At-home birthday parties are great for the creative at heart by Kristen Coe and Jean Bacom Detmer
illustration by Lisa Jordan
Seven-year-old Billy is having a birthday in two months. Do you book Chuck E. Cheese today? Or mull over his likes and dislikes to come up with a great party at home?
With eight children between us, we solidly fall into the latter camp, albeit with decidedly different approaches. Jean, a former preschool teacher-the "Cecil B. DeMille of parties" as one friend calls her-knows intuitively that children embrace interactive games and creative play. Thus, she makes planning the party part of the event and involves her children every step of the way. Kristen's approach is, admittedly, more autocratic. Take one former event planner, add four children and one handy spouse and you get, to quote one of her children, "the bomb of birthday parties." (That's a good thing.)
Why at-home parties? We wanted our children's birthdays to resonate for reasons that match our parenting philosophies-we cherish the event commemorated by the celebration and we want that to be the focus of the day. We also treasure time spent together, cooperation among siblings, active participation and the learning process over passive entertainment.
How do home parties reinforce this? Party planning and preparation are great family bonding moments, whether making invitations, transforming brown paper sacks into special goody bags or making birdhouse templates out of plywood. To get ready, you need a lot of hands. That act of coming together to make the day special for a sibling is important to us.
For us, at-home parties are an opportunity for inspired creativity. While birthday parties don't have to be learning experiences, it is cool when children see that learning can be fun.
At-home parties take a lot of planning and preparation. For us, they provide a great outlet for creative energy that once benefited a boardroom and now serve a tougher taskmaster-our children.
We have hosted more than 25 children's parties between us-at home, at the park, even on the Metra line. We've had many "Aha moments" at these parties-usually while elbow deep in cake and ice cream. So, we thought we would share some of these insights as well as some guidelines that we've honed over years in the birthday party trenches.
At-home parties can be less expensive than their Chuck E. Cheese counterparts. From two 8-foot-by-4-foot pieces of plywood ($20 each), Kristen's family cut out templates of birdhouses to be built at a kindergartner's birthday party. Add $5 worth of pine cones from a craft store, $4 for generic peanut butter and $4 for birdseed and the kids made feeding stations to go along with the birdhouses. Cost: just under $3 per child.
Jean's 7-year-old daughter, Mary Grace, recently hosted an art party. The family spent $28 for two slabs of clay to make pottery, $12 for body art supplies and $20 on foam door signs. Add supplies gathered from around the house for filler activities, and Mary Grace and her friends played for the day. Cost: $2 per child.
Of course, at-home parties can also be extravagant. But if cost is a determining factor, it's easier to control when the party is at home because you're performing a lot of the labor yourself.photo courtesy of Kristen Coe Erin Kelly and Hunter Coe watch as the birthday girl, Regan Coe, blows out the candles on her Wizard of Oz cake for her sixth birthday.
Pick a theme The party theme influences everything, from location to invitations to decorations to activities. But, how do you decide? Simple: Ask your child.
Think about what they like to do. If they like dogs, have a puppy parade, with real or stuffed dogs. If they like trains, ride on the Metra and tour a train car. If they like space, launch rockets. Most ideas can be accommodated with a little creativity and supplies found lying around the house.
A couple of the themes we've used successfully-some were so popular that subsequent siblings requested a repeat performance-include a winter wonderland party, a firehouse party and a non-slumber slumber party.
The winter wonderland party was the idea of Jean's 5-year-old daughter, Kathryn, who wanted an outdoor party even though her birthday is Feb. 27. Jean was a bit skeptical about the kind of weather that would greet them on the day, but they went ahead anyway. Three weeks before the party, they drew up a guest list and made the invitations-snowflakes cut out and written by all of the family members. After the ceremonial mail drop, the family brainstormed about activities and the supplies needed for each.
Jean figured little ones wouldn't last too long outside, so the party started around a well-supervised fire pit, complete with marshmallow toasting and s'mores. As the children got cold, they came indoors to play games such as freeze dance. The more resilient made snow people and ran relay races.
Jean likes to let the children blow off a little steam at the beginning of the party. For the first activity, the children were paired off and told to dress each other as snow people. Each child was wrapped in toilet paper and then decorated with hats, gloves, tutus and sparkly headbands. Next, the children were broken into groups and rotated through craft stations-T-shirt painting with puffy snow-like paints, snowflake cutting, face painting, coloring and games. After candles were blown out, cake was eaten, presents were opened and thanks were delivered.
Like the winter wonderland party, the firehouse party works equally well for boys and girls and crosses a wide age range. Most local firehouses will gladly give you a tour of their facility, with one caveat-if a call comes in while you're there or before you arrive, you're out a party. Have a backup plan.
During the party, the firefighters show the children how a firefighter looks and sounds in full gear-so the kids hear an important safety lesson (don't be afraid of the guy who looks like Darth Vader) while they're having fun. We've always made a cake for the firehouse as a thank you for the tour and then served red foods (pizza, red apples and cranberry juice followed by a fire truck cake) to the children at home. Be warned, it takes a lot of red food coloring to approximate fire truck red.
