Birthday Parties Made Simple

These easy ideas will help you make your child's birthday party reflect your love without going overboard.

It takes forethought to resist the trend toward children's birthday parties produced by hired specialists or that are exorbitant "activity" events. It also takes prepwork to balance your busy schedule and plan your child's party on a sensible budget.

Paula Jhung, author of Guests Without Grief (Fireside, 1997), urges parents to simplify. "With so many bells and whistles, we've forgotten how to relax and enjoy our guests," she says. "These are not coronations. They're birthday parties."

Is there a way to host a "simple" party with enough pizzazz to please a discerning prince or princess? Absolutely. These tips will help.

Don't forget the food!

Diane Warner's Big Book of Parties (Career Press, 1999) recommends selecting a party theme -- such as farm animals, dinosaurs, or camping -- to create a unified impression. To the uninitiated, themed parties sound complicated. But in practice, they actually streamline the planning by providing 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 tykes, focus on a favorite color or activity: puzzles, tricycles, painting. Then build the invitations, decorations, games, and food around the theme.

Lively invitations will energize a party before it begins by priming guests for fun to come. 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.

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.

The crucial first moments of a party set the tone, and the grand finale guarantees an afterglow. Wendy Moyle, president of, an online party-supply store, suggests presenting a visual element upon arrival to rally guests around the theme. This might mean bandanas for cowboys; lab coats for mad scientists; retro garb for a Seventies bash. The result unifies the guests while giving purpose to the potentially awkward first minutes of party-time. Parents, too, should dress the part.

For the youngest partygoers, begin gently with a craft or cooperative activity. Writer Paula Jhung recommends sidewalk chalk or the irresistible refrigerator-sized cardboard box (usually free for the hauling from an appliance dealer). Beforehand, cut windows for light, then provide guests with colored markers and stickers for "interior decorating."

For older kids, begin with a relay or partner-obstacle course to get blood pumping and kids laughing. Follow next 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. Laurie Wrigley of Birthday in a Box, an online supplier of party themes and supplies, likes reading a book related to the party's theme as a quiet activity.

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. "Make your plan, write it down, and follow it," advises Moyle. That sounds obvious, but she explains that a lack of planning causes parties to flounder; if the guests become distracted, the host loses their cooperation.

Organize coats and party favors before beginning the closing activity. Then fill the final minutes with festivity. Break the pinata, release helium balloons, or run your silliest relay. The goal: Send guests packing with grins on their faces and the host still standing.

If space permits, host parties at home. The trend toward hiring an entertainment complex or restaurant to organize parties makes hosting as easy as dialing a phone and writing a check. But author Paula Jhung urges parents to scale back on the fireworks and reclaim this rite of parenthood.

A simple gathering in a child's home, planned with the child's input, says "Happy Birthday" more sincerely than the glitziest party orchestrated by a stranger.

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. You can also plan a simple but uniquely fun event at an off-the-beaten-path location such as a nature preserve or the local library, two recommendations from Laurie Wrigley of Birthday in a Box.

Guest List Considerations: As a rule, the number of 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.

RSVP: 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).

Toddler Parties: 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.

Extra Hands: Arrange to have at least two adults on site for even the smallest party. Hire a favorite babysitter to arrive early and stay through cleanup.

Know Your Child: Choose activities that match his pleasures and temperament. Mild child? Subdued party. Wild child? Skip the quiet craft activities and plan a lot of outdoor games.

Expect the Unexpected: If the birthday girl drops the cake on the kitchen floor, don't weep. Instead, salvage the undamaged portions and proceed. Most kids are unlikely to notice if they have more ice cream than cake!

Preteen Parties: By junior high, kids may prefer larger, looser gatherings at a park or recreation center. Still, plan some unifying games and mixer activities. "Mingling" is a learned skill.


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