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When planning a kid’s birthday party I find the simplest option is usually the best. To streamline the party organisation and keep it simple, I use a 10-point birthday party plan. A 10-point plan might sound complex and work-heavy, but all it does is define the work involved and put it into manageable chunks. Part of the fear of organising a party can be not knowing where to start. This 10-step plan tells you where to start and what to do next. You need to prepare:

• an overall family birthday party strategy

• a party theme

• the invitations

• the guest list

• the food and drinks list

• a games or activities plan

• the lolly/treat bags

• your party week and party day work schedules

• an emergency plan

• thank-you cards.

Step 1: Overall family birthday party strategy

Two of our children have birthdays within 10 days of each other in April. The remaining three are at the other end of the year, with one at the end of November, one in mid December and our youngest child’s birthday after Christmas. It’s been jibed at me that for someone who loves to plan I didn’t do such a great job of planning my children’s arrivals in this world. There are some things that you just can’t plan!

Prior to the birth of our fourth child I realised that the way we’d been celebrating birthdays was not sustainable. Being such an enthusiastic mum and wanting parity for the younger children, I’d created an expectation in my kids that they’d have a big party every year. Every year that I gave each child a party I reinforced the expectation. Having a large party every year was not only too expensive for us, but due to the clustering of the kids’ actual birthdays, it was physically exhausting for me to have to prepare multiple parties.

My husband and I decided to bring the issue of birthday parties up at a family meeting. We gave the kids prior notice that we’d be discussing parties and asked them to think about how we could celebrate birthdays in the future. With input from the kids, we managed to come up with a solution everyone was happy with. The older boys both thought that having a party every second year would be a good idea, so this formed the basis for the birthday-party rotation strategy shown in table 1: one year they would have a small celebration, followed the next year by a home-based party. For example, in the year when one of the April children and the early December child have a party, the other two have a small celebration.


Table 1: birthday party rotation

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Now all the kids are clear about what they can expect each year for their birthday. From my perspective, it’s smoothed out my birthday party workload and reduced our costs. As the children get older and move on to secondary school we’ll review it again to make sure we continue to have suitable ways of celebrating birthdays.

Step 2: Party theme

Once you’ve chosen a theme, other decisions such as games, the food and the cake become easier because you can align them to the theme. I recommend keeping the theme simple, and if you want to keep the costs down I also recommend avoiding ‘branded’ themes. You can easily address a child’s interest with a generic equivalent, for example:

• Bob the Builder construction

• Thomas the Tank Engine trains

• Hannah Montana singing and dancing.

In table 2 I’ve listed themes that we’ve used in the past, or themes from great parties that we’ve attended to give you some inspiration. Themes are listed by age group: some can cross over multiple age groups and some themes could be used for all ages.

Table 2: birthday party themes

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Step 3: Invitations

You can create a very simple invitation at home that’s inexpensive and involves the kids. Some styles we use frequently are:

photo-based:

Use a recent photo as a centrepiece of the invitation.

Attach it to coloured card and write the party details on the back.

Decorate it with items that reflect the theme — for example, pink dots. Depending on the age of the child, they can help do this. (I try to keep the children involved as much as possible in the party preparations.)

theme-designed:

Make the base shape of the invitation fit the theme (for example, a football, shield, rocket, crown).

Use colours and wording to fit the theme.

Type the party details into a space that can be stuck onto the card.

Print out and attach this to the base shape.

child-designed:

Have the child draw a picture in Tux, Paint or another computer drawing application. (Paint can be found under Accessories in the Start menu of Microsoft.)

Insert the picture and add your words to a Word document.

⇒ Print this out and let the child cut out the design.

⇒ Paste it to coloured card.

Older children can use more advanced programs such as PowerPoint to design their own invitation on the computer and print it out for their friends.

Step 4: Guest list

Once we’ve decided who we’re inviting, I type a list of names into a spreadsheet (although this could also be a handwritten list). I then stick a copy of the list on the wall near the phone. That way, if anyone takes an RSVP call about the party, they can easily mark the response on the sheet.

Step 5: Food and drinks list

One of the reasons I keep a guest list in spreadsheet form is so I can use the numbers to calculate the quantities of foods we’ll need. I create a food and drink list linked to the number of adults and kids who’ll be attending. Then I can quickly determine the exact food requirements for the party. I’m notorious for over-catering, so having a list to refer to for quantities helps give me perspective. I can also quickly work out by how much I need to multiply my recipes to work out how much food we need, which makes shopping easier too. Table 3 shows an example of a food and drinks list.

