Looking to turn your home into celebration central? “When you open up your home, you’ll develop a deeper bond with your guests. When they’re invited into your space, they get to know you better,” says Aviva Samuels, owner of Kiss the Planner, a wedding and party-planning service. Another home party perk: You can be as creative as you want. If you want to transform your backyard into a circus, there’s no one saying: ‘Sorry. We don’t allow actual circuses.’ You can attach birthday decorations to the walls, the ceiling, and set up whenever you want. “In your home, you make your own rules,” says Samuels. Your child may be more comfortable there, too.
Still, there will be countless details to tend to. “A host is responsible for the experience, which is everything from how your house is decorated to making sure the buns come before the hot dogs on the buffet line,” says Holly Stiel, owner of Thank You Very Much, Inc., a hospitality consultancy. But the personal payoff can be priceless, especially when you see your child and everyone having fun as a result of your creativity, time, resourcefulness. “When I plan my own parties and I hear guests say, ‘Wow, did you see that?’ or, ‘Oh my gosh, that was delicious,’ I get goosebumps,” says Samuels.
To pull off the ultimate event, being organized is key. “A well-thought-out task list at the beginning of the process will save your sanity,” advises Samuels. This master schedule can help you stay on track to hosting your kid’s home birthday party that’s anything but ho-hum.
One to three months ahead:
Select a theme. A theme gives you something to anchor decoration selection and activities to. “You won’t be stabbing in the dark, doing exhaustive Internet searches looking for something ‘fun’ or ‘interesting,’ which is too ambiguous,” says Samuels. Not sure where to start? Ask your child for birthday party-theme ideas. “Even if your child is just a toddler, don’t be surprised if your little one knows exactly what he or she wants from the get-go,” says Samuels. If your little one has a blank face when you ask them for party-theme ideas, feel free to make suggestions to them and see what gets your kiddo excited, such as trains, safari, unicorns, bulldozers, woodland animals, or the circus.
Pick a date and make a guest list. Before setting a birthday party date, check with extra special guests to make sure they’re available. Your child won’t be happy if their best friend will be out of town that weekend. After selecting a date, decide with your child whether to invite the entire daycare, preschool or school class, or just a handful of their best buds. “While including everyone on the guest list might be a nice thing to do, if your child is timid or happiest in a small group, then your child’s needs ultimately should come first,” advises Samuels.
Book the entertainment. If you want to bring in outside entertainment, such as a storyteller, clown, magician, singer, balloon animal expert, storybook character, professional scavenger hunt creator (for older kids), the we-bring-the-petting-zoo-to-you folks or a face painter, get them while you can.
“Ask for references from people who have used those entertainers recently or check their online reputation to make sure they’re reliable, professional and personable,” says Samuels. Be sure to ask the entertainers about any setup requirements they may need so you’re fully prepared.
One month ahead:
Send invitations. Whether handwritten, ordered professionally, or computer-generated, an invitation should fit the party theme. For kids age seven or older, indicate on the invitations whether parents are invited, too, so they won’t have to ask if the party is a drop-off.
Include an RSVP date, as well as both a start time and an end time, so parents know when to pick up their kids or how to plan the rest of their day.
Line up help. Enlist friends, parents, teens, or relatives to help supervise the activities. Consider hiring a few high school students, your babysitter, or a professional service to help with pre-party or post-party cleanup or to supervise games, deliver, serve and replenish food, and generally take some of the weight off your shoulders. If you’ll be having a pool party, hire certified lifeguards.
Order party supplies, favors, and a bakery cake (if you won’t be baking your own). Take inventory of what you already have on hand and note what you’ll need to purchase or borrow, then stock up on party supplies online or at your local party store. Include game and craft essentials, sports equipment, existing or portable tables for food and gifts, coolers for drinks, serving pieces, tablecloths, plates, cups, and utensils.
You’ll also need party favors that fit the theme and goodie bags to put them in, as well as prizes for the games. “It’s a nice idea to include at least one prize for everyone, so everyone gets to feel like a winner and sensitive feelings don’t get bruised,” suggests Samuels.
Two weeks before the party:
Confirm the final head count. Follow up with anyone who hasn’t RSVP’d, so you have time to make sure you have everything you need.
Make a schedule of party day activities. Plan to fill two to three hours with a mix of energetic games and calmer activities, such as crafts or storytelling. For babies and toddlers, you can’t go wrong with a ball pit that matches the age of your child and their guests. Factor in time for snacks and general playtime. If the presents will be opened at the party, save it for the end. If you run out of time, you can always skip it. Keep in mind that an outdoor party may become an indoor party in case of rain, so be prepared with alternate, rainy-day activities.
