I didn't realize I was an old pro until the mother of one of my son's preschool classmates turned to me one day and said, "Help, Megan is turning four next month and she wants a birthday party. What am I going to do?"
"Relax," I told her. "The whole birthday party process can be just as easy or as complicated as you're willing to make it. Just remember a few simple rules."
Your primary goal is to make the birthday child feel special. A secondary goal is to ensure that everyone has a good time. The children will remember whether they had fun, not whether your house was spotless or whether you carried out your chosen theme down to the last tiny detail. As far as I'm concerned, a successful birthday party is one in which no one bursts into tears.
The first step in planning a party is to sit down with your child and find out what type of party he or she wants. Then determine if your budget, your creativity, and your energy can deliver that. If not, scale down.
Don't worry that your preschooler is going to want clowns or ponies. You may be pleasantly surprised. For his first "friend" birthday party (i.e. not just the immediate family), my son wanted to go to the play place at a nearby fast food restaurant. When my daughter turned four, she wanted everything to be pink -- pink balloons, pink lemonade, pink cupcakes, pink napkins. Both parties were incredibly easy and inexpensive.
You can't be in two places at once. In birthday party terms, you can't play musical chairs, cut the cake, and direct traffic to the bathroom at the same time. Enlist one or more "big people" (adults or responsible older children) to help you. If your birthday kid is very young, chances are the parents of your guests will ask if they should stay for the duration of the party. The answer is yes! They can help with games, pour the punch, and take care of minor boo-boos. Just be sure to reward them for their service when you pass out the cake.
If you don't expect any parents to stay, and you can't talk your best friend into helping, hire one of your regular baby-sitters to help you. It is well worth the investment in terms of stress reduction.
Birthday parties are a wonderful opportunity to reinforce the good manners you know are lurking somewhere deep within your preschooler. Don't wait until the day of the party to start this. Start from the moment you write the invitations. Our preschool has a very important rule: unless you are inviting the entire class, you may not pass out invitations at school. I have never intentionally violated this rule, although one time I didn't realize there was a new girl in my son's class. From that incident on, I have asked the teacher for a class list so I make sure everyone gets invited.
If you don't want that big a crowd, or if there are one or two children in class that your birthday child simply cannot abide, mail the invitations or deliver them in person outside of the school setting.
Manners are especially important when it comes to opening presents. The first birthday present my daughter ever opened was accompanied by the remark, "I've already got one of these! Take it back to the store and get me something else." Now before every birthday party, we discuss how to handle situations like duplicate presents ("Look, now I have twins!") and gifts that aren't quite to the birthday child's taste ("What a neat idea! How did you know I didn't have one of these?").
The birthday child will thank everyone while opening the gifts. I like to send thank you notes as well, but I admit I don't always get these done. I try to keep a list of each present and its giver, then a day or so after the party I ask the birthday child to dictate a thank-you. As soon as my kids can write their names, they sign their dictated thank-you notes themselves.
There is no destructive force greater than a crowd of preschoolers with nothing to do. You need to keep them occupied from the moment the first guest arrives until the last guest leaves. Lucky for you this is not as hard as it sounds.
I put out some toys my kids are willing to share so the early arrivals can play while we wait for the others. A big hit one year was a pile of Chubs Stackables diaper wipe boxes that double as giant blocks, that the kids turned into a giant tower, then a wall, then a road. The key to success was that we had enough for everyone (this was when I had three kids in diapers, so we had a lot of blocks!).
When all the guests have arrived, I start the games. For kids this age, I've found that the best type of games are cooperative, rather than competitive. For instance, instead of playing musical chairs, we play a game in which we take away a chair each round, but all of the kids stay in. The goal is to see how many kids can pile on the chairs when the music stops. Instead of working against each other, the kids help each other. For more versions of cooperative games, see next month's issue of Circle Time.
If the kids are getting a little too wild, it's time for a very short story. I like to gather everyone in a circle and tell a story, using the party go-ers as characters. I think up the story ahead of time and write it down on index cards, then go around the circle inserting the kids' names when appropriate. Make sure you have a character for each child present. If you need hints for this, check out our series on storytelling.
Another way to bring down the frenzy of preschoolers is to give them a simple craft project to do. At one party my daughter attended, the guests strung brightly colored beads to make take-home necklaces. At one of our parties, the kids decorated party hats which I had cut out of poster board. For my son's last party, the children colored custom placemats that my husband had drawn and then run off on the copy machine as legal-sized copies. This was a great activity to do while they sat at the table waiting for me to get the cake ready.
I always plan a few more activities than I expect we'll have time for. That way, if one is a colossal flop, I can switch to the next activity on the list. Conversely, if one is a big hit, we'll continue that and skip the next one.
You don't usually think of birthday parties as especially dangerous, but there a few safety tips to remember that could make the day trouble free.
If you plan to decorate with balloons, remember that balloons are a major choking hazard for young kids. Keep the balloons out of reach or use Mylar balloons.
If you give out favors, make sure they are age-appropriate for your guests. Many of the favors you find in party stores contain small parts that could choke a young child. These favors also tend to break very easily. One of my favorite favors to give for any party is a small jar of Play-Doh. I can get a bag of twelve for under five dollars at Walmart.
If you are holding a party somewhere other than your house, ask each parent to tell you who will be picking their child up at the end of the party. Do not release a child to anyone you don't know. During the party, make sure you have an adult who can run kids to the bathroom if it's not close to where the main action is. Also, make sure you have enough adults to adequately supervise all the kids, and if necessary, assign each adult a kid or two to supervise.
Circle Time e-zine is Copyright © 1998 by Kathy Bennett
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