Remember birthday parties when you were a kid? You draped streamers around the basement, devoured cake with gooey icing and peeked while pinning the tail on the donkey. Why not skip the pricey off-site party this year and stay at home for some old-fashioned fun? Read on for their secrets to hosting a fabulous fete.
Meet the party pros
• Michelle Gibson, owner of Par-T-Perfect Planners in Vancouver, with franchises across Canada and the United States
• Michelle Peer, owner of Hullabaloo Party Planner for Children in Kitchener, Ont
• Max Zarkov, creator of kids-birthday-party-guide.com in Burnaby, BC
Choose a theme
Once you’ve got a theme, party planning is a piece of cake. Start with your kid’s interests or try these ideas:
Bugs, butterflies and bubbles have endless possibilities, says Gibson. Kids can make egg-carton caterpillars, munch gummi worms and blow bubbles.
Princess, pirate or Harry Potter parties can’t miss. Or try the ever-popular “Candy Olympics,” suggests Gibson. Bob for marshmallows in a bucket of water, pass a licorice baton, and drop Smarties in a bucket with chopsticks and run back.
Spread the word
Skip the prefab invites and get out the glue sticks with your gang. Kids are thrilled with homemade invitations, says Peer. Buy blank cards at a craft or dollar store and go wild with stickers, foil paper or theme-related trinkets. Or print an invite from your computer.
Give guests a heads-up at least two weeks before the big event. If you’re not including the entire school class (gulp!), mail, email or drop invitations at kids’ houses. “People are terrible at RSVPs,” warns Gibson. So make follow-up phone calls with parents as needed. Also consider inviting (and paying) energetic high school students to lead games and give out munchies.
Know your numbers
Remember the old “your child’s age equals the number of guests” rule of inviting? Forget it. You need enough kids to play games and sit around a table, says Gibson. For preschoolers, try eight to 10 guests. If your space is small, remember that some parents will remain party-side with their tots. Many school-aged kids invite all the girls or all the boys in their class, says Gibson. But eight to 12 guests is ideal, advises Zarkov.
Recycle your kids’ artwork. Cut out party-theme-related shapes (fish, hearts, stars, etc.) from drawings and paintings and glue on to homemade invites, says Peer.
Time it right
Our pros all recommend a weekend bash. Got a Christmas or summer baby? Celebrate with family on the actual birthday, and plan a friend party for a month later, suggests Gibson. As for duration, a two-hour party (2½ hours max) is perfect. Parents’ most common mistake is parties that run too long, says Gibson. “The third hour is deadly and the fourth is ridiculous — it’s exhausting for everyone.” For preschoolers, 10 to noon or 11 to one (when kids are fresh) is ideal. Prepare in the morning and host an afternoon or evening event for older kids — they’re raring to go at any time, says Gibson.
Unleash your decorating diva
Cruise a dollar or craft store “to get the juices going” and find theme-related props, says Peer. To keep costs low, skip the “theme” gear, suggests Gibson. So, for a pirate party, buy a black plastic tablecloth instead of a Captain Hook one. Squirrel away breakables or toys your kids can’t bear to share. And send Rover or Fifi to the neighbours during the party, advises Zarkov.
Ace your space
Basements provide instant atmosphere, says Peer. Close the blinds and drape tulle (transparent floaty material) and twinkle lights on window ledges. Find lights on sale after Christmas at craft, surplus or hardware stores. For an under-the-sea party, make waves by hanging twisted streamers from the ceiling.
Spare your lips and blow up balloons with a bike pump, suggests Zarkov. To ensure helium or foil balloons stay afloat, buy them the day of the party. And beware of balloon-popping pot lights! Get creative with your balloon displays. For Princess Parties, Peer ties helium balloons to dressy shoes and sets them around the room. Swishy!
Explore your house for theme-related treasures. Jungle party? Try decorating with cute stuffed animals and silk plants.
Keep them busy
Avoid lapses in activities, advises Peer. “That’s when kids chase each other screaming, or run upstairs.” Since kids trickle in at different times, offer simple opening activities like these:
Ease them in with playdough or cornstarch goop. Then, encourage kids to circulate around play centres such as ride-on toys, bubbles, musical instruments and puppet play.
Offer three quiet activity stations based on your theme, suggests Peer. In her Secret Garden parties, kids choose their “wings,” decorate them, and get their cheeks painted with a small design.
Be warned: Crafts tend to captivate girls more than boys. So, try these ideas and provide an alternative for the art-averse:
Colour and add stickers to cardboard party hats or foam tiaras (from the dollar store). Ask lounging parents to help their kids.
Cover the party table with a paper tablecloth and let guests doodle or write birthday messages with crayons, suggests Zarkov. For a permanent memento, use fabric markers on a fabric tablecloth. Painting wooden or ceramic figures (from the dollar store) and beading are also big hits.
Save tea canisters and have kids decorate them with stick-on jewels, suggests Gibson. Or check out stores, such as Urban Source in Vancouver, that sell recycled materials for craft supplies.
