elevating child care

Secrets To Magical Kids’ Parties

Over the past twenty-one years, my husband and I have thrown dozens of kid parties for our three children. While a few of these celebrations were just okay, the majority were memorable. Some were even magical. Here are the important lessons we’ve learned along the way:

It’s all about involvement

I can totally understand the desire to throw a big bash and invite every adult friend in our address book to celebrate a child’s first birthday. The accomplishments of the first year of parenting are certainly worth celebrating!  Generally, however, I appreciate parties geared toward creating a meaningful experience for the child. I’ve found the surest way to do that is to let children take the reins as much as possible by inviting their active participation in every aspect of the event, beginning in the planning stages. Who knows our child better than she does?

This let-the-kids-do-it-whenever-possible approach is reflective of child specialist Magda Gerber’s approach to children’s play, and creative projects (and just about anything else children are involved in). Gerber suggested we trust children to be the writers, directors and lead actors of their play in order to maximize these opportunities for self-motivated learning, problem solving and creative expression. So the party hats we wear are those of a support staff: assistant producer, set designer, go-fer. We let our children do the rest (to the extent of their abilities and interests).

Naturally, the younger the child, the more she’ll need us to do, but we can keep the festivities child-centered by considering her interestsand planning around them. For example, the theme for our son’s second birthday (with his stamp of approval) was one of his favorite songs, “Eensy, Weensy Spider”. He posed for the invitation, which was co-designed by his six-year old sister, and then picked out a few inexpensive spider-themed party favors from a catalogue. We invited family and a couple of his buddies, ate cake, and a spidery good time was had by all.

anotherust right eensy-weensy-spider-979x1024

On the practical side, kids seem to innately understand that less is more, so trusting their instincts has saved us time and loads of money. We’ve noticed that our kids seem to know who to invite and how to keep plans age-appropriate and far simpler than we might have. A case in point:

Parents can get carried away and take over at the drop of a (party) hat

Even though my husband and I always intended to keep plans simple and child-centered, our enthusiasm occasionally got the better of us. My most vivid memory of this was our son’s 7th birthday party. He wanted it to be at the beach near our home, and so we decided on a pirate theme. Our son loved pirates. Well, mostly he loved swords.

My husband and I dug right in, creating an elaborate beach treasure hunt with a map to the pirate’s buried treasure. Neither of us are particularly crafty, but get us started imagining stories and surprises, and we’re off. Some of our brilliant ideas had us rolling on the floor. We were quite pleased with ourselves.

So, as the young pirates set off down the beach in search of the buried treasure chest filled with candy and toys, they had to follow the map, guess clues and solve puzzles. There were twists, turns, dead-ends, and hilarious (we thought) highlights, like one involving the grave of the legendary pirate Ol’ Gasbard and a hidden remote controlled fart machine. (Really.) My husband and I were amused, the children not so much.

As an afterthought, we’d also followed our son’s suggestion to bring a football and a rope for tug-of-war.

bigger tug of war ben is 7

Guess which activities the kids enjoyed most?

What do you suppose our son said the next year when he requested another beach party?

“Let’s not do the treasure hunt pirate stuff this time.” Um, okay… We didn’t argue. It was actually a relief not to have go to all that trouble again, and I’m (almost) certain we would have eventually come to the same conclusion ourselves. tug of war ben is 8yeeha ben's party

For the next five years our son had the most fabulously rich and shockingly simple beach birthday parties that his buddies raved about and looked forward to every year.

Preparation — at least half the fun

For children, the preparations are as exciting and enriching as the party itself. Child-centered planning and preparation also help toddlers and preschoolers feel on top of the situation, fully informed rather than overwhelmed, so birthday child meltdowns are far less likely.

The more open we’ve been to our children’s “less is enough” (and, often, more) approach, the more magical surprises there have been, like the personalized invitation drawings our daughter M made for her fourth birthday. Her eight year old sister did the writing.

croppedsmaller winnie the pooh0001

Her Winnie the Pooh party, which she chose based on her love of the stories, reminds me of the book I adored and used for three hugely successful affairs: The Disney Party Handbook by Alison Boteler. I checked out the same slightly worn copy from the library each year for our Winnie the Pooh, Beauty and Beast and Peter Pan parties. 

feather duster

The book contains delightful decoration, food and game ideas that the children can choose from and help prepare. Memorable highlights for us were the Fifi the feather duster party favors (made with paint stirrers), the Beast’s chocolate ice cream cake castle (which looked darkly magical as it started to melt), and the dapper and durable green felt Peter Pan party hats (for my oldest daughter’s sixth birthday), a simple craft that even I could make work. The Peter Pan pirate ship trampoline with sails made from white sheets adorned with skull and crossbones were to die for, too.

