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A Cakewalk


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For some reason I like throwing my kids’ birthday parties—until 30 minutes before the guests arrive. Then, as I scramble to clean the most-seen parts of the house, I start yelling that next time we’re going to “outsource” the party. Four hours later I’m starting to look forward to the next one.

Over the years I have mentally divided the party process into seven categories that can be planned and carried out in between the usual loads of wash, bath time, more work and daycare pickups: location, budget, guests, theme, activities, food and goody bags.

First, decide what kind of party you and your child want to have. Will it be at home or at a location like a park, gymnastics center, bowling alley, pool or eatery?

We’ve attended fun parties at all those sites. Your budget may dictate the options. We’ve spent up to $130 on a “home” party while many “outsourced” parties run $10 to $15 per child, plus cake and any extras.

The home ingredients include: cake, invitations, stamps, decorations, delivered pizzas, juice boxes, fresh fruit, goody bags and fillings, and activities’ supplies. Don’t forget the pre- and post-party cleaning!

Sarah Davis of Solvay chose a bowling party for her son David’s sixth birthday. “This is his first ‘kids’ party,” she says, and she didn’t want to hurt the feelings of any kindergartners in his class. “I didn’t know all his friends’ parents individually so I couldn’t give them a private invitation,” says Davis, 26. The bowling alley offers plenty of room and a good value for however many of his 20 classmates show up.

Through age 5, our parties were at home. I liked having my kids’ friends come to our house, especially when one girl remarked enthusiastically at my son’s fourth birthday party: “Wow, I’ve never been to a ‘house’ party before.” By age 7, however, my son had been to a “laser tag” party in an arcade and there was no turning back. We’ve done that for two years.

When my kids were younger, I read that the number of guests should equal twice the age of the birthday child, so no one gets overwhelmed. That seemed to make sense, but I stopped doubling at age 6. Ten to 12 children in a home or party place are plenty. But some party locations, like gyms, offer a set price for up to 20 or 24 children, so invite away! And they provide the staff to manage them—at least on the gym floor.

I encourage my kids to start talking about their “theme” (not that they use that word) at least two months before their birthday so I can start preparing. We started at age 4 with pirates, then costumes, then fairies, followed by super heroes and heroines. The theme gives me a direction for decorating and activities. It also gives all the guests something to focus on other than the fact that it’s NOT their birthday and someone else is getting the gifts and attention. That’s why I really liked the costume parties. Neither was in October. But all the kids got to break out their old or new costumes, dress up and come parade around our house. As each child arrived, all were excited to see which costume the new guest had donned.

For the pirate-themed party, I ordered several items from Oriental Trading (www.orientaltrading.com). Each child received a bandana to wear and a big felt pirate hat. Our main activity was gluing fake jewels and gold coins onto heavy cardboard treasure boxes, which were labeled by the children with glitter glue. And everyone had a neat party favor to take home. Despite my son’s pleas, we did not provide swords, plastic or otherwise.

For the fairy party, a “real” fairy followed the rose petals we scattered up to the back door: A friend’s 17-year-old daughter was thrilled to wear her prom dress again and earn some money. She stayed 90 minutes putting sparkle makeup on the girls wearing their fairy wings and helped them make sand-filled bracelets. (What a mess!)

Activities are the key to a successful party. Kids love to keep moving and doing. Be prepared for “arrival time.” Before age 5, the children like to check out the toys sitting around as they get acclimated to a new place. Valerie, a Fulton mother of an 8-year-old, sets out brown paper lunch bags for coloring and for holding party treats to take home.

When all the guests have arrived, we start our favorite games: hot potato, beanbag toss, freeze dance (which they learned in preschool) and the ultimate—musical chairs. The first time we set up musical chairs (with all the little chairs and footstools in the house), we had the kids play several rounds without removing any chairs. When I went to remove a chair, they protested. They didn’t understand why anyone would lose a seat. They just enjoyed walking and sitting!

Kids of all ages love dropping those colored capsules that “grow” into sponge animals in warm water. Just set out cups on a side table; it’s a relatively quiet activity, too. My sister, who lives in a warmer climate, sets up apple bobbing for her daughter’s March birthday. The kids love to do it and not just at Halloween!

Kids are always hungry—except at mealtime, of course. So food is an important part of a party at any time of day. My staples are fresh strawberries, small carrots and pretzels, all healthy and served in big bowls on the party table. If the party crosses lunchtime, we serve pizza, too.
I always order a big cake to guarantee leftovers for me, my reward. My son, who’s really an alien, doesn’t like cake. We’ve finally settled on the cookie “cakes,” which everyone loves. But buy extra: Kids can eat two pieces of cookie-cake for every one piece of regular cake.

The cake is the best part of parties for my friend Trish—and not because she likes icing. A mother of a 9-year-old daughter, Trish enjoys envisioning, baking and creating a cake to match—in 3-D, the party theme. She swears her creations all start with a rectangular-shaped, one-layer cake. For a fish-themed pool party, she drew a big fish on a piece of paper. After laying the paper on top of the cooled rectangular cake, she cut off the pieces that didn’t fit the fish outline. They became the tops of palm trees on the sides. For a previous princess party, after cutting out the castle bottom, she used the discarded pieces to build turrets.

Shop for goody bag treats or favors on sale year-round. At an after-Easter sale, I just picked up nine flower-shaped, colored plastic, see-through boxes for my daughter’s June party. My kids and I fill the bags in assembly-line fashion the day before, a pre-party activity they look forward to.

I’ve learned to include only one or two pieces of candy so other parents don’t hate me; sometimes we include a fruit-chewy snack as well. For the final surprise, I hide the goody bags in one big spot like the bathtub or a closet. While the kids are doing one activity, someone hides four sequential clues. Then as a group the kids search the house, moving from clue to clue, taking turns reading them (if they can) until they find the goody bags. This simple staging they find very exciting.

Make sure your invitations list an ending time so parents know when to retrieve their child. And then you can enjoy that post-party glow until you hear the familiar, “Mom!...”

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