Perfect party

A preschool teacher and mother of three shares her secrets for a stress-free birthday bash

It’s my party and I’ll plan if I want to….” As an avid party thrower, this is my theme song. Having three children has always meant multiple birthday gatherings each year, plus one party each for Halloween, winter and summer — and that’s just for the kids! Add in my day job teaching 20 rowdy three- and four-year-olds — I’ve got party planning down to a science that I’m happy to share.

My first advice for a stress-free at-home party is: Put it in writing. I start by making a list of the invitees. (The rule of one more guest than your child’s age still works well; however, try to opt for an even number of kids to facilitate games with partners.) Then, I use the list to tick off RSVPs and calculate food needs. But the most critical part of your written plan is blocking off 15- to 20-minute chunks of time for specific activities. Here’s a plan that totals two hours, which is perfect because three hours is challenging and anything more is simply insane. The party may deviate from your outline — and trust me, it will — but this plan will get you back on track.

First 15 minutes: Arrivals
Not everyone arrives promptly. As guests trickle in, your child can show his friends around and introduce them to each other (especially if there’s a mix of school, family and sports friends). Use this time to inform kids of any house rules, including rooms that are off limits.

Next 20 minutes: Showtime
Schedule two games of 10 minutes each. Kids tend to run through games much quicker than you think. The only exception is a pinata, which can take up to 20 minutes depending on how hard it is to break open. (See Best games.)

Next 20 minutes: Let’s eat!
Games, rules and taking turns can wear everyone out, so lunch in the middle of the party provides a cool down. I typically serve pizza, chips and carrot sticks, and do the cake later after more games. Keep the kids at the table while they eat. You don’t need anybody choking, nor do you want to encourage roaming.

20 more minutes: Burn off lunch
Two more games, at least one of them active. The kids are refuelled and any lagging spirits have been refreshed.

Next 15 minutes: Cake!
Digestion complete, they’re ready for sugar. Now, you can go for cupcakes but, personally, I like the impact of the big cake, which I whisk to the kitchen, after the song and candles, and cut into very small pieces.

Almost-final 15 minutes: Presents
Yes, it might be easier to skip this step, but each child is eager to see his gift opened. A little pre-party etiquette work will pay off: Remind your birthday child to express appreciation. No child is too young to display grace; the giver’s heart must be taken into consideration. (And be sure to jot down the gift and the name of the giver.)

Final 15 minutes: Home stretch
It’s pickup time, and your bottle of Chardonnay should be chilling! Remember, not all kids are picked up on time (even if you’ve been smart and added the word “sharp” to the invitation). Break out the Twister or play a game of Simon Says, to keep the kids engaged and in one place. Afterward, as you hand out the loot bags, have your
child thank each guest personally. (See Loot bag ideas.)

The aftermath
Hopefully, if you used this party plan, you won’t need to collapse. Don’t clean up everything all at once. I like to leave up the decorations for a day and sit down to reflect on the fun. Parties offer a wonderful glimpse into your child’s social life. Plus, they’re a great chance to let kids use their manners. Thank-you notes are always in fashion, for instance. The day after the party, print up a generic thank-you card on the computer. Your child can decorate the front and write a brief thank you, mentioning the gift received. (Even a scribble will do, if she’s too young to write.) Your child’s friends will be delighted, and their parents even more so. In fact, they’ll probably be impressed by your party-planning aplomb.

Four loot bag ideas

Don’t send junk home with a guest; it will only break in the car and cause tears. But there’s no need to blow the bank. You can’t go wrong with a few candies, a pack of sugar-free gum and a whistle. Here are some other ideas.

1. The craft bag A pad of construction paper, markers, stickers or self-adhesive googlie eyes. Kids love them and they’re useful.

2. The big single An inexpensive larger item — such as a soft Princess blanket from the dollar store — is a special treat wrapped in a pretty ribbon.

3. The bug bag Stretchy frogs + plastic bugs + a big rubber snake + some gummi worms = delighted kids.

4. The crowd pleaser A nifty pencil and sharpener, plus a little journal or notepad.

My top three events

These events went over big with the kids:

Medieval party The children loved parading in the princess hats, wands, shields and swords that they decorated. And the cardboard-box castle was such a hit that no one wanted to stop and eat!

Superhero party I cut out 16 capes from satiny lining material, using pinking shears — no hemming required. Then I sewed ties at the collar. Each child was thrilled to be a superhero in our backyard.

Olympic sports party Who would have thought that one tiny inflatable swimming pool would keep 12 children so excited — and cool? The kids loved receiving their “medals” for participation.
Best games

Baby bottle race Fill dollar-store baby bottles about one-third full with juice for each guest, and see who finishes theirs first. (There’s no choking hazard, thanks to the nipple.) Kids aged seven to 11 love this game.

Cotton ball chase Recently, my daughter’s friends went crazy for a game that involved using drinking straws to blow cotton balls to a finish line. It’s easy and hilarious.

Guess who I am? One child is blindfolded and is guided to sit on another guest’s lap. The guest oinks or barks, and the blindfolded child guesses who she’s sitting on.

Pass the package A classic for good reason. Wrap a small item in streamer or wrapping paper and secure with tape. Add another toy or favour, and repeat until you have one layer for each guest. Place the kids in a circle and pass the package; when the music stops, the child holding it opens a piece and keeps the prize.

Mummy wrap Create two teams, each with one person as the mummy. The first team to wrap their mummy head to toe in toilet paper wins.

The personalized craft OK, not truly a game, but try designing T-shirts with fabric markers, painting stretchy gloves with puff paints or customizing pillowcases.