If our kids were young nowadays we’d no doubt be scouring imaginative websites like Toddler Approved (I love their  Dog Party!), Playful Learning, Tinkerlab and Modern Parents, Messy Kids for party ideas to inspire us and our kids and make beautiful memories.

It’s not about money

There were parties we spent money on, but looking back, the parties (and aspects of parties) that stand out as memorable favorites cost us very little.  Take the slumber party we had for our middle daughter’s 10th birthday. We took the girls to “Build-a-Bear”, which can be costly, and they certainly enjoyed themselves, but the party really took off when the girls came back to our house and began their spontaneous game of “fashion show” with the large collection of random costumes and accessories we’d amassed over the years. Our older daughter videoed the girls “walking the catwalk” in their outrageous outfits (though it was almost impossible to walk steadily when they were doubled over with laughter), and then later they posed for this photo:

cropped smaller esized party girls

Trust is the ticket to magical surprises

‘Trust’ is my favorite parenting word because of all the magic and joy the simple (though not always easy) practice of letting go has brought to my family over the years.

Trusting our first daughter to develop empathy and manners through our modeling (rather than forcing or insisting she share or say “thanks” or “sorry”) led to our big surprise on her 3rd birthday when she thanked each of her guests individually and effusively for the gifts she received.  She also surprised us year after year by always reserving the seat next to hers for her sister who’s four years younger (and is exploring her Beast fangs in the below photo).madeline fangs

Trust in our kids to do it their way has meant we seldom need to entertain. We first realized this when our oldest had her “Beauty and the Beast” party in Kindergarten. The guests had enjoyed their Beast-themed snacks, including breadstick “Lumière” candlesticks with butter “flames”, the marvelous haunted castle cake and also a piñata. (We chose the only one we could find that vaguely fit the theme — a lovely dark haired girl — not foreseeing how wrong it would feel to be pummeling her with a plastic bat!)

After the piñata was cracked, we thought we’d need to keep the party moving by leading some games, but to our surprise, our daughter and her seven guests completely took charge, playing games on the lawn they’d learned in music class at school, which entertained them for the rest of the afternoon. Well, that was easy!

We’ve since been surprised when, for example, a large group of middle school kids chose to frolic in the ocean fully dressed (we didn’t think they’d actually enter the bracing water at the end of October).

And then there was “Rainbow Wars”, the uncomplicated, yet apparently riveting game my son’s friends invented that involved throwing glow stick party favors at each other all evening in our backyard. Who needs adult-led entertainment?

One of the biggest surprises we’ve had has been at the holiday party we’ve hosted for family and neighbors for the last few years. Kids of all ages are in attendance, yet you’d never know it, because they are outdoors playing who-knows-what in the dark all evening. Granted, it doesn’t get much below 40 degrees around here, but that can still be a bit chilly when you’re barefoot, as most of them apparently are.

When children devise the plan, it’s more fun for everyone.

JudeTheMan_(2)

 

 Please share your stories! 

 

(Thumbnail photo at the top by ND Strupler on Flickr )

 

 

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18 Responses to “Secrets To Magical Kids’ Parties”

  1. avatar Lana says:

    Gorgeous and timely! We are planning our daughter’s first birthday party and had already gotten quite carried away. I am really excited to brainstorm with my husband things just for her now, instead of for the adults, which had truthfully been our focus!!

    • avatar janet says:

      I can say with all honestly, Lana, that our kids have NEVER led us wrong. Enjoy the party! And congratulations to Mum and Dad!

  2. avatar Tracey says:

    I love throwing birthday parties for my kids-but yes, the most magical by far was the one I planned the least for! My daughter wanted to have a camping party for her 9th birthday before we moved away to a new city. My husband ended up having tot go out of town on business last minute so I ended up taking 5 8 & 9 year olds camping at a forest device campground far from cell range all by myself. It was glorious. The girls helped set up our campsite then set off exploring. I made a campfire and sat with a good book. For two days they entertained themselves with bungee cords, rope, ghost stories and exploring. Oh-and of course giggling after dark :) Best time ever!

    • avatar janet says:

      Sounds heavenly, Tracey! And you’ve reminded me of my five years as a Girl Scout leader…biggest surprise of my life that I became a Girl Scout leader and loved it! The girls were great fun and there were many magic moments like those you’ve described. I wasn’t always thrilled about the giggling after dark, but in retrospect… Yup. I miss those days.

  3. avatar Grace says:

    Thank you for writing this Janet. My husband and I are really blessed to not feel the pressures of having great big parties for our two boys (age 5.25 and 2.75) from the start. So far my favourite one is for our youngest, whom turned 2 last year.

