My mom was the queen of birthday parties when I was growing up and her secret weapon was the Penny Whistle Party Planner (PWPP). The PWPP listed over twenty different party themes, complete with accompanying food ideas, games, favors, and activities. My sisters and I had party themes ranging from Swan Lake ballerina to a pig party where we had Jell-O eating contests with our hands tied behind our backs. The book, along with my mother’s love for themed events, has been passed down to me now that I have my own children.
Fall, in our family, is the season of the birthday party.
My son’s birthday is in September, followed by a daughter each in November, December, and January. The kids love coming up with their theme every year and I love the challenge of building a party which reflects their loves, interests and personalities at their current age. This upcoming weekend is my eldest’s eighth birthday and she has requested a book theme. There is nothing more fitting for my smart, sweet, lit-loving girl. So while I can’t just pop into Party City and grab everything from the section of a certain character or movie theme, I get to create something unique that will make her feel special and appreciated on her big day.
While I love the good ol’ PWPP, Pinterest is a modern mama’s best friend (unless your actual best friend is a party planner, in which case, good for you — buy her lots of Starbucks). As soon as my kids choose a theme, I start my search and add relevant pins to their individual boards. I have yet to be disappointed, even with the more esoteric themes, in the number of ideas Pinterest supplies me. My second and third stops after a good round of Pinteresting are Amazon and Etsy. Etsy is the best place for things that really make your party special, since you can almost always find inexpensive printable files that can be personalized for your child. I usually get table signs, water bottles wraps, cupcake flags, banners, etc. and I will occasionally order paper invitations if I need some to send to school. Amazon of course has #allthethings, but I usually have the most luck with paper products and items for goody bags (more on my feelings on goody bags in a moment).
The four main categories of party planning for me are 1. food, 2. decorations, 3. games or activities, and 4. favors.
I usually have the most fun with the food, because it is a part of the event that the parents often enjoy as much as the kids. Sometimes my killer puns are lost on the tiny guests, so I count on their parents to appreciate my humor (Seven Leia Dip at my son’s May the 4th Be With You party was a particularly proud moment). For the upcoming book party, my daughter and I brainstormed (and searched Pinterest) for books with food in the title to inspire our menu (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, etc.).
Decorations are usually minimal and inexpensive, especially if the food contributes to the theme and makes the table fun to look at. Games depend a lot on the age of the party attendees, but I also try to keep this pretty simple since usually they just want to run around screaming and eating too much sugar. As far as favors, I know there are a lot of schools of thought on whether kids should get party favors at all, but I remember being so excited to get a goody bag at the end of a party, and I think it’s fun and harmless. However, now that I’m a parent of four I do appreciate quality over quantity when it comes to party favors and I try not to send home bags of plastic junk that will get lost, broken, or thrown away within a week. For the book party, kids are getting canvas bags on which they can stencil their names, a small “writer’s idea notebook,” a scratch off bookmark, and some “book worms” (gummy worms).
I know that party planning is not something that brings everyone joy the way it does for me. But I encourage you to think outside the box with your themes and really let your and your child’s imagination take over. If you need a little jump start, here are a few fun ideas:
Circle Party (great for little ones)
Food: all circles! Cheerios, sandwiches cut into circles, Ritz crackers, carrot slices, oranges, etc. The cake can be a tower of doughnuts! Activities: a ball pit, ring toss. Favors: bouncy balls, small frisbees, glow or slap bracelets.
Food: build your own molecules with cheese cubes, grapes, and marshmallows. Jell-O petri dishes. Pop rocks or nerds, even more fun if they are in little test tubes! Activities: make slime or elephant toothpaste, scientist photo booth with props. Favors: we loved these little curly straw beakers!
This was a favorite of ours. Food: Hot on the Trail Mix, fuses (Twizzlers), chocolate binoculars (Swiss cake rolls), energy packs (squeeze pouch applesauce). Activities: definitely the best part of this party, and geared more to kids at least over the age of five. They must solve the case of the stolen goody bags! We had them choose a code name (favorite color and favorite animal), put on a disguise (fake mustache and glasses), and go through a number of challenges. A hallway laser maze with red yarn, a bomb detonation room filled with black balloons three of which were filled with confetti, and finally, using truth serum (silly string or spray bottles of water) to get the double agent (ours was daddy!) to reveal the location of the goody bags. Favors: magnifying glasses, their disguises and code name badges, candy that was discovered at the secret location.
Food: arrange fruits and veggies in rainbow order, multi-colored Goldfish, Rice Krispies Treats on sticks dipped to look like paintbrushes, a multi-level colored rainbow cake or cupcakes. The more colorful the better! Activities: give each kid a small canvas, a plastic paint pallet, brush, and a smock or apron and have them create their own masterpiece. This also serves as their favor! Make sure to do it early on in the party so it has some time to dry. If weather allows, you can also use watercolor in squirt guns or bottles to spray pillow cases or canvases. Decorate using paint sample chips, or make a rainbow out of links of construction paper.
Food: lots of neon candy and bright colors, pop rocks, colored popcorn. Activities: go crazy with the set up for this one, from a DJ table to a disco ball or colored lights. Make sure to have plenty of open space for dancing! Dance contests, limbo, line dances, etc. Favors: cool glasses, glow bracelets, necklaces and sticks, a mix CD of your kids favorite music (do people still do those anymore? Could be a fun throwback!), and mini disco balls.
And a personal favorite from my childhood that I’ve saving until my kids are a little older…
Reverse Surprise Party
Let me explain. None of the guests know about the party, only the party-thrower. Alert the parents ahead of time and have them pack a bag with a change of clothes, toiletries, and gift. The morning of the party the birthday kid goes from house to house waking up their guests and “kidnapping” them for the party. Once you have rounded everyone up, go back to the house for a big brunch party!