Tips for planning the best kid's birthday ever

A former party planner shares her secrets for hosting a successful birthday party for your child

For kids, birthdays are up right up there with the other major holidays. While some parents favor a low-key, family-style observance of the birth of their children, many seem to veer toward the all-out, let’s have a party-type celebration. But lots of parents aren’t necessarily comfortable with the planning of such an event. That’s where I used to come in – I was a kids’ theme-party planner and provider.

Cue the music.

Once upon a time in the magical land of birthdays, children joyfully awaited their special celebration each year and many of their parents less-than-eagerly anticipated this big day. There lived a woman who was reported to be part-jester, part-baker and all parts birthday fun, that happily swooped in to lessen the fears of parents and heighten the birthday excitement – telling each child, “This is especially for you!”

Yep, that’s me.

As the mother of four, and a die-hard party and event planner, birthdays were always eagerly awaited in our house. My love of planning parties for kids started at an early age; at 12, I created tea parties for the little girls I babysat each week, which was just as much fun for me as it was for them. Each week, the party fare became a bit more elaborate –presentation is everything – and the girls looked forward to what would ensue in terms of entertainment. We would sing, they would tell me about their native country (Haiti) and they taught me a bit of French as well. Naturally as time went on and I had my own kids, I couldn’t wait to theme out their birthdays and have some fun.

Whether it was a dinosaur party, a Valentine’s tea party, a Dalmation party (loved those puppy ears and spots), or maybe an outdoor tropical party, we loved making special cookies, creating games to fit the theme, and coming up with a craft or two to do. I had no idea, however, that people actually did this professionally. So, when talk turned one night at work to someone hiring a woman to do a tea party for her daughter, I quickly inquired about the details. The cost seemed high to me and I thought, “Geez, I could do this and for less money, too.” And thus, Especially for You was born.

Over the next couple of years, I provided parties for kids throughout southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts, sometimes two or three in one weekend. The bonus was that one of my children generally came along to assist in some way, thus establishing them at a young age as junior event planners in the making, something that came to fruition for each in later years.

While hiring a party planner can make a parent’s life a bit simpler, just having a game plan heading into a party can make the process just as simple and more fun for everyone as well.

 Here are some things to keep in mind as you map out your child’s next birthday party:

Consider the age of your child and his or her intended guests. If you have toddlers, a simple play date with a couple of other children is more than enough. You may choose to get together at a local park, bring along a picnic lunch and miniature cupcakes.

If your child is of preschool age, but beyond toddlerhood, a handful of friends (perhaps no more than the age he or she will be) will be plenty. Kids of that age aren’t quite ready for much in the way of structured games – and you should be able to judge that by your own child and his or her friends – and that’s OK. A few fun easy activities will be all they need. Organizing preschoolers can be a bit like herding kittens.

Be sure to understand what your child might be ready for and what might not work at all. Case in point – I once did a Batman party for a four-year-old who clearly was Batman-obsessed. Or at least he was until a real-life Batman (his dad dressed in full costume) snuck in the back door to surprise the birthday boy during cake time. I’m not sure the little guy has recovered yet.

Once kids hit school-age, they are ready to deal with more structure and can get involved in lots of different games and crafts.

When you’ve agreed upon a number of friends to invite, write up a guest list to easily check off names when RSVPs begin to come in. This guest list can double as a gift list as well to use on the day of the party to ensure everyone receives their thank you card later and is thanked properly for the gift they brought.

When planning the length of the party, the age of your child also comes into play. For most kids, two hours is the optimum length. It’s easy to have a couple of activities, have ample refreshment time, be able to open gifts, and get everyone organized and ready for pick-up within a two-hour period. For kids 10 and older, you may consider a longer time period, particularly if you plan a lot of party-related activities.

Pick a theme. Why? Because a theme will jump start everyone’s creativity. Rather than pick a commercial-based theme (although there’s nothing wrong with that), consider a general theme like pirates, mermaids, nature, or sports that lends itself to a more personalized experience.

Create invitations. Whether you opt to create personalized invitations on your computer or get crafty, there’s plenty of great ideas out there online that you can do with your child. Imagine the excitement when your child hand-delivers a rolled-up pirate map invite or a charming little nutcracker tied to a ballet-themed pre-holiday birthday party. Be sure to put an RSVP date on the invitation and clear contact information so parents can be in touch. Be explicit in where the party will be held and what the time it starts and ends. When the RSVPs start to come in, refer back to your handy guest list and check off who plans to attend.