Games for birthday parties at home
Forget researching the latest games — kids crave the classics. “All ages love pin the tail on virtually anything,” says Peer. Zarkov uses the theme to give games a fun twist. So, at a bug party, Simon Says becomes Ladybug Says. Try these other hits:
Musical Hoops (all ages)
Buy one hoop per child from a dollar store. Place them on the floor and play cool music as the kids march around, jumping in a hoop when the tunes stop. Each round, remove a hoop, but not a child. At the end, the whole group crams in the one remaining hoop—by sticking in a toe, a foot or even a hand.
Try burying clues outdoors or upstairs and downstairs, so kids get to burn off steam. Give gold coins as treasure at the end, suggests Peer.
Show picture instructions of where to find the next clue (such as the blue couch).
Let guests solve limerick or poem clues.
School-aged kids love food challenges, says Gibson. Place a Smartie on a plate and spray whipping cream on top. Kids run up, dunk their face in the cream to retrieve the Smartie and run back.
Seat a large group picnic-style on a vinyl tablecloth spread out on the floor. Or place a card table next to your dining room table and cover it all with one cloth. For preschooler parties, borrow a bunch of child-sized plastic picnic tables from friends.
The Main Meal
“Parents go to great lengths to put on a big spread of food, and kids don’t touch it,” says Gibson. Offer only familiar foods: juice (drinking boxes if the kids are seated on the floor), veggies and dip, tiny cheese or peanut butter sandwiches (check for allergies), goldfish crackers, fruit kebabs and cake.
Dish out hot dogs or pizza along with veggies and dip. If you’re adventurous, order coloured bread (sliced lengthwise) from the grocery store bakery, suggests Peer. Make impressive pinwheel and stacked mini-sandwiches. Or make shape sandwiches with cookie cutters.
Rev up the wow factor with unusual sweet treats. Rent a chocolate fountain from a party supply store ($50). Just be sure to lay down a plastic tablecloth first and give everyone an apron. Or buy a small fondue set for $5 instead. Offer mini-marshmallows, cut-up fruit and animal crackers for dipping. Or stick skewers of gummi worms, gumdrops and chewy candies in a hollowed-out pineapple for a clever centrepiece. Wrap them up for favours.
Save time and order an un-iced cake from your grocery store bakery, suggests Peer. “Let your imagination go wild.” Having a beach party? Slap on blue-coloured icing, brown sugar for sand, and mini cocktail umbrellas. Or go for the old reliables: Kids adore ice cream cakes or air-brushed psychedelic cakes from the grocery store.
Green up your party table with recycled or biodegradable paper plates, and a cloth tablecloth and napkins.
Don’t skip the gift opening. “If you do, kids feel ripped off,” says Gibson, especially the older ones. Play spin the bottle to keep the unwrapping rolling along. Decorate a bottle, spin it and when it stops, open the gift from that child.
The Goods on Goody Bags
Frantically piling stuff into Cellophane the night before? “Ask yourself if you’d want your child to bring home that garbage,” says Peer.
Give one main item instead of a bag of fiddly things. Try sidewalk chalk, bubbles, a hula hoop or big coloured ball.
Kids always love a bag of candy and goodies at this age, says Gibson. Find theme-related candy, hair clips, bracelets or action figures at the dollar store. Crafts completed at the party, such as painted birdhouses or ceramics, also make great favours.
Some older kids choose to give rather than get on their birthday. Ask guests to bring $10 (instead of a gift) to donate to a children’s hospital or charity. (Your child can still receive gifts from parents and family. Instead of disposable goody bags, wrap loot in a bandana, wooden box, or tin pail that kids can decorate.) For a Secret Garden party, Peer gives a clay pot filled with a little bag of soil, a seed packet, candies and bubbles.
Worries about winning
“I had one little princess collapse on the floor in tears because she was out in a game of The Queen Says (like Simon Says),” says Michelle Peer of Hullabaloo Party Planner. Stick with co-operative games like a treasure hunt where everyone helps solve the clues. Or keep playing rounds of a game until everyone wins. Award prizes like suckers, little bouncy balls or rings. Keep a paper bag labelled with each child’s name at the front door, so they can stash their prizes.
Flowers on the Wall
• For large base flower: Fold a large square of paper as you might a snowflake. In half, in quarters then into an eighth. At wider end of the triangle, cut a curve to create the petal shape of the flower. Open.
• For the Centre, simply make a traditional accordion pleated three-layers of tissue paper flower-Try layering different colours. Use a pipe cleaner to twist around centre. • To attach smaller flower to large, make a small hole in centre of large flower and pass the pipe cleaner ends through it.
• Layer two squares of tissue together and fold in half. From centre fold, draw then cut one half of a butterfly shape.
• For added 3-d effect, open one side of the wings from centre, creating a small ¼’ fold from centre, do the same on the other side of centre. When opened, there should now be a narrow valley/pleat down the centre of the body of the butterfly.
• Keeping one side of body folded, next, create a pleat folding top to bottom to create a pleat across the body.
• Punch two holes at top and thread pipe cleaner antenna and add jingle bells.
• Sparkle glue adds further decoration. Pin on.
A version of this article was originally published in March 2009.