Birthday parties

How to give your kid a special birthday while stuck at home

Your kid's birthday party doesn't need to be cancelled because of the coronavirus. Here's how to make the day special while practicing social distancing!

My family doesn’t usually go big for birthdays, but for my daughter’s third birthday this March I decided to splurge and invite 40 people to a community hall with a children’s musician and an agility course. That was, before COVID-19 had my family self-isolating in my home for the last two weeks.

Although it is just one of many disappointing cancellations, telling my daughter there would be no party almost broke my heart. As I watched her chin wobble, I vowed to find a way to make it special despite how different it will be.

As schools across the country close for an unknown period of time, my daughter will likely be one of many with a cancelled birthday party. But it is still possible to make your kid feel special, to feel known, and for loved ones to show how much they care.

Baby birthday party ideas

The youngest birthday kids thrive on serve-and-return social interactions—they love putting their little personalities into the world and feeling their loved ones respond. Video chats with friends and family are simple, but can still hold so much magic at this age.

Video conferencing apps like Zoom allow many friends and family to join in the fun, even if it’s just for a “happy birthday” sing-a-long as the cake approaches. If their birthday isn’t for a few weeks, make a custom board book with photos of their favourite people and help your little one identify who’s who. While most American companies have cut off international shipping, the Canadian company Bags of Love can help you out.

For the littlest babes, take time to work on their baby book, make prints of their hands and feet, journal about their personalities, and (finally) print out photos.

Toddler birthday party ideas

These kiddos are just figuring out that a birthday is special, but they’re still mainly motivated by family, food, and fun.

Give them the gift of choice. What’s their favourite meal? What kind of dessert would they like? Toddlers love being listened to, and when would there ever be a better time for gourmet PB & J with unicorn cake?

Say cheese! Make a family photo booth complete with silly props to create memories for years to come.

Toddlers love to be active, so buy your child their own yoga mat and find a parent-and-tot yoga class to stream—there are plenty of options out there. Or, recreate the outdoors by having a living room camp-out, complete with tent, s’mores, sleeping bags, and campfire songs.

Little kid birthday party ideas

At kids get older, they start to recognize the importance of relationships outside their family unit, so birthdays are an important way to connect with friends, however briefly.

Let friends and family know that the birthday kid will be standing outside at a certain time and get them to drive by in decorated cars with balloons and birthday signs, if this is possible for them. Your kid will barely feel the distance.

Tap into their adventurous side with a scavenger hunt around your house, backyard or even the neighbourhood, if that’s safe and available. A few days before the event, send friends a list of items to find and then have them email pictures of what they located to see who found the most! Or, give their friends clues and then have your kid call them so they can solve a mystery together.

For a little bit of silliness, host an online karaoke party with their favourites from Raffi, the Laurie Berkner Band, and Disney!

Big kid birthday party ideas

Bigger kids are developing enduring friendships and building community, which means birthdays are an important way to strengthen these bonds.

Come up with a theme for the day. For example, if your kid likes cooking, try a chef’s party. Have a friend who’s a decent cook host a “cooking show” over Zoom for your kid and their friends. Gifts could be a chef’s knife, a cooking board, and an apron.

Or, why not throw them their first (maybe only) “midnight party:” wake them up at midnight, serve dark chocolate and blackberries, and have the flash on your camera ready!

Make a playlist of your kid’s favourite songs, gift them a fabulous new outfit, and hold 2020’s most ridiculous dance party on Zoom. Record this and make it into a movie with editing software like iMovie that can be sent around to friends.

Gift them a sense of community by creating a video campaign asking for donations to a community cause that’s important to them. They’ll love to watch as the money roll in from friends and family.

Tween birthday party ideas

Older kids are seeking independence and developing a burgeoning sense of identity, so let those things shine through in whatever celebration you choose.

Put them in charge. In normal times, it might seem counterintuitive to get your kids in on making their own cake, but many young people will be feeling a need for control in these uncertain times. Let them make the biggest, brightest, most sugary dessert their imaginations can muster!

Send out some fancy virtual event invitations (Paperless post has some great options) to the birthday kid’s pals, and set up a living room spa. Prep foot soaks, fancy moisturizers, dainty chocolates, and candles—set up a Zoom call, and get ready for giggles.

Have your kid pick a movie from Netflix and turn the living room into a movie theatre. Give them a new “lounge” outfit for the occasion, and set up a watch party with pals using Netflix Party. This can also work for group video-gaming.

Many celebrities are offering personalized birthday shout-outs through the Cameo app. Log on and see if one of their favourite stars is available to wish them a happy birthday.

For all birthday celebrations

My best advice, follow the motto, “Keep calm and party on.” If you’re excited about the way you’re choosing to celebrate, chances are good that your kid will be too. It’s nice to replicate the best parts of a party (celebrating your child’s personality, including loved ones, and giving gifts), but try not to force it to look a certain way. This is a great time to focus more on intimate connection than Instagram.

Also, try to front load the experience by reminding them that they’re not the only ones this is happening to. It will also be important to remind your child, especially if they’re young, about the ways this day will look different than they might expect. Remember to follow current health guidelines for any gifts entering your home from outside.

As I write this (with my toddler on my lap), we’re re-calibrating our birthday celebrations. We’re not going to let COVID-19 dim this bright day for our newly-minted three-year-old. Instead, we’re theming the day with rainbows, and have asked loved ones to send photographs and videos of colourful birthday wishes—one even made her a custom tutu.

