When it comes to children’s birthday parties, there are Pinterest-type parents. You know, the moms (and, I’m guessing, a minority of dads) who colour-coordinate the tablecloths and napkins, create—and stick to—a theme (Makeover madness! Underwater extravaganza! Let’s go crazy about bugs!), and concoct fabulous, multi-tiered cakes in the shape of Minecraft fortresses, complete with lava-spewing zombies.
And then there’s me.
A confession: Birthday parties stress me out. Even the mere idea of planning the perfect (or even adequate) child’s birthday party exhausts me, and that’s well before half a dozen seven-, eight- or nine-year-olds descend upon my house for three hours. There’s the settling on the date, negotiating the ever-changing guest list with my kids, sending out invitations (and hoping to actually hear back from majority of the guests), not to mention food, decorations, entertainment and loot bags. (Actually, I long ago gave up on loot bags—I figure that no kid leaving a birthday party needs an extra bag of sugar and plastic to take home, and no parent of a kid leaving a birthday party needs an extra bag of sugar and plastic at their house.) I would so much rather throw money at an indoor play place or bowling alley or movie theatre and have them take care of everything—so that's what I have done for many years.
But this year, something inside me shifted when it came to my now eight-year-old’s birthday celebrations. Partly it’s the fact that he’s a June baby, which opens up the possibility of an outdoor shindig. Partly it was money: I just couldn’t get excited about coughing up $200 for a trampoline park or video arcade to feed and entertain a bunch of kids who would be just as happy to run around and eat cake in my backyard.
More to the point, though, something in me wanted to take on the challenge. I didn’t care about colour-coordinated napkins, but I had an urge to create a low-tech, fun and memorable afternoon for Isaac and his buddies. I wanted to send them on an adventure, get them working as a team and build community. In short, I wanted to send them on a neighbourhood-wide treasure hunt.
And I did.
Let me be very clear: I was well aware that taking on this project was not going to make my life any easier. Planning and executing the hunt would involve a fair amount of time, creativity and negotiation. And while part of me cringed at the amount of work it would involve, a much larger part of me got excited at the possibilities. Where could I hide clues? What would be the best route through the neighbourhood? I pictured the excitement of a bunch of eight-year-old boys finding their next hidden envelope, decoding their clue and taking off…and I got to work. Bring it, Pinterest.
I figured out 10 locations that the kids could walk (or run) to in 10 minutes or less. These included the school, the houses of birthday guests who lived within range, a local park (with historic cannons—perfect for hiding clues), neighbours’ homes and the Little Free Library on our street. I got permission and buy-in from various parents and neighbours involved. I spent about an hour thinking up goofy poems and anagrams for each clue, printed them off, numbered them and sealed them in envelopes. The morning of the party, I drove the route with packing tape and scissors, securing envelopes (sometimes with juice boxes or candy or other treats) in their spots.
I got even more excited. What kid wouldn’t love this?
Um, my kid. “I don’t want a treasure hunt,” said Isaac, about an hour before the party began. It was grey and drizzling outside. "Who wants to go out in this kind of weather?" (Fortunately, I had thought ahead enough to seal all the clues in plastic bags. And I’d asked the parents to send along rain gear and a change of clothes.)
I inhaled and exhaled deeply a few times and then did my best to ignore him. I figured that once the kids showed up, he’d get caught up in the excitement.
The kids showed up. With their presents—including four Nerf guns. Four. It occurred to me that getting them all out of the house for a good hour of running was now even more of a great idea. I handed them the first envelope and…they got caught up in the excitement. Within seconds they were off and running and shrieking and reading and thrilled.
As was I. In the midst of the chaos, running after the faster kids, encouraging the slower ones to keep up, dealing with the dog who decided to join us for part of the hunt and making sure that everyone crossed the street safely, I realized that I was grinning. There’s something fantastic—and contagious—about the excitement of children on a quest, something energizing about racing with kids through their own neighbourhood, watching them taking ownership of their community. And, frankly, I was pretty damn happy to be outside and running with them, and not trapped in some loud, dark and germ-filled indoor play place.
The boys returned home, sweaty and exuberant, about an hour later to find a piñata set up in the backyard—their final reward. They hacked away at that, rounded up their candy booty, whaled on each other with Nerf guns for a while, and then ate hot dogs and chips and fruit and a carrot stick or two, not a colour-coordinated napkin in sight.
And I don’t mean to brag, but the homemade ice cream cake I made was pretty fantastic too.
Thunder Bay, Ont., writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences. Tweet her @MamaNonGrata.