I firmly believe that if Einstein had studied the passage of time at kids’ birthday parties, he would have solved the mystery of the time-space continuum, because time never passes more slowly than at your kids’ birthday parties. You think you’ve assembled a nice mix of games and activities to pass the time, the young guests arrive, and fifteen minutes into the party you realize they’re on the last game and there’s another hour and a half to fill until ice cream and cake. Panic ensues as you contemplate all those expectant faces turned in your direction – and those are just the other parents.
Fear not. You don’t need to hire a pony, a face painter, a clown, and a magician. There are simple (and less expensive) ways to keep kids busy and having fun.
But first, we need to talk about social media:
Invitations are tricky these days, with the advent of Instagram and Facebook. The rule of thumb used to be to invite as many children to a party as your child’s age: 3 kids for a 3-year old party, 4 kids to a 4-year old’s party, etc. That’s difficult if you want to be inclusive and invite the whole class, or you feel you need to reciprocate invitations from other children. Whatever you decide to do, you must exercise restraint in putting photos up on social media! And you must instruct other parents to do the same. It can be terribly hurtful for kids to be left out of a party – do you want to be the person who broke a ten-year-old’s heart when she finds out she was left out of a party via a well-intentioned post on Facebook?
Furthermore, it’s an invasion of privacy to post photos of other people’s children without their permission. You’re unintentionally creating an online profile of other people’s kids, and as a parent, I wouldn’t be okay with that – however innocent the photo may be. Just something to think about…
Now, back to the party: be sure to have help from a friend or relative in running games and activities. If you try to do it all by yourself, you will lose your mind.
Hair braiding station: Any willing friend who knows how to make a braid can offer to man a hair-braiding station. They don’t need to know anything more elaborate than a simple braid, and have some ribbons, hairclips and a few flowers to add for adornment. They can do one braid, three braids, a side braid, a forehead braid… you get the idea.
Scavenger hunt: if you have space outside, this can be really fun and will take up a lot of time. Because I can be the tiniest bit obsessive about party planning, I used to write the clues out on yellowed paper and singe the edges with a match, to make it look like an old pirate map, then I gave each kid a copy and let them run around looking for clues. The first person to solve the final clue won a prize, and everyone got a fake “piece of eight” coin for playing. (Put the clues in different order on the maps, so the kids don’t spend the whole game following around the most clever scavenger as they figure out the puzzle.)
Egg and spoon race – How quaint, you must think! For some reason I could never understand, kids LOVE this game. The possibility of the broken egg creates so much suspense that they used to ask to play again and again. (Note: this is definitely an activity for an outdoor party.)
Let the kids do the work: set up a station for them to design their own pizzas, or decorate a cupcake or cookies. Have the dough rolled out and ready, and let the kids apply their favorite toppings, making pictures or faces with the pepperoni and mushrooms. Then bake them while they’re playing other games, and serve before the cake. The same applies for the cupcakes, but I would save those for the kids to take home with them, so they don’t eat too much sugar. They’re excited enough just to be at a birthday party!
Baby petting zoo station: most big cities have petting zoos that will send 3 or 4 baby animals with a staff person out to a party for little ones to pet and play with. This was always very popular and an activity that kids went back to over and over.
Make a party favor to take home: set up some acrylic paints and provide a simple wooden toy for kids to paint and take home as a party favor. One year we painted birdhouses, which cost about a dollar a piece. I put a big piece of plastic over the table and under the kids, put them in plastic aprons, and let them go at it. You can do the same thing with beads: offer kids an assortment to string into necklaces to take home with them. Another year I bought cheap straw hats, ribbons, sequins, feathers, pom poms, and flowers and let kids decorate hats to take home.
I also dragged out all the girls’ dress-up costumes, added a few old things of my own (including a lot of junk jewelry) layered everything in a trunk and made a display of opening “the magic dress-up trunk” – which also had hats, vests, fake mustaches and other things to engage little boys. I put up a big mirror for them to look at themselves in costume, put on some music, and Yay! a party!
Finally, there’s the goody bag. Old-fashioned toys and trinkets are surprisingly popular in this online-dominated world, where something as simple as a 99-cent kazoo is a wholly-unknown item. See? If you’re on the goody bags the party must be almost over, and you survived. Congratulations, and now start thinking about what you’re going to do next year…