Birthday parties are a great boost to any child's self-esteem. Making them feel like kings (or queens) for the day is one of the best (and most lasting) gifts you can give them. But where and how should you start?
Many parents feel more comfortable starting with a theme around which they can organize invitations, decorations, games, crafts and food. Both you and your child will enjoy making plans that reflect her interests — whether it's a sports theme, a dinosaur bash, an art party (http://pbskids.org/lions/books/art.html), a backyard beach picnic, a trip back in time, or an animal adventure.
You should make the guest list for your preschooler, but once your child is over three or four, he should be consulted. The invitations can be either store-bought or homemade (http://pbskids.org/zoom/activities/do/bubblestationeryandh.html) and should set the mood for the event. Older kids may enjoy making invitations out of paper dolls, puzzle pieces or computer templates, depending on your chosen theme. In addition to obvious information like the time, date and directions, include special details like "bring a swimsuit" or "parents should accompany children."
If you decide your home or apartment isn't suitable for a children's party, there are several off-site options that come with obvious advantages (including being able to come back to a clean home after the children have been picked up). For a small fee, you can often reserve space in a community recreation center or local park. Kid-friendly restaurants, gymnastic centers, fire departments and hands-on museums are also popular. Parties away from home usually work better for children over five since younger children may be overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings.
Atmosphere is everything. Once you've chosen a theme, use a little creativity to set the scene. Ther doesn't mean you need to fly to the Grand Canyon for a campout party. Kids are naturally imaginative; they'll play along when you use simple household gadgets to transform your home into a national park. Set up a tent, pass out flashlights and catch fireflies in the backyard.
Depending on the ages and attention spans of your guests, outside entertainment could be a big hit. But younger children (those under four or five) may be frightened or just plain bored by a performance that goes on longer than 45 minutes.
Before you write a big check to Chuckles the Clown, consider looking for some local talent. One mother was shocked to hear what the mad scientist entertainer she found in the phone book charged for a two-hour science party. Instead she convinced her girls' favorite babysitter to wear a white lab coat and make a baking soda volcano. The kids were thrilled with an entertainer who they already knew and loved, the teenage babysitter was happy to make some extra money, and the mom stayed under budget. For great ideas, try http://pbskids.org/zoom/activities/sci/.
Don't go it alone. Everything will be much easier if you have help — a spouse, relative, neighbor, babysitter or friends who can assist with activities as well as serving and cleanup. This is especially important if you will be entertaining young guests whose parents drop them off.
For brief parties, cake and ice cream is really the only refreshment you need. Many young children look at the cake as the focal point of the whole birthday ritual, so be sure to let them help make it (or select it from the bakery). Tradition dictates that the birthday boy or girl gets the first piece of cake (and that they will probably choose the piece with the most frosting and decorations on it). Consider having more than one flavor of ice cream on hand, however, since young children can be picky eaters and prefer ice cream over cake.
Older guests may actually enjoy preparing the food (http://pbskids.org/zoom/activities/cafe/) as much as eating it, so consider substituting cooking for a craft. One family hosted a Floor Pizza Party by putting personal-sized pans of dough on the kitchen floor (one for each guest) and letting the kids put on sauce, cheese and other toppings. (Pepperoni, mushrooms and other vegetables make great eyes and noses for pizza people.) As with all aspects of party planning, try to give familiar favorites a personal twist, turning chicken wings into dinosaur wings for a prehertoric feast or serving chicken drumsticks for an orchestra party.
You don't need to spend a lot of money to have a successful party. This is a party for your child and her friends — not for other parents. Save the fireworks display for your next adult gala. The kids just want to play.
Controlling expenses also means that you should not feel obligated to send home goody bags full of expensive toys. While some stickers or a craft make nice souvenirs, most parents agree that it's time to start saying no to elaborate party favors.
It's the birthday kid's big day but that doesn't mean you can ignore her brothers and sisters. While you may want to arrange for siblings to go play at another friend's house, many kids don't want to miss out on the action at home. If that's the case, allow the sibling to invite one special friend. They can either play in another room or help out with the party (as coat-takers, present-collectors, guest-greeters, or waiters).
The hardest thing to plan for at any birthday party is the unexpected. Here's what you can do to keep chaos at bay: