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Planning Kids' Birthday Parties

Some children's birthday parties rival three-ring circuses. But the truth is, kids are very happy with a simple party, as long as it's planned with their needs and tastes in mind. Follow these tips, and throw a party that is fun for everyone, even the adults.

Involve Your Child in the Party Planning
Your child should help choose the party's theme and activities, and can even help design the invitations: Have him or her draw on paper (or a blank puzzle) and color in the designs, cut out pictures to glue onto blank invitations, or put stickers on cards.

Choose a Unifying Theme
Once you've chosen a theme, make it resonate through all the aspects of the party. For instance, a trip to the aquarium could include fish-shaped invitations, aquatic-themed goody bags, and nametags attached to iced fish-shaped cookies.

Keep It Short and Structured
Two hours is plenty of time for a children's party. Keep kids busy from arrival to departure; the main event should begin as soon as most of the guests have arrived. Serve food and cake in the final half-hour. The natural ending of a party is signaled when the younger children grow tired or cranky.

Plan Age-Appropriate Activities
Toddlers are too young for complicated activities. Stick with familiar games, such as Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or perhaps plan a treasure hunt. Children over 5 years old need more stimulation: Consider hiring a magician or dance teacher, or plan a trip to a nearby bowling alley or miniature golf course.

Entertain Kids with Simple Projects
Kids love to be creative at parties. Have them decorate their own cupcakes, or set up one of these simple activities: Fill buckets with crayons, rubber stamps, stencils, and stickers to decorate scrapbooks; provide shells, pinecones, and buttons to adorn plain picture frames; or help the kids make sock-puppets and put on a puppet show.

Keep the Food Simple and Fun
Use cookie cutters to make flower- or star-shaped sandwiches and to turn Jell-O into letters of the alphabet. Older children can make their own English-muffin pizzas. Serve foods that don't require cutting and are easily grasped by small hands. To keep kids busy while they're waiting to eat, cover the table with paper and place flowerpots filled with crayons all around.

Birthday-Cake strategies
Once the cake is cut, serve younger children first, since they're most in need of instant gratification. Cupcakes are a great option because they allow all the kids to get served at once; give cupcakes the drama of a cake by bringing them out on a tray, each with its own candle.

Birthday Gifts: To Open or Not to Open
Two factors will contribute to your decision on whether to open gifts in front of the guests: the ages of the children and the size of the party. For younger children, it's safest to wait until the party's over; although it is fun for everyone to see what's beneath all the wrapping paper, trouble may ensue when a guest decides the birthday boy has received enough presents already -- and decides to keep the one he brought for himself. An exception could be made for a very small party (fewer gifts, fewer opportunities for meltdown). Older kids generally understand that the day belongs to the birthday child, so unless the sheer number of presents makes it impractical, opening gifts just before the end of the party can be a nice way to wrap up the day's entertainment.

Make Guests Feel Special with Goody Bags
Consider including healthy snacks, stickers, small books, and containers of bubbles in the goody bags. Be sure whatever you choose is age-appropriate and safe for children. For creative containers, use Chinese-food takeout cartons, small flowerpots or baskets, or paper bags threaded and tied with ribbon at the top. Write the kids' names on their goody bags to make them feel even more special.

Do You Know?
As a rule of thumb, invite as many kids to a party as the birthday child's age.


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