Inexpensive Kid's Parties

by Welmoed Sisson


You look at the calendar and realize with dread that your child's birthday is fast approaching. And that means you need to plan the birthday party. The mere thought is enough to give you a headache! What to do?

For children's' parties, planning is the key to success, and also prevents overspending. Your first priority is to sit down with your child and get his/her input as to what kind of party is desired. Very often parents plan complicated parties with elaborate entertainment, only to discover that their child really wanted a very simple affair with a few friends and some games. Remember, the party is for the child, not for you to show off to the neighborhood!

Traditional parties with games and prizes are pretty much wasted before the fifth birthday; young children haven't really grasped that games have rules before that age, and you will spend more time explaining things than you will having fun.

When my son neared his sixth birthday, he and I sat down and thought about his upcoming party. First I asked him to choose a theme, and he chose "cowboys." Then we talked about who he would invite. Our family rule is "invite the age plus one," so since it was Ian's sixth birthday, he was allowed to invite seven children. We did invitations on the computer and mailed them out three weeks in advance.

We talked about the different types of games we could play at the party, and tried to work them into the theme. Musical chairs became "Musical Stagecoach"; a treasure hunt was a search for the bandit's hideout. Each child got a cowboy hat (ordered from the Oriental Trading Company, a great source for inexpensive party favors and decorations) and a bandanna. The cake was shaped like a cowboy hat. The total cost for the party was around $75, and was a tremendous success.

When my daughter approached five, I asked her what kind of party she wanted, and she chose an art party instead of a traditional games-and- prizes party. At her party, we decorated T-shirts (bought on sale for $1.50 each) with fabric paints, glitter glue and glue-on "jewels". The kids then decorated picture frames (cut from a sheet of mat board from the art supply shop) with stickers and crayons, and each child got their picture taken with an instant camera to put in the frame. Since it was a nice day out, the kids elected to go outside and play on the swingset instead of doing the last craft. Total cost for that party: roughly $70 (I already had some art supplies around the house from my own crafting stuff).

Other party themes we have done at our house include "Geography" and "History of the World". The hardest part of those themes was finding decorations to go along with them...I ended up going to a teaching supply store for classroom-style materials. I have also made extensive use of the computer and graphics programs such as Print Artist and CorelDraw to create decorations.

Here are my Top Ten Lessons I have learned from planning and holding birthday parties for small children:

  1. Plan ahead. Write down a "schedule" for the party, outlining exactly what game follows what, and what the prizes are. Keep the paper tucked in your pocket during the party and refer to it often.

  2. Have a "gathering" activity. To prevent latecomers from missing the start of the party, I reserve the first ten minutes for an activity that each child can start as soon as they arrive; usually it is decorating their goody bags (plain brown lunch bags, with crayons and stickers to decorate them). Saves on expensive goody bags!

  3. For kids under ten, try not to have competitive games where there are clear winners and losers. Parties are meant to be fun. Every child gets a prize for each game, and I encourage children to help one another in the games. Prizes need not be expensive: a colorful pencil, sheet of stickers, or other dime-store trinket is fine. I don't hand out candy! Again, the Oriental Trading Company is a great resource.

  4. Be flexible. If the kids would rather have some free play than do the next game right away, that's fine. At one of my kids' parties, we played a game which involved unwrapping balls of crepe paper to reveal a prize. After this was over, the kids wanted to play "mummy" with the crepe paper strips for a while instead of going right to the next game. After five minutes, they were ready to proceed with the next game.

  5. Save the gifts for last, but do allow the birthday child to open them in the presence of the giver. This lets the giver experience the wonderful feeling of knowing their gift was appreciated. (A note on presents: when parents RSVP for your child's party, make sure to tell them of your child's interests, your personal preferences -- at our house it's no Barbies or toy weapons -- and, if you like, a maximum spending range, such as no more than $15.)

  6. Plan for the unexpected. If you have only outdoor games planned and it's raining buckets on party day, you need to be able to shift gears in a hurry! Also, if you start a game and it's obvious the kids aren't getting into it, don't be afraid to stop it and go on to the next one. Always have at least two games in "reserve", in case the party goes quicker than you planned, or one of the games falls flat.

  7. Ask another adult to help out by being the official photographer, so you don't have to worry about taking pictures and running the show at the same time.

  8. Keep the food simple. I stick to cake and punch. I used to bake my own party cakes, but have bowed to time pressure and buy them from the local grocery store. Frankly, the kids couldn't care less if it's home- made; all they want is the sugar!

  9. Don't require your child to invite siblings to the party. When one of my kids has a party, the other goes on a play date at a friend's house. This saves lots of tears caused by the non-birthday child feeling left out.

  10. When the party is over, sit down and make some notes about what worked and what didn't, and put it in a "Birthday Party" file in your filing cabinet. (This is the same file you put your ideas in throughout the year). The next day, when all the excitement has worn off, sit down with your child and help him/her do thank you notes for each gift. One last thought: it might just happen that your child doesn't want a traditional "party" at all. Maybe a special evening out would be enough of a treat. Consider taking your child and one special friend to a movie, play or sporting event that they might otherwise not be able to see. Or you can take the child out to dinner at a fancy restaurant -- you'd be amazed at the good table manners they can display when surrounded by elegance! Maybe a trip to an amusement park would be enough of a party for your child. Don't feel you are constrained by conventional thinking! Be original! And, above all, have fun!

Welmoed Sisson is a mother at home with her two children, Ian, 7, and Diana, 5. She holds a degree in journalism and psychology, and has worked in graphic design for the past ten years. She and her husband, Bob, are currently finding all the ways to pinch pennies until they squeak as they build their Dream House. Her hobbies include sewing, reading, piano and finding new bumper stickers for her car.

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