Activities

Greening your kids' birthdays

Forget traditional birthday parties—go for 'earthday' parties that celebrate the planet too!

In the nine years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve entertained the notion of:

• having ponies at my four-year-old’s birthday party
• bringing in a carousel to suit a carnival theme
• turning my home into a dinosaur panorama

Fortunately, the look on my husband’s face — have you completely lost your mind? — stopped me short of executing any of those ideas. And as my eco-conscience has grown more insistent, our parties have reflected that. For the most part, we’ve opted for simple parties, homemade birthday cakes (except for the year my daughter requested a Spy Kids cake and I just couldn’t get the logo right), and fairly reasonable “parting gifts” that I create with the hope that parents won’t hate me and kids won’t think their friend’s mother is robbing them of the requisite booty.

Still, I’m aware that there’s considerable pressure in the kids’ party world to go bigger, and go better, which generally translates into more booty. However, with three kids and nineteen birthday parties under my belt, I’ve discovered a fundamental truth about kids’ parties: Give pint-sized partiers room to run wild, a cake in any shape or form, and some sort of loot bag (parting gift), and you’ve got the makings of a perfect party, in children’s estimation. Let parents drop their kids off for a free few hours (or offer organic martinis or wine on-site), and you’ll be crowned the party queen by the grown-ups.

With that in mind, there’s much we can do to “green” our parties. It helps to simply follow your (by now) daily practices of reduce, reuse, recycle — in that order.

Reduce: Take the emphasis off consumption by working experience into each … umm … experience. Mark birthdays by planting a tree in the celebrant’s honour. How about a night hike to look at the stars? Or create a storytelling circle in which everyone shares a memory of the birthday child.

Reuse: It’s tempting, I know, to go with disposable dishes and cutlery when feeding a crowd. But if dishpan hands have you worried and the party is big, consider renting reusable dishes — it’s surprisingly affordable (I rent dozens of glasses each summer for beer-soaked barbecues, and I don’t have to wash them before returning).

Recycle: Choose materials for cards, wrapping, invitations, and more that can be recycled or, better still, that come from tree-free and recycled sources.

The wrapping

You no doubt already reuse gift bags. You may even wrap the occasional gift in the Saturday cartoons or your child’s artwork. But if you have many gifts to wrap, you might want to visit the local newspaper office. The staff will often give away or sell for a nominal fee the “ends” of newsprint rolls (they’re also great to have on hand for kids’ colouring projects). Kids can stamp the paper and colour it. Or reuse scarves passed down from aunts and grannies. What about those scraps of fabric left over from sewing projects (or, if you’re like me, left over from sewing projects that never really got sewn)? Give a second life to tourist maps from long-over trips. Die-hards can opt to buy Sellotape on eBay — it’s a European brand of tape that uses a more eco-friendly manufacturing process and is made from biodegradable plant cellulose. A novel way to wrap your gifts — and give the additional gift of entertainment — is to use Wrapsacks. Along with fun, whimsical designs, Wrapsacks feature a code that allows you to register your Wrapsack, then offers subsequent gift givers and receivers the chance to file updates of where the Wrapsack has gone, what gifts have been given in it, and more. Your kids might gain a geography lesson from the experience. Find out more at wrapsacks.com

The decor

Decorating for your kids’ birthday can take an eco-friendly turn too. Stick to decorations that can be reused party after party (we have a “The Party’s Here” sign for our front door that has ushered in many, many birthday guests over the years) or that can be recycled. Get your kids involved in making garlands to hang from light fixtures, “birthday kid” posters and so on. Let your theme be your guide. Take a pass on that perennial birthday fave, however, the balloon — especially outdoors. While they add fun to any party, marine creatures and birds are less enthusiastic about them. Not only do they add to our overflowing landfills, they routinely make their way into waterways or get caught in trees. Indeed, I frequently pick up balloons, still with ribbons attached, along the shore of our cottage on Lake Huron. Kids can have as much fun making, decorating and playing with paper airplanes.

The theme

The ’Tis-Better-to-Give-Than-Receive Party: This idea hasn’t really taken root with my own children, though I’ve worked hard to instil a social conscience in them since they were newborns. (See Mr. Polar Bear? His genitals are getting teensy-weensy, thanks to industrial pollutants.) My friend Michelle has had better luck. Her two older girls, aged four and six, decided — with only a wee bit of prodding from Mom — to ask for dog- and cat-related gifts to be donated to the local animal shelter. The invitation noted that the shelter needed blankets (new or used), toys, treats, and food. Guests still had the fun of bringing a gift and the party girls had the fun of taking a whole load of stuff to grateful dogs and cats (and shelter staff!). My kids have also gone to parties for which we’ve bought mosquito netting for children in Africa and a rabbit for a family in Haiti.

A caveat: One party invitation simply asked for cash donations that would be forwarded to a certain charity. While the intention was no doubt pure, the execution brought with it niggling doubts among parents about whether the money would in fact go to the intended charity. It also removed the chance to make the experience meaningful for children, because they weren’t able to choose the gifts.

The Planet Party: It’s easy to create a party that celebrates Mother Nature because kids, by nature, love … nature. Whether your theme is plant a seed, camp out under a spectacular night sky or create a bug lover’s paradise, incorporate natural activities into the event.

The Old-Fashioned Fun Party: Kids still love the games we played at birthday parties — “I Wrote a Letter to My Love,” “Telephone,” “Duck, Duck, Goose” and so on. Go online to find the rules, if you can’t remember them. Include a cake with waxed-paper-wrapped coins inside, and kids will think they’ve struck gold.

The loot bags

I hate to admit it, but birthday invitations in my household generally create great joy at the prospect of loot bags and cake, in that order. So while I still preach the principles of limiting consumption, I know kids expect something. Plus, loot bags take the sting out of watching your friend open presents that you wish had your name on it. Still, you can create loot bags that are easy on the earth (and the wallet):

• Seed packets, a baggie of soil and a pot.

• Homemade cookies in the shape of anything related to your theme.

• Loot from a homemade treasure chest. This one is always a hit: With the help of your kids, gather up all the stuff around your house that no longer gets played with. Little dinosaurs, rubber snakes, CDs/DVDs, costume jewellery, books, your husband’s old hockey trophies… Don’t put in junk, just previously-loved stuff. Put in all in a wicker basket or other nice-looking container. Then when kids leave, they can choose the gift they want from the treasure chest.