When it comes to children's birthday parties, some parents get caught up in the need to over-plan and over-spend in creating something imaginative, fashionable or memorable for the child.
The reality is that small children (and their friends) are more likely to remember a particular game or some of what they ate, rather than whether the napkins matched the streamers or how many people were present at the party or even which presents they received.
Competitiveness between parents to produce a one-off, expensive event, can sometimes override the enjoyment for the child. Young children can easily become agitated and over-tired by expectations, activity and noise, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings. Keeping a party simple allows the children time for free play and to take things at their own pace. It's also a lot cheaper.
Plan the party for the child
- Consider the age of your child. Babies and toddlers (2 years and under) have little to no concept of what a birthday party is all about. A small celebration at home with extended family, means the birthday person can catch up on a nap in familiar surroundings, while the adults enjoy time together.
- Strive to keep the invitation list restricted to closest playmates as children get older. They may not wish cousins and extended family to be present and if the invitation list is predominantly the children they already know from school or daycare, they are more likely to have fun.
- Keep the focus of the party on the child. There is always the temptation to invite, cook for and entertain the parents as well, but this may mean a lot of extra work with the invited children being outnumbered by adults.
- Allow a few weeks to plan a party for an older child. Invitations, food, games and helpers need to be planned for and enlisted in advance.
- Consult your child as to who they would like to invite and restrict numbers so that your child has the opportunity to play with and enjoy their friends. When it comes to invitation numbers, a good rule of thumb for children 8 years and under is the child's age +1.
- Keep the party short. Two hours is adequate time for young children to enjoy food, games and each other's company.
Home or away?
At different ages, children prefer different experiences. Very young children will most probably enjoy a few friends in familiar surroundings for a very short time. Older children may want to go ice-skating, horse riding, swimming or to the movies.
Regardless of whether you live in a small apartment or home with a large garden, children enjoy a home-based party as much as a party outside the home, if you tailor-make it to their surroundings. One or two games in a small space could be followed with a walk to the local milk bar for a birthday icecream. A fast-food meal eaten out could be followed by quiet time at home to light the candles and cut the cake.
- Decide where the party will be held. Enlist the help of family and friends if you decide to have a party at home. Ask who is willing to bake the cake, prepare food, organise games.
- Book and pay in advance for a party at a local venue. Check out a number of alternatives - from fast food outlets to museums - and compare costs. Having a party away from home means you are spared all the work, but it can be expensive, so make sure food, admission, etc, is included in the cost per head. If your budget is tight, offer to pay for the food, but ask parents to contribute per head to the cost of a movie ticket.
- Choose a controlled space if having the party away from home. Open areas such as parks are fun for the children to let off steam, but ensure you have enough adults to supervise. Rule of thumb: 1 adult: 4 children.
- Booking entertainers can be expensive, and for young children in particular, the arrival of adults they don't recognise (dressed as clowns, cartoon or storybook characters, or oversized animals) can be a source of anxiety.
- Be creative - instead of a magician, have a lucky dip. Instead of hiring a DJ, ask a grandparent, older sibling or neighbour to dress up and spin the discs.
- Hiring equipment (jumping castles etc.) is only recommended if you know how to use and supervise. Safety at all times is imperative.
Invitations and presents
Invitations and presents come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on the age of your child, they may like to make up their own invitations on the computer and print them off. Some children may like a photo of themselves printed on the front of the invitation or they may wish to decorate with artwork.
Presents don't have to be expensive or age-inappropriate. Indicating to parents how much to spend and on what, helps everyone feel comfortable about the birthday experience.
- Schedule the party for a time when your partner or extended family members are available to help.
- Consider a weekend afternoon for the party, even if it isn't the exact birthday date. Depending on your child's age, an after preschool or school party can mean tired, cranky children.
- Communicate a limit to parents (either via the invitation or verbally) of how much to spend on a present for your child and the sorts of toys you child appreciates. For instance a $10 limit will purchase many art or stationery supplies, and a $20 limit for model toys, children's CDs or clothing. Indicating a limit also means that children are more likely to receive an age-appropriate present.
- Mail (or email) invitations rather than ask your child to hand deliver at school or preschool. This helps to overcome the problem of children feeling left out.
- Indicate on the invitation what sorts of birthday foods will be served, (birthday cake, lollies, sausage rolls, etc,) and ask parents about any food allergies.
Themes, games and activities
Some children like to dress up for parties, others don't care. In choosing a theme for your child's party, keep it simple. Rather than expecting parents to go to the expense and trouble of dressing their child as a fairy or a pirate, the party can work just as well if you buy or make six or seven magic wands or a few eye patches and hand them to the children on arrival.
If in doubt as to what sorts of themes or activities to have, ask your child's teacher or daycare assistant for ideas. Surf the Internet or borrow a book from your local library on ways to entertain children at parties.
Some long term favourites include Simon Says (following commands but only if Simon Says), Treasure Hunt (outside or inside activity going from one hand written note of clues to the next to eventually find the hidden treasure), Whispers (passing a message along the line to see how accurate it is at the end) and Statues (moving only while the music is on and then standing perfectly still when the music stops).
- Provide small prizes (a pencil, sweet, etc,) for all participants in party games. The winner can be presented with something extra, but plan for a ‘no loser' game.
- Keep games short and enjoyable.
- Be flexible: if the game isn't going to plan, improvise.
- Be prepared for wet weather if the party is outside and have something else in mind that can be done in an inside, confined space (Pin the Tail on the Donkey).
- Check with parents beforehand as to whether their child will be comfortable participating in horse riding or ice skating. If not, have something else for them to do.
- Sit children in a circle while presents are unwrapped. Children like to see what the birthday person receives and it gives parents the chance to note down who gave what for the after party thankyou.
- Provide for independent play: a dress up box, playdough or painting supplies as an alternative to organised activities.
Party food and party bags
Most children look forward to party food as this is a legitimate time to eat junk food such as lollies and chips. Try to keep the party menu balanced - some healthy food, like raw vegetables and dip, sliced and chopped fruit, fruit juice - combined with sausage rolls, party pies, pizza, carbonated drinks, whatever. If eating out, opt for a menu that has a healthy component if possible.
- Instead of ordering a cake, consider an inexpensive cake from the supermarket or individual cup cakes with candles, arranged in a figure to correspond to the child's age.
- Encourage your child to ice and decorate a plain butter cake in whatever colours they choose. Mixed lollies or toys make great decorations.
- Ensure each child has part of the decoration or a candle on their particular slice when served.
- Make up your own party bags, by buying lollies or party supplies in bulk. Keep contents to a minimum with a few mixed lollies, a small plastic toy or whistle, a balloon and a pre-printed thankyou from your child.
Resist the temptation to over-cater, over-organise or go over the top. Children have an inbuilt mechanism to enjoy themselves -especially if you keep it simple and age-appropriate. They'll also remember the party as one they enjoyed.