Throwing a Great Birthday Party for Young Kids

As the mother of two young children, I’ve read articles about kids parties gone wild–fancy settings, extravagant party favors, culinary fare worthy of weddings–all of which create a price tag of hundreds of dollars. Parents seem to think that a succesful party means lavishing the young guests and their parents with expensive items and non-stop entertainment. Here comes the clown! Wait, let’s go to the jump house! Sshh, listen to the princess tell the story! Quick, let’s ride the ponies! Ready to have your face painted? And on and on. Such extravagance (and its accompanying bills) isn’t a necessary component for a good time. Here are five tips that help keep you sane, your pockets filled, and the party fun.

1. Timing is everything. If your child still naps, make sure you schedule the party with plenty of buffer time. A tired, cranky kid or one who just woke up a half hour before the party is bound to melt down, leading to a very unpleasant display of birthday tantrums. Also, you know if your child is an early riser, a late starter or an all-day player. Work with a time frame that’s best suited to your child’s schedule and habits.

2. Keep it short. For the 2-5 year old crowd, one-and-a-half to two hours is plenty of party time. While it’s tempting to keep the party going, especially if the parents are friends, remember that there can be too much of a good thing. A child enjoying him/herself gets over-stimulated and tired a lot faster than an adult does. A too-long time frame is bound to run into someone’s nap time, cause tiredness, inspire irritation and overall just wear out the kid, and that spells trouble.

3. Keep it simple. Fun doesn’t equate lavish, not at this age. Simple games and activities that young children can understand and play with a little parental assistance are fun and thrifty ways to entertain the children. Think Pass the Parcel*, Fish Pond and a pinata. These games have easy- to-understand concepts, are non-competitive, and cost very little. (Consider shopping at a dollar or discount store for prizes and favors.) They also guarantee that all the young guests receive small gifts, and this is very useful in avoiding the “it’s not fair, I didn’t win” meltdown that often occurs with competive games. Even a variation of Pin the Tail on the Donkey can be non-competitive. We played Pin the Nose on Snoopy and Pin a Paw on Blue. While the person who pinned the nose or paw closest won a “grand prize,” the other young guests were all given a simple prize, such as a theme pencil, for playing.

Food should also be simple. Healthy snacks mixed in with treats allow the parents and the guests choices and help avoid sugar crashes. For example, one year we held a party fairly early at 10am, so we provided plain yogurt, a mix of berries and mini-bagels with cream cheese, and brought out the chips, cookies and birthday cake later. Afternoon parties when lunch is being served can consist of pizza or sandwiches, along with fruit and cookies. (On the invitation ask the parents to notify you of any allergies or intolerances so that you avoid upset stomachs or worse.)

4. Keep it structured.  Transition times can be problematic, so be sure to have activities ready. For example, as guests arrive have them decorate their favor bag/bucket, color pictures of the party theme (ex., Thomas the Tank Engine, Disney Princesses and so on), or stick foamies to a crown or door hanger. This will keep them entertained until all the guests have arrived, and also will provide an item for them to take home later. Plan on an opening activity when guests arrive, three structured and simple games, time for the food/beverages and cake, and a little free play time at the end. (Opening gifts with the guests in attendance is optional, of course.)

5. Know when to call it. Too often, parents feel that they are being rude by sticking to the stated time frame. They may feel that asking the guests to leave is unfriendly, but this isn’t the case. It’s merely a matter of respecting time–your child’s, your guests’ and your own time.  As a first step, be sure to mention the time frame on the invitation (ex., Saturday, October 6, 10:30am-12:30pm). At the party give the parents of the guests a 15 minutes heads up. That will indicate to the parents that you’re serious about following the time frame, and will allow them to prep their children for the imminent departure. When it’s time to go, be sure to end things on a good note by having the young guests pick up their personalized party bags/buckets full of the small gifts from the games/activities.

Birthday parties should be memorable and fun, not bank-breaking and nerve-wracking. I hope following these five tips helps you have a successful party.

*Pass the Parcel is a game I played as a young child in England. There are variations, but here is the way we’ve played it at my daughters’ birthday parties. It has been a great success each time.

First, gather different types and colors of paper. These can be newspaper, wrapping paper, butcher paper and so on. Second, have a variety of small gifts ready, such as pencils, small board books, fun-size chocolates, hairbands and so on. (If the children are young, be sure none of the items is a choking hazard.) One gift is the grand prize at the center of the parcel, so this should be something slightly more fancy than the other gifts. Third, create a layered parcel. Begin with the innermost layer that has the grand prize, and then create as many layers as there are players. Place one small gift in each layer. Use a different color paper for each layer so that the kids can tell the difference and don’t open two layers by accident. (It is a good idea to create a few extra layers that you can add on the day of the party in case unexpected guests arrive.)

Arrange the children in a circle. Instruct them that they are to pass the parcel to their neighbor while the music is playing. (You may have to show them in which direction to pass.) When the music stops, whoever is holding the parcel tears off one layer. When the music starts, the parcel is passed. This continues until everyone has had a chance to open a layer. This way, no matter who wins the grand prize, at least everyone has won something.

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