    We went camping and invited the boys’ 2 favourite adults (no other kids) and didn’t tell them or the kids about our birthday plans.

    When we all arrived, I handed out the balloons and everybody knew exactly what to do while I prepared fresh berry tarts (straight from the farmers market) right as they were blowing up the balloons. It was a surprise birthday party in the woods with no stress at all and everybody got to participate in the “prep”.

    The candles came out, sang the birthday song and proceeded to do camping things like going to collect wood to build a fire etc.

    Low key and relaxed but full of meaning and all of us including the adults felt deep sense of joy. Everybody wanted to do it again next year.

    I also wrote about our boys’ simple 1st birthday “parties” here:
    http://plentyofsimple.com/2013/06/26/birthdays-and-parties-a-simplified-outlook-part-1/

    My first time commenting here but had been following your blog for a while now. Thank you for all that you do/write :)

    Sincerely,
    Grace

  4. avatar VW says:

    This is a very timely post for me as well, since my daughter is turning 5 in 2 days (gah, where does the time go?!). This is the first year she’s really into the idea of birthday parties, and she’s generally a person who has very specific ideas of how she wants things to be, so I sat down with her to make a list of things she wanted for her party (guests, decorations, cake, activities). Most of the things she wanted are totally doable, and the list made it easier for me to buy party supplies.

    What I’m struggling with are two specific ideas of hers that are clearly outside the script of your average birthday party: She wants people to pay a coin (or a flower) to be able to attend the party, and she says she wants to “make up the rules for my party and tell everyone and then they have to leave if they don’t follow the rules.” I’m honestly not sure where she got these ideas, since they’re not things we do in our family.

    We’ve talked to her to figure out why these things are important to her (especially the ‘entrance fee’ of the coin/flower, since she also wants people to bring her a present) and also to let her know that not only is that not what usually happens at parties, but many people would consider it quite rude and may not want to come to/stay at such a party. She is unmoved and insists that how things have to happen.

    The party is in less than 2 days. Any suggestions for how to handle this?

    Thank you!

    • avatar Rose says:

      The flower idea sounds quite nice, actually–you could put them all in a vase and display them throughout the party near the cake or gifts, but I would encourage the concept of having each guests take one with them when they leave. I doubt she’ll go for that, though :-)

      As for the rules thing, rules are a very big deal to 4- and 5-year-olds. She’s probably hearing about them a lot at preschool–rules are important, we have to follow the rules, you can’t participate if you don’t follow the rules, etc.

      I would stick to your guns and make it clear that what she’s proposing is rude and ungracious and not how a good hostess manages a party, and if you see her attempting to impose martial law on her guests, countermeasures will be taken. What those are is up to you. Good luck!

  5. avatar Pam says:

    Sit back and get ready for mega-comment. My daughter loves planning her parties from the invitations to the food.

    Her fourth birthday party was at Fern Dell in Griffith Park. She wanted a fairy hunt with a side of toad stools. We found some statues of odd things in thrift shops (a dancer, a gnome, an owl) and hid them on the path. She and her dad named the figurines and made a Bingo card so her little friends could hunt for them and circle them when they found them. The menu: pie and yoghurt. She worked so hard on her invitations that I had to email details to a couple of friends and send the invitation after the party. She made little toadstools from Model Magic for her guests.

    When she was six she had a cake and ice cream dance party at home. She decorated the front walk with chalk drawings of ice cream cones. We played freeze dance and made ice cream sundaes with construction paper and glitter.

    When she turned seven she wanted a dinner party. We made pita pizzas, pigs-in-blankets and carrots. She had her dad make a playlist with all her favorite songs. She danced earnestly. She ate a lot.

    Birthday parties can be such a beautiful celebration of who your child is exactly in that moment. She’s never been disappointed. The planning usually starts in the summer for her birthday in October. This year we’re going camping. Tracey, you give me hope that it will be marvelous (I’m a bit nervous.)

    Wonderful post, Janet.

  6. For my oldest son’s first birthday, we planned a big bash with all our friends and their children. We rented out the clubhouse at our condo, and carefully planned all the decorations, food, and games.

    Even though it seemed everyone had a wonderful time (the bubble machine was a big hit!), after we finished the day completely exhausted and with a pile of presents bigger than our car, we scaled back for all the parties since then. My middle child’s first birthday was just a few close friends over for pizza and homemade cupcakes, and others have been simple gatherings at our home or nearby parks. They may get more elaborate in the future, but our kids right now are happy with balloons and cake, and to have their friends come celebrate with them.

  7. Bookmarking AND pinning this!

    Our most successful parties were box parties, usually something we did for an annual summer picnic. We picked up several large boxes from appliance stores along with as many other boxes we could collect. Kids used duct tape, masking tape, and rope to design whatever they choose while parents used mat knives to cut the doors and windows kids indicated. They used markers to add details. They’d turn a dozen boxes into interconnected forts, castles, and clubhouses, then play in them all day.