Often creativity is all you need to make a birthday wish come true. That's how Kristen's fourth-grade daughter Regan ended up with a non-slumber slumber party. She really wanted a sleepover, but Regan's friends weren't ready to leave their own beds at night.
The invitations went out, with a little sand from the sandman in the envelope (and a warning about the sand on the outside envelope). Guests arrived wearing pajamas and signed a pillowcase with fabric markers so Regan would have a reminder of the party when she went to sleep that night. The children then were divided into groups of five for the activities-making nightshirts (painting over-sized T-shirts with glow-in-the-dark fabric paints), hanging out on sleeping bags while having a story read to them and making friendship bracelets.
After 45 minutes (about 15 minutes per activity), lunch was served. In retrospect, 15 minutes was too long for the reading and too short for the T-shirts, so it took some time to get the entire group to lunch. After lunch came the piece de resistance: the slumber party cake. Imagine a sheet cake, frosted one color, with five lady fingers laid out on the cake. Each lady finger (a slumbering child), is snuggled in a fruit roll-up blanket, headed by a decorated vanilla wafer, resting on a sugar cookie pillow.
General considerations Whom to invite-and how many? The generally accepted rule is to limit the guest list by the child's age-a fourth birthday party, for example, would include just four guests plus the honoree. We've never adhered to that rule. We're saps for including everyone in the class. When there has been a need to pare the list, we have opted to divide by gender-inviting only the kindergarten boys, for example. Just remember if you are not inviting all of the kids, mail or drop off the invitations.
When to party? Jean likes to schedule the "friends" party on the actual birthday, usually after school. This allows the birthday king or queen to enjoy a truly special day, from sunup to sundown. Kristen likes to schedule the party on the Saturday or Sunday closest to the actual birthday-to ensure her husband and a few friends will be around to help.
What to do? For starters, choose games that invite cooperation not competition. We're drawn to activities that build a team spirit or individual activities that allow a child to shine. Kristen often uses puzzles to get the children into a cooperation mode. For her son's space party, she used a 6-foot puzzle of the solar system her family already owned. The children hunted for puzzle pieces that had their name on the back (most kindergartners can recognize their name). When the pieces were found, the children put together the puzzle.
Another handy opener is the adaptable "pin the tail on the donkey," which can be pin (or, for safety's sake, tape) the saddle on the horse (western theme), pin the Dalmatian on the fire truck (firehouse theme), pin the rocket on the launch pad (space party). Buy a 36-inch-wide roll of paper at a teacher supply store. Create the backdrop on this, then tape it (using blue painter's tape), onto a large blank wall, fence or large framed picture. Pre-cut the saddles, dogs or rockets and use a bandanna for a blindfold. When the game is finished, the now-adorned donkey, fire truck or sky is the backdrop for a party portrait and postcard thank-you note following the party. Other games include tug of war, relay races, sack races, a water balloon toss, treasure hunts and egg races.
Divide and conquer. Set up parallel activities in different parts of the house (hair wrapping in the family room, face painting in the bathroom, T-shirt decorating at the kitchen table), then rotate the groups. But, be realistic about the time children will take for each task. Hair wrapping is fun, but it's tough to wait 15 minutes per child. When planning the groups, think like a teacher. When you serve as a chaperone on a field trip, you rarely are assigned more than four or five children to watch. Limit your party groups and have an older child or adult to help with the harder tasks.
Be flexible. If the planets align and the children are having fun with Activity No. 1, don't force them onto Activity No. 2. Or feel free to skip Activity No. 2 if it bombs.
More is better. Plan a few extra activities, just in case. They don't have to be fancy-drawing a chalk outline of party guests and letting them make self-portraits requires only a few boxes of chalk.
Get help. When her children were younger, Kristen roped in a few friends to help. Now, both Jean and Kristen enlist older children and their friends-they enjoy the responsibility and see it as a great gift to a sibling. Even a fourth- or fifth-grader is old enough-they may seem little to us, but not to first-graders.
Time management. Kristen recalls with horror the day of her son's birdhouse party when parents arrived and the party needed another hour for the children to finish their projects. Which is worse-having unreasonable expectations of kindergartners' carpentry skills or appearing to disregard her friends' time schedule? It's a tossup.
Get your groove on. Music is great for setting the tone-whether that means revving up or calming down the revelers.
Carpe festum-seize the party. Adopt a confident attitude, be positive and feel free to control the party. You're planning fun not perfection. And while it will be crazy, try and make it fun for you as well. You're planning the party for your child-not their friends and not their friends' parents. Think about your needs and your child's needs-if you're uncomfortable by the wrapping paper avalanche at the end of the party, don't open the presents. If you want to forgo presents completely, forget about them. If you want to serve milk instead of soda, do it. It's your party.
Jean Bacom Detmer and Kristen Coe are both mothers, writers and party experts who live in River Forest.