On your mark, get set, go!
There's logic to the notion of an obstacle-course-themed birthday party considering how many real-life obstacles an 8-year-old has surmounted. Each little triumph of language and locomotion has been a confidence-building occasion.
On this golden afternoon, the challenges are pure fun -- navigating a slalom course with a wagon and tiptoeing across a balance beam -- and energy. The obstacle course can be set up easily on your lawn or at a local park (call ahead to make sure it's okay), using items found around the house: a wooden ladder, a table, and an inflatable pool. Other elements double as party favors, including plastic hoops and foam noodles. Have the birthday boy or girl, or an older sibling, test the course ahead of time to see that everything works as intended.
Upon arrival, guests receive a numbered T-shirt (cut numbers from sheets of iron-on fabric) and a map of the course. Then gather kids at the starting line and send them through one at a time. Once everyone has run the gamut, take a break for cake and gifts. Afterward, it's back to the course, perhaps to run in reverse this time. At party's end, hold an awards ceremony and present an appetizing Olympic-style medal -- a cookie pendant strung on a ribbon -- to every participant.
A week or two before the party, closely examine your backyard. Make note of slopes and sinkholes (trouble for ankles) and useful features like trees. On the day before, set up the course, and blow up the balloons. Balloons can be a choking hazard for children; only grown-ups should inflate them. Supervise children closely around balloons, and discard any popped ones immediately. This course required about 150 balloons, inflated with a hand pump, and took three adults about three hours to arrange. Number some balloons using a broad-tipped permanent marker and tie to tall garden stakes; use them to mark each obstacle.
1. Ladder Run
The first one's easy. Kids scamper through the rungs of a wooden ladder (sanded to prevent splinters then painted a cheery red) laid flat on the ground.
2. Balloon Table
Kids shinny under a table hidden inside a ground-hugging cloud of balloons. Dangling from yarn taped to all sides of the table, the balloons wobble and bump as kids pass through.
3. Rope Swing
Everybody likes to hang around this guaranteed crowd-pleaser. If kids get a good running jump and keep knees high, they are likely to clear the inflatable wading pool. Several big knots tied in the rope's end make it easy to grab.
4. Balance Beam
Kids set a good pace and, using all the swagger they can muster, get across the two-by-four balance beam in no time.
5. Newspaper Walk
Kids are handed three sheets of newspaper and must place one beneath every step they take. This is the perfect event to place at a tricky turn in the course.
6. Red Wagon Slalom
Stand colorful foam pool noodles in gallon buckets weighted with sand (or soil or stones) and set up in a zigzag pattern. Fill a wagon with small water balloons. Kids must pull the wagon around the outside of each bucket without spilling any balloons.
7. Hoop Alley
Lay out eight plastic hoops in a straight line. Kids step into each hoop, lift it overhead and drop it behind as they move forward. (Reset the row before the next person's turn.)
Kids sit on the grass, bend their knees, lean back, and lock their elbows, then "walk" as straight and fast as they can. This activity is great silly fun for the last 8 to 10 feet, when kids are rushing to the finish line.
A brightly colored disposable tablecloth becomes especially festive with the addition of ordinary white stickers or round labels, available from office supply stores. You can measure out a polka-dot pattern beforehand, placing a faint pencil X at the spot where each sticker will go, or apply them randomly.
Balloon Table How-To
Using a hand pump (about $5 at party supply stores), fill enough balloons to completely mask a table -- it took about 100 balloons to cover our 3-by-6-foot table. Tie yarn or string to each balloon and secure to the table -- on top, underside, and all four legs -- with heavy tape. Wrap table legs with foam padding.
Balance Beam How-To
You can simply lay an 8-foot-long two-by-four on the grass. Or you can raise it on 6-by-6-by-12-inch blocks: Drill a hole through each block using a paddle or forstner bit and attach to the underside of the beam with long lag screws. Sand corners, and cushion with pillows.
A map of the course is given to each contestant at the start of the party as both a guide and a favor to take home. Each is wrapped and tied around a rolled-up T-shirt. Numbers, arrows, and dotted lines make clear the sequence of obstacles. You can reconfigure the events any way you like to fit your backyard. Create a simple map of the course by hand, or using a computer design program, and print or photocopy onto brightly colored construction paper. Trim the edges with pinking shears.
T-shirt (adorn white tees with iron on numbers)