to keep things on track on party day is to make a plan and stick to it. Generally, limit parties to two hours. Sustaining momentum longer than that is a challenge for even the cleverest host, and it's always preferable to send guests home wishing the party had been longer, rather than being glad to see it end.
As a rule, prepare one activity for each 15 minutes of party time, plus two or three extras as backup. Also, start with a small snack early on to keep energy up. Serve the cake and ice cream toward the party's end. That way you can clean up cake mess without guests underfoot.
Birthday party activities don’t have to be costly or elaborate. For toddlers and preschoolers, begin with a craft or cooperative activity. Try sidewalk chalk or the irresistible refrigerator-sized cardboard box (usually free for the hauling from an appliance dealer). Before the party, cut windows for light, then provide little guests with colored markers and stickers and let them decorate.
For older kids, begin with a relay or partner-obstacle course to get blood pumping and kids laughing. Follow up with a calming activity, then continue to regulate the excitement's ebb and flow to keep the fun coming, but hysterics at bay. Remember, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Get ideas from game books and online party sites.
Arrange to have at least two adults on site for even the smallest party to help keep things running smoothly. If you don’t have enough relatives around to help, hire a favorite babysitter to arrive early and stay through cleanup.
Organize coats and party favors before beginning the closing activity. Then fill the final minutes with festivity. Break the piñata, release helium balloons, or run your silliest relay. The goal: Send guests packing with grins on their faces and the host still standing!