A walk in the park

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If you have young children, your next birthday adventure could literally be a walk in the park. With numerous facilities and staff experienced in working with children and their families, local park districts have become part of the party scene. "You know the facility, you know the staff," says Nancy Prosser of Mount Prospect Park District. "Most park districts have a big reputation and take great pride in their facilities, staff and activities-making them an ideal place for celebrating your big day." Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your park district party experience.

Think Outside the Party Room

With so many facilities available for children and their families, your local park district makes it easy to move beyond the 'party room' and into a birthday party adventure. At the Emily Oaks Nature Center, which is part of the Skokie Park District, kids ages 3 & 4 become part of nature during the "Mouse Walk" party. After painting on whiskers, kids pretend they are mice in the wilderness-building houses, looking for food and even hiding from a fox (which is really a fox puppet). "We want kids to have a positive experience and build a relationship with the natural world," says Lee Hansen of the Emily Oaks Nature Center. "And, in order to do that, we believe you have to actually have contact with nature."

And don't let colder weather deter your 'outside the party room' imagination. There is a "Winter Mouse Walk" party which still gets kids out into nature, but also includes some indoor nature center activities and at the Bolingbrook Park District kids can enjoy the pool year-round. "Our most popular package is the Parkie the Pelican Poolside Birthday Party," says Rebecca Gonzalez of the Bolingbrook Park District. "We are able to offer this party year-round since we have an indoor and outdoor aquatic park both offering exciting attractions for all ages and genders."

Keep It Simple

You don't have to be elaborate with your party plans-especially for young children.

Often renting a room or a gymnasium to let them run and play is all that is needed for the day to be a success. "Even with our gym parties we have two hosts available to help parents plan the perfect activities," says Sandie Gilmer of the Naperville Park District. "We can even tailor the activities so they fit with a specific theme your child enjoys such as freeze tag becoming superhero tag."

If you do opt to go with a more hands-on experience such as Oakbrook Terrace Park District's Lake View Nature Center where children can get up close and personal with some of nature's finest (think reptiles, fish and animal tracks), keep the group small. "Keeping the party small is not only more manageable for parents, but it allows each child to really be engaged in the activities," says Marianne Long from Oakbrook Terrace Park District.

Tap Into Interests

There does appear to be something for everyone when it comes to park districts.

A sports enthusiast? Checkout organized sports parties such as the ones found at the Skokie Park District or the Deerfield Park District. "Our most popular Sports Party packages such as soccer, basketball, dodgeball and taekwondo, come staffed with coaches to facilitate the activities," says Tony Korzyniewski, general manager at the Sachs Recreation Center of the Deerfield Park District. A budding ballerina? Think about renting out a park district dance studio and hosting a ballet-themed party or ask about hosting a party at one of the park district's theatres where your future Oscar-winner and his friends can perform on a real stage. Still don't see a party that fits? Ask your park district for suggestions. "We can direct parents to the right locations and facilities within the park district," says Prosser. "Even if a party is geared towards older kids, we might be able to tweak it a bit to work for younger kids as well."

Checkout Local Events

Park districts host so many events and activities throughout the year and some are a birthday celebration just waiting to happen. Oakbrook Terrace Park District hosts several big events such as the Hogwarts Express, Super Hero Adventure Party and the Polar Express. While these events are open to the public (with reservations), parents will often use them as an opportunity to celebrate their child's big day. "Parents will allow their child to invite 3 or 4 friends to the event and make that the party," says Long. "If we know there is a party in advance, we will often announce the birthday child's name during the event and can even work with parents to give them a picnic table or party room after the event where they can go to enjoy cake and presents."

Make It Personal

Regardless of the type of party or facility you choose, park district parties are easy to personalize. "We allow parents to bring in their own cake, decorations, and gift bags for guests," says Gonzalez. "We provide plain paper products but parents are more than welcome to bring themed products as well as bring in their child's favorite food and drinks." Even if you choose a party package that includes all the extras, you can still make it a unique experience. Have your child pick out the music for the dance party or create a poster with the child's name drawn on it for his or her friends to color. "For our 'Cooking Parties' we ask parents what foods their child enjoys and try to incorporate those into the activities," says Gilmer. "Even at the age of 3 and 4, children can help make pizzas by cutting tomatoes with a plastic knife or helping to measure ingredients."

A park district party for your young child is not only cost-effective, convenient and fun, but the ideas and activities are often limitless. "We offer party packages for convenience, but parties are only limited by imagination," adds Korzyniewski.

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