Birthday Planning 101

Party Basics at a Glance

AGES 1 TO 2
Time of Day: After Nap Time
Duration: 1 Hour
Number of Guests: Varies

AGES 3 TO 4
Time of Day: Lunchtime or Late Afternoon
Duration: 1 to 1 1/2 hours
Number of Guests: 4 to 5 Children

AGES 5 TO 6
Time of Day: Early to Mid-Afternoon
Duration: 1 1/2 to 2 Hours
Number of Guests: 6 to 7 Hours

AGES 7 TO 8
Time of Day: Early to Mid-Afternoon
Duration: 2 to 2 1/2 Hours
Number of Guests: 8 to 9 Children

AGES 9 TO 10
Time of Day: Mid- to Late Afternoon
Duration: 2 1/2 to 3 Hours
Number of Guests: 10 to 11 Children

What to Serve

Baking and decorating your child's birthday cake (or cupcakes) is worth the effort. Spend time on that, and choose other foods that are easy to serve, eat, and clean up. That said, even simple food can seem special. Here are some ideas:
1. Cut sandwiches into cute shapes using cookie cutters (cut crusts off first); or use a knife to cut them up into pieces like a puzzle.
2. Serve snacks in creative containers. Somehow, hot dogs are more appealing served in paper boats, just like at the movies. For a fishing-themed party, kids will get a kick out of being served punch from a fishbowl.
3. Turn lunch into an activity. Let kids top English-muffin pizzas. Show them how to make faces with sliced-olive eyes, a pepperoni nose, and bell-pepper mouth.

Choosing Favors

Trinkets and candy are popular and inexpensive favors. If you prefer, you can give out a single more substantial favor, such as a board book for toddlers or a small flashlight for older kids.
1. Match the goodies to the theme: You might give a teacup for a tea party, an action figure for a character party, or flowerpot and seeds for a garden party.
2. Let kids make their own party favors -- a potato-print T-shirt, for example -- as one of the activities.
3. Decorate with items that guests can take with them when the party is done, such as posters or pennants for a baseball party.
4. Arrange with the entertainer to use props or supplies -- individual face-painting kits or magic tricks, for instance -- that kids can then take home with them.

What to Do

Pacing is important. It's helpful to divide the party into 10- to 15-minute increments, with a new activity for each block of time. Allot about 30 minutes for an entertainer (or kids may lose interest), and 15 minutes each for lunch, cake, and opening gifts. If a game or craft isn't going well, drop it and move on; if kids enjoy a particular game, let it run longer than planned. To keep the party moving, jot down the schedule on an index card, and then refer to it frequently.
1. As kids arrive, you might usher them to a crafts table, where they can busy themselves until more guests arrive.
2. Keep games and activities simple for toddlers: Stick to games they know well or activities without complicated rules (such as dancing or tag).
3. Older kids need more stimulation: plan sports or organized activities based on what your child loves to do, or consider booking an entertainer.

Hiring an Entertainer

Gather references from other parents as well as children's museums or local libraries. When you call a potential entertainer, ask what age group the show is designed for before you mention your child's age. While magicians and clowns are classic for kids' parties, there are lots of other kid-pleasing options:
1. Balloon artists (their creations double as party favors)
2. Mobile petting zoos
3. Hairstylists or manicurists (call a local beauty school for suggestions)
4. Choreographers or dance teachers 5. Face painters
6. Professional storytellers
7. Deejays

Games Galore

THE CLASSICS
Tweak tried-and-true favorites to match the party theme. Simon Says becomes Fairy Godmother Says for a princess party, Musical Chairs is Musical Towels for a swim party, and Pin the Tail on the Donkey can be Pin the Trunk on the Elephant for a jungle theme.
EGG RELAY RACE
At "go," the first child in each of two teams balances a hard-boiled egg on a spoon, walks about five feet to a marker, returns, and passes the egg and spoon to the next in line. The first team to finish with an uncracked shell wins.
TREASURE HUNT
Kids follow the first clue ("Go to the TV") to find the next clue ("Look inside the mailbox"), and so on, until the last clue reveals the treasure: goodie bags. For nonreaders, draw or photograph the clues (such as the refrigerator or car).
OBSTACLE COURSE
Guests go through a series of challenges set up in the backyard: walking along a two-by-four, hopping a figure eight around two chairs, crawling under the length of a picnic table, doing a wheelbarrow walk between two markers, and so on.
DRESS-UP RACE
Two shopping bags of clothes contain a skirt, shirt, hat, gloves, and jewelry. The first kid in each team puts on every item (fastening all the buttons), then takes them off and returns them to the bag. Then it's the next child's turn. The first team to finish wins.

Gifts Now or Later?

There are good reasons to open presents during the party, and just as many reasons to wait until afterward. Some kids love seeing their gift being unwrapped, especially if they picked it out. So guests don't get bored, put names in a hat; the one that's chosen is the child whose present gets opened next. Kids can forget their manners in the excitement, so help your child practice her thank-yous beforehand. It may be less chaotic, particularly for young kids, if your child opens his gifts after the party. In that case, snap a photo of her with each gift and send it with the thank-you.

A Proper Good-Bye

Have the birthday child personally say thank-you and good-bye to each guest at the door, and hand them a favor bag as they leave.

Source: marthastewart.com

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