We splurged on a fancy Grimm’s rainbow stacker, and our friends at Bright and Beaming music will still host a group music party for everyone, which we’ll watch from the comfort of our rainbow-filled living room.

Birthday parties

I spent $25 on my kid's birthday party and it was the best one ever

I'm known for my epic, Pinterest-worthy birthday bashes. But this time, I was forced to go more low-key—and my view on birthday parties is changed forever.

Over my eleven years as a stay-at-home parent, I’ve thrown my share of over-the-top, Pinterest-perfect birthday parties for my three kids. Themed menus, original games and curated goodie bags have built a reserve of fun memories for my kids, and a reputation for myself as a master party planner. When it comes to celebrations, I’ve always been the hostess with the mostest.

But this year, after going back to work nearly full-time, I found myself a few days out from my oldest son’s eleventh birthday with nary a plan—or a Pinterest board—in sight. Being a working parent is a tough gig, and the load of it all had caused my former party planning gusto to fall by the wayside. As a matter of fact, I decided I wasn’t even going to throw my son a party at all, figuring this could be one of those off years when we just go out for nice dinner and call it a day. But a few days before his birthday, we suddenly found ourselves out of school (and work) for an extra week due to a teacher strike in Arizona, where we live.

It dawned on me that this temporary reprieve provided a unique opportunity. Not only did I have a couple of days to toss something together for my son’s birthday, but all the other kids from his school were also commitment-free. “Now do you think I could have a party?” asked my son. There was no way I’d be able to pull off my usual shindig of epic proportions, but swallowing my pride (and my reputation as an event planner), I said yes.

Quickly, I texted my son’s friends’ moms. Could their boys join us for a last-minute party on a weekday afternoon? Amazingly, the stars aligned: Almost every one of them accepted. Now I just needed a (simple) plan.

Though this party wouldn’t be a major spectacular, it also wouldn’t be a kid’s birthday celebration without cake. My son and I ran to the grocery store and picked up a pre-made chocolate-drizzled ice cream-covered confection he’s begged me to get for ages—for a grand total of twenty bucks. In my eyes, it didn’t quite measure up to the painstakingly created treat I would normally make, but my son was no less enthused about it.

With cake checked off the list, my thoughts turned to birthday party activities. What could we throw together on the fly that everyone would enjoy? I asked my son about everyone’s favorite game to play at school. “Kickball,” he said. “That’s all we play at recess.” Well, that couldn’t be easier, I thought. But it’s a little meh for a party. But time was of the essence, so kickball it was, with a $5 ball snagged at a local discount retailer.

Now for the decorations. With two days to plan and no party theme except “general birthday,” I wasn’t about to go hog wild constructing a Millennium Falcon in my living room or a rainforest jungle in my backyard. Rather, I scrounged around in my hall closet and found some streamers and balloons leftover from a previous event. These quickly covered the available surfaces of the house, and boom! Instant party atmosphere, as far as my son was concerned. (And cost-free, as far as I was concerned.) Since I’d told all the guests that presents were optional because of the short notice, I felt no obligation to fashion incredible goodie bags. This time, the party itself was the gift to one and all.

When the day arrived, I crossed my fingers that this simple, no-prep get-together would be enough. Would my son feel let down and bored? Would his friends’ moms judge me for my lack of effort, wondering what happened to the woman they used to know as the neighbourhood celebration maven?

As it happened, any such concerns proved unfounded. For two and a half hours, eight eleven-year-old boys caroused through my house having the time of their lives. They waged war with the arsenal of Nerf guns my son already owns, played kickball in the street and raved about the deliciousness of the ice cream cake. Around the middle of the party, I suddenly found myself with nothing to do. I literally sat down and read a book.

As the party wrapped up, none of the kids wanted to leave. My son declared it one of his best birthday parties ever—and I realized I had to agree. Though I have a deep love for creating fabulous events full of memorable details, if I’m honest, planning these extravagant bashes often seriously stresses me out. In the midst of trying to fashion an environment of fun, I sometimes inadvertently create the opposite: a miserable morass of tension. I reach the point of the stereotypical mom screaming at everyone in the house to clean up like I asked you to, goshdarnit, company is coming! For once it was just so nice not to stress.

In time, I also became aware of how healthy it felt to let myself off the hook from unrealistic standards of perfection I usually buy into. Pinterest, mommy blogs and my own social circle have convinced me that a “good mom” is a super creative mom—especially when it comes to celebrating her children. But allowing my son to set the tone and make his own choices like a simple cake, a Nerf war and kickball in the street led me to explore the unflattering possibility that perhaps in the past I have foisted my own desire to appear creative on an event that’s not really about me at all. And if I consistently make over-the-top parties the norm, I’m teaching my kids to expect this level of grandeur of me—and maybe of the world at large. I hope to show them instead that it can be just as good (or better) to make their own fun as to have it served to them on a platter.

My son never said a word about being disappointed with the simplicity of his $25 birthday party. The lack of goodie bags, themed games, mountains of snacks and pre-planned activities didn’t seem to matter a bit to him or his preteen friends. But wait—should that surprise me? For my birthday, when I was a kid in the ‘80s, my parents would take me to dinner at a pizza buffet and let me invite a cousin for a sleepover—end of story—and I loved every minute. If I could be happy with such modest festivities, then time with eight friends, a game of kickball, and an ice cream cake could certainly suffice for my son. While I’m not ready to completely relinquish my epic party planning, I’m now happy to opt for a simple birthday celebration any time.

This article was originally published online in July 2018.

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