Food/beverage planning. What time of day is the party being held? Will you need to provide lunch or dinner? If you adhere to a two-hour format for the party itself, it can be easily arranged in off-meal times to enable your guests to enjoy light refreshments and focus more on fun instead. Be sure to check on potential food/beverage allergies when parents RSVP and plan appropriately. Cake, cupcakes, ice cream cups, juice and water might be all you’ll need to provide. I always brought along handmade sugar cookies suited to the child’s birthday theme, which proved to be a big hit, and often doubled as a take-home item, too.

Decorations. You don’t have to break the bank to create a festive party look. Inexpensive streamers and handmade items to match the party theme, such as tissue paper flowers, magical sparkly stars and moons, and pirate flags, can add a colorful, celebratory look to any room. Ensure that there are no latex allergies before adding balloons to the mix.

What to do at the party. The difference between chaos and fun is all in how you plan the party. Kids seldom arrive exactly at the same time to a party, so to break the ice and get everyone together as they arrived, I always had a simple craft waiting. If it was a fairy princess birthday tea party, the kids started making wands upon arrive (a pre-made polymer clay star, which kids glued to a skinny dowel, tied two pretty thin ribbons around and affixed a sparkly jewel to), followed by their very own bejeweled crown (yes, they chose their own jewels). All crafts were pre-organized and placed in separate Ziplocs for ease in distribution. If a parent is the only one available to greet guests as they come in, then consider a friend, older siblings or another parent to help get the crafts started. Surprisingly, two simple crafts (such as a pirate flag and an eye patch, superhero badges and shields) can be accomplished within 20 minutes.

Then there are games. Kids do love games if they aren’t overly competitive or in need of special skills (i.e. must be athletic). Simple “pin the whatever on the whatever” games are always a hit, especially if they match the theme of your party. You don’t have to be an artistic genius to find graphics online to cut and paste to a poster board to develop your game. This is something kids love to help with, too.

Kids love swag, and creating a simple cakewalk-type game with prizes like lollipops, stickers, gummy treats or creepy-crawly bugs can keep the kids active for a good chunk of time while allowing them to build up the contents of their take-home goody bag. In fact, you won’t even need to fill goody bags because the kids will be filling their own with the crafts they make and the swag they acquire in the games.

What’s involved in a “walk’ game? Simply use inexpensive placemats or pieces of cardboard and write numbers on each. Invite all guests to pick a number and begin. You’ll play music for a minute or so and then when it stops, you’ll pick one or two numbers. If a guest is on that number, they win a prize. Continue the game until everyone has had a chance to win many times. No one ever gets tired of a game that continues to give prizes. You’ll be able to use your own discretion in picking numbers and will be able to easily monitor who needs a “win.”

Whether you do outdoor three-legged races or water balloon tosses (careful of latex), indoor “pin the whatever” activities or any other fun game, keep in mind that while everyone wants to win, not everyone will. You can soften the blow by providing small prizes to everyone and something a bit more special to the overall winner.

Gifts. When it comes to gifts, some parents prefer to have their child open the gifts later and focus on the birthday fun instead. It’s a matter of personal preference, but keep in mind that party-goers love to see the birthday child open the gift they brought.

A parent or someone the parent appoints (great job for an older sibling) should write down the gifts received on the guest list (conveniently perhaps still on the fridge from the RSVP period). It’s easy for gifts to get confused in the birthday commotion and it’s important for your child to be able to thank the right person for the right gift. Keep the commotion to a minimum by asking each child to hold their gift until the birthday person calls their name and invites them to come over and sit next to him or her while it’s opened. One of the biggest challenges at any birthday party is in keeping the ever-shrinking circle of friends from completely enveloping the birthday child so that no one can see what’s being opened.

Expressing gratitude. Your child is never too young to say goodbye and thank you to each guest, or to send a thank you card. Whether the cards are handmade, computer-created or store-bought, your child can certainly sign his or her name, draw or scribble a picture (if they don’t write yet), or write a short message. Good habits start early and gratitude is an important habit to create.

Pamme Boutselis is a N.H.-based freelance writer, a content director at Southern New Hampshire University and a serial volunteer. She blogs regularly at Along the Way. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb.

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