Get your decorations on deck. “Nothing says fun like balloons,” says certified balloon artist, Sandi Masori, author of The DIY Balloon Bible For All Seasons. Air-filled balloon columns are an easy way to liven up any space and turn a (frugal) DIY kid’s birthday party into an event. Safety note: If any balloons pop, pick up the pieces immediately (radar: choking hazard).
Plan the menu. “Finger foods such as chicken fingers, fries, and pizza are not only super easy for you, they are also sure to please,” says Samuels. For the adults who attend, a few add-on treats would be nice, such as fresh guacamole and chips.
Skip common allergic foods, such as tree nuts or shellfish. For younger kids four years old and younger, don’t serve common choking hazards either, such as hot dogs, chunks of cheese, and whole grapes or marshmallows.
Spiff up the yard. For an outdoor party, do any major yard cleanup or planting and give the patio furniture a scrub or refresh.
Three days before the party:
Clean the house. Don’t wait until the day of the party to do a thorough house cleaning. This way, you’ll need to do only a quick once-over before the party, like spritzing the kitchen counters and giving the guest bathroom a final check.
Tackle kitchen prep. If you’re doing the cooking, Samuels recommends making any foods you can in advance that can be frozen and defrosted. On the event day, set out foods early that won’t spoil, such as crudité and dip. Wrap them tightly to ensure freshness and tear off the plastic wrap when the first doorbell rings.
Line up the music. A party essential, even if it’s just a playlist on your phone.
Do a sound and camera check. Charge your phone and make sure you’ve got plenty of storage for the photo memories you’ll be creating; stock up on extra film, batteries, or memory cards, if applicable.
Make your home into a safety zone. Do a quick run-through to make sure there are no dangers lurking, such as slippery floors, uncovered electrical outlets, unlocked windows and choking hazards on the floor that small children might put in their mouth, such as paper clips, small batteries, or hard candy.
Lock up cleaning solutions and other dangerous chemicals; cover sharp-edged corners on furniture. Remove fragile objects around the house or yard and stow them away. Rearrange furniture, if necessary.
A few hours before the party:
Refresh the guest bathroom. Give it a welcoming feel with a fresh set of hand towels, scented soap and soap dispenser.
Set the stage. Lay out your serving dishes, glasses, cups, and utensils on a table so everything is in one place; this saves you from running around during the party hunting for serving spoons.
Role-play greetings and good-byes. Coach your child on handing out the goodie bags and saying thank you at the same time. If opening gifts is on the agenda, practice polite ‘thank yous’ with your child ahead of time.
At the party:
Watch for cute moments with your camera. “Pictures can help you remember the little moments you might easily forget,” says Karen I. Hirsch, a professional photographer. “Be on the lookout for the cute things that happen. You have to watch and be ready.” If you suspect you’ll be too busy to be in the moment, designate someone to be the party photographer, such as your spouse, a friend, or a family member with a good eye for those magical moments.
Make adult guests feel welcome. If adults will be staying for the party, consider how you can make them feel comfortable.
These tricks can help:
Create a 'welcome' message. Set up a chalkboard in the kitchen or the main area where your guests will congregate in with a friendly message, such as, ‘Welcome to Jackson’s 2nd Birthday Party! We’re so Glad You’re Here!’
Help your guests make connections. As the host, you’ll have a lot on your plate. Still, “You have an obligation to circulate,” says Stiel. Don’t leave guests to fend for themselves. Introduce guests to each other, such as, ‘Hi Brennan, meet Sam. Sam is Adam’s dad. Adam and Jackson [the birthday boy] go to story time at the library every week.’ Parenthood is a great equalizer and kids are a natural conversation-starter.
Stay calm when things don’t go exactly as planned. “Make it easy on yourself so that stress doesn’t take over and put a damper on your day,” suggests Samuels. “Hosting is challenging, but it shouldn’t make you miserable.”
After the party:
Stay organized. While your child is opening their gifts, make an on-the-spot list of who gave your child what gift (because you won’t remember later).
Help your child send thank-you notes. They’re the right thing to do, no matter what your child’s age. They’re a tangible act of good manners and teach kiddos gratitude.
Reflect on the experience. Talk with your child about what the birthday party was like. Also, make a mental note about what you personally gained from the experience and what you would do differently next time.
Whatever happens, know that the party was perfect just the way it was. “If your child had fun, it was a huge success!” says Samuels.
Sandra is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting, and consumer issues.
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