Our guide covers everything you need to know from the timeline to guest list, games and activities.
Birthday parties are like road trips: getting there is half the fun. Deciding on the theme, decorations, and activities makes the days leading up to the event seem like part of the celebration itself. It needn't be elaborate—kids will be happy with a small party as long as they are made to feel special. Even a simple party requires planning; the sooner you start organizing, the earlier the excitement begins and the fewer details you'll have to work out on the day itself.
The birthday child will likely have ideas about the kind of party he wants, so involve him in the planning. Let your child pick the theme, help you with shopping and decorating, and take part in baking the cake. Doing so helps spread out the anticipation; that way the focus isn't on a couple of hours of a single day. Although it might be more efficient to do it all yourself, there's pleasure in working with your child toward an important goal. Plus, he'll have the reward of enjoying with his friends the magical day he helped plan. (Print our planner and work on filling it out together.)
Six weeks before the party, you should choose the theme, draw up the guest list, confirm the date with your child's best friend, and reserve off-site space. Then, four weeks ahead of the celebration, you'll want to write out invitations; get updated class list; and decide on games, activities, and food.
You'll mail invitations, purchase party goods, start homemade decorations and favors, and arrange for extra help, if needed, three weeks out. One to two weeks before is when you should purchase crafts supplies and favors, draw up a schedule of activities, make samples of planned crafts, and call guests who have not yet responded.
You'll have to do a few things the week of, too. Three days before the party, plan to buy the food. One to two days before, you'll want to bake the cake, decorate your home or be sure off-site supplies are gathered, and prepare make-ahead foods.
The Guest List
Make sure your child's best friend is free before you set the date. When including classmates, think "all"—all the kids, all the boys, or all the girls—if you want to avoid hurt feelings. If you're not inviting lots of classmates, the rule of thumb is to ask as many kids as your child's age plus one. But take into account the activities you're planning. A larger, even number of kids—at least eight or 10—may be best for team games at a 5-year-old's party, but you may want just three guests for a 7-year-old's sleepover.
Mail invitations three weeks before the party. Even if your child's school permits distribution of invitations on the premises (many don't unless the whole class is included), it's better not to. That way, children who aren't invited are less likely to feel slighted. Include the date, location (with directions), drop-off and pick-up times, and R.S.V.P. information. Spell out anything to bring, such as a swimsuit and towel. Say if you'll be serving lunch or dinner. Mention specific entertainment, such as a movie. Call parents who have not responded the week before the party; after all, invitations do get lost.
You can't greet guests while supervising a game or cut the cake while pouring drinks, so figure on having one helper for every four to six children. Ask other parents ahead of time, or hire a babysitter or older sibling to help.
Where to Have It
At an at-home party, the birthday child's on his own turf, and you know where to find everything. To keep kids from wandering around, define the party area with balloons and streamers, and close doors to other rooms. Parks are great for warm-weather parties; just be sure to have a backup plan in case of rain. Suspend streamers or paper festooning between trees or along a fence. Spread colorful sheets or blankets on the ground. Mark the party's boundaries and blanket corners with clusters of bright balloons tied to thin wooden dowels stuck in the ground. Draping fabric over a tall fence or over a clothesline provides an attractive backdrop for party photos.
Considering your local community centers, YMCA, or church? Prices vary according to locale, but generally run about $75 at a community center or $100 at a Y, with an hour for swimming. Book at least six weeks in advance, and get the name of a contact person. You may only have a short time to decorate a rented space, so use portable decorations and plan for another adult or two to help you. Have all the balloons already blown up and strung together in bunches before you arrive at the site. Hang decorations with supplies that won't mar the walls, such as low-tack tape, string, and removable self-adhesive hooks. Make a large room friendlier: Use streamers to define the party area. You can also outline the space with balloons tied to anchors.
When to Have It
Schedule parties for young children when they will be at their best, neither too sleepy nor too hungry. After nap time works well for toddlers; lunchtime is good for preschoolers. As kids grow older, timing becomes a less important factor. Don't feel like you have to entertain for hours. Toddlers and preschoolers do best with parties kept to an hour and a half. Anywhere from two to three hours is time enough for school-age kids.
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: 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Let kids make their own party favors—an ice-dyed T-shirt, for example—as one of the sensory activities. Decorate with items that guests can take with them when the party is done, such as posters or pennants for a baseball party. 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. As kids arrive, you might usher them to a crafts table, where they can busy themselves until more guests arrive. Keep games and activities simple for toddlers: Stick to games they know well or activities without complicated rules (such as dancing or tag). 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: balloon artists (their creations double as party favors), mobile petting zoos, hairstylists or manicurists (call a local beauty school for suggestions), choreographers or dance teachers, face painters, professional storytellers, and DJs.
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 pool party, and Pin the Tail on the Donkey can be Pin the Trunk on the Elephant for a jungle theme. For an 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. For a 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). For an 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. For a 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.