    We also had pig pen parties for years. Water running down the slide into a big pool of mud, shaving cream games, water balloons, and much more. This used to be for kids until all their parents got involved.

  8. avatar Sophie says:

    For my daughter’s third birthday party she requested I did a 3 Billy Goat’s Gruff puppet show. I’m a teacher, so used to doing that kind of thing in front of children, but the thought of doing it in front of their parents too didn’t appeal! I was also worried that the other children might not be as excited by me doing a puppet show as my daughter is. But I did it anyway, and am so glad I did as it was the highlight of the party! All the children were so involved with (the barely rehearsed) show; they jumped with surprise every time the troll popped up and shouted encouragement to the goats. And the parents enjoyed it too. I had a sore throat from doing the troll’s voice for the rest of the day, but it made me realise that there’s no need to employ expensive children’s entertainers. I’m glad I trusted my daughter’s idea.

  9. avatar Kate says:

    This is a beautiful article, taking notes for my daughters next party, which she has been busily planning for the last six months.

  10. avatar Elizabeth says:

    Best kid-led activity: We had planned for pumpkin bowling at a Halloween party, which went over well, but after it was done the kids wanted to smash the pumpkins (one or two had cracked during bowling) and we said why not. They had a ball smashing those things to smithereens and then tossing all the chunks into the woods to “feed the raccoons”. Not something I would have planned, but very fun.

    Best parent designed activity: We filled a small room about three feet deep in blue/green/white balloons for an under the sea treasure hunt. We used a vacuum set on reverse to fill the balloons and sprinkled little glass marbles and plastic coins on the floor for them to “dive” for and they just went wild. They didn’t want to do any of the other activities, just that one over and over, and then they just “swam” in the balloons once the baubles were gone. Definitely doing that one again at some point.

  11. avatar Shereen says:

    Thanks for sharing! I would love to see more posts like this about translating RIE practices into raising older children. Very helpful!

  12. avatar Abbie says:

    This is VERY timely as we are starting to think about my son’s fourth birthday party. Janet, what are your thoughts on “drop-off” birthday parties for children this age? Most of the parties we’ve been to have been huge bashes with 40+ people since siblings and parents are always invited. They usually involve meeting at a park or renting out a facility. We want to do something more kid-centered in our back yard. My husband and I are having a conflict because I think that it should be small (5 or 6 kids) and should last two hours. He thinks we should invite all my son’s friends (12 kids) and it should last three hours so that the parents have time to go to a movie or something while we babysit. What should we do? Ask our son which kids he wants to invite? It just gets complicated because there is always the risk of offending our friends if they find out that their child didn’t make the cut. I’m also wondering if it is realistic to expect 3-5 year olds to attend a party without their parents. My son went to his first drop-off party six months ago and he did great, but I know that some kids aren’t as wiling to go along with a drop-off as he is.

  13. avatar Abbie says:

    I should add that all of the kids that we are inviting to the drop-off party are the children of our very close friends. All of the kids have spent lots of time at our house and know my husband and I well. We wouldn’t attempt a drop-off party if we were inviting kids whose parents don’t know and trust us.

  14. Hi Janet :-) Great post indeed! I couldn’t agree more in regards to the fun of planning together, I have really enjoyed seeing my son getting very involved with preparing his party, thinking about it, about the menu, setting the tables, preparing the party favors, etc. (Although I cringed this year when I heard him set up something and say to himself ‘Perfect! It’ll be perfect.’ Mom’s perfectionism seeping through the cracks ;-)) I’ve gotten better at letting go. I look forward to following my son’s lead even more for his next parties! Trust is so liberating!!

  15. avatar Heidi says:

    My best memories of parties was the fairy party for my daughter, we made everything, the wings, crowns, wands and their favorite, fairy dust necklaces. I have beautiful pictures of a bunch of four year old girls running through the park throwing fairy dust. I also used paper to create giant flowers all over the house and they loved it. Whatever I used for decorating the house would then be transferred to their rooms for the year, they loved it. I have so many friends who spend hundreds and sometimes a few thousand dollars on birthdays and I don’t like these parties, the parents are hovering and over correcting everyone, the kids are dressed too fance and can’t ‘get dirty’ and the gift bag items have become a competition. I’ll usually do one structured activity to start with the kids and then they are on their own to play, and they love it, and the parents get to relax and visit and not have to micromanage their children. Great post, I’ve been thinking of starting a party organizing business that specializes in low key, low cost, wonderful parties…because we all can’t afford bouncy castles and carted parties for our toddlers!

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