Aligning the food with the party theme also makes decisions about what to serve a bit easier. Here are some food (and set-up) ideas we’ve used for themed birthday parties.

Table 3: food and drinks

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• Knight theme — a long banquet table:

⇒ set up a long trestle as a banquet table

⇒ serve chicken wings and drumsticks, baked potatoes, corn on the cob and chunks of bread as the main food

use goblet-shaped cups for the children to drink from

make a lamington castle cake with lamingtons stacked like bricks, complete with turrets.

Football theme — individual snack boxes:

cut up oranges

make or buy cheap snack boxes (I used cardboard meal boxes)

⇒ pack a hot dog, two meat pies, two sausage rolls, a serviette and a fruit juice into each meal box

add a few chocolate balls and a small chocolate mud cake to each meal box

⇒ sit outside on picnic blankets

bake a rectangular cake that looks like a football pitch, complete with little plastic football players.

Water party theme — luau:

set up a low, long table that children can sit around

provide lots of fruit-based foods such as pineapple boats, fruit skewers and kiwi-fruit cocktails

⇒ make flower-shaped sandwiches, mini Hawaiian pizzas and chicken wings

make chocolate balls and roll them in coconut dyed pink and yellow using food colouring

make frozen banana ice-creams

⇒ serve a homemade berry ice-cream cake.

Garden tea party:

set up a table and chairs outside; decorate the table with rose petals and leaves

⇒ use real china teacups, a teapot and sandwich plates

⇒ bake fairy cakes, teacup biscuits and sprinkled (hundreds and thousands) biscuits

make sandwiches cut into fingers and filled with chicken, cucumber and cheese; and ham and cheese

finish off with a cinnamon tea cake decorated with flowers.

A great tip for serving food at a kid’s party is to use snack boxes. Party-supply places usually sell these very cheaply. We’ve used rectangular cardboard boxes (like the ones used for fish and chips), which cost about 12 cents each.

We then spread out blankets either inside or outside (depending on the weather) and all the children sit together to eat. Kids will sit calmly for 10 to 15 minutes eating and chatting. There’s much less wastage as kids actually eat the food because they’re all seated. Tidying up is also incredibly easy. Scraps make their way to the rubbish bin and the snack boxes can be put into the recycling bin. The blankets help keep all the crumbs off the floor, which means less cleaning up for me.

Step 6: Games or activities plan

Children are very adept at creating their own fun, so for parties I like to have a mix of structured activities and time for the kids to just play. The activities and play differ for each age group and the type of party we have.

One-to-three years old

For this age group, I prepare an area where the children can play freely. I’ve found that organising games for this age doesn’t work well as they’re still finding the concept of sharing and turn-taking pretty difficult. Given age-appropriate toys and props, children this age will explore, play and entertain themselves quite easily. Adults need only to keep a watch on proceedings and lead with examples of play ideas if the toddlers are unsure of what to do.

For a three year old’s construction party we had the following materials set up for the kids:

a box containing recycled materials, masking tape, string and staplers with which they could make a creation using their imagination

real small-sized hammers, and nails (clouts, as they have bigger heads)

chalk for drawing on the pavement

buckets and paint brushes for water painting.

For the water-themed party for a two year old we set up:

two little blow-up pools full of water and water-play toys such as funnels, jugs, scoops and buckets

two child-sized tables set up with tea sets for those children who didn’t want to get into the pools but were happy to play with the water

child-sized watering cans, so those who wanted to could walk around the garden and water the plants.

For a one-year-old primary-coloured theme party we:

moved all the furniture to the sides of one room

had primary-coloured helium balloons tied to decorative weights around the room; the balloons are a natural draw card for little ones

provided toys such as mega blocks, little people, a tea set and balls and placed them in different corners of the room.

Four-to-six years old

This age group is able to participate more cooperatively in games and activities, but a combination of free play and structured activities works best to ensure the party remains calm and happy. Lots of high-energy boys and girls left to their own devices for too long can cause a little bit of mayhem! Here are some games we’ve played at a football-themed party.

Upon arrival, each child was asked to write their name and a number on a new T-shirt with fabric crayons. We had bought three different coloured T-shirts, so the children could easily recognise which team they were in. We then ironed the print, which we covered with a cloth, and this became their team T-shirt for the games and also their take-home gift.

We played a round robin of 15-minute soccer games.

Orange breaks: as the kids play very hard, those who were sitting out and watching the others play ate oranges and drank water to refresh themselves.

We also had penalty shoot-outs where the kids competed against my husband as the goalie!

Seven-to-nine years old

At this age — depending on the number of children — you can set the children up with a comprehensive activity aligned with the party theme. At a jewellery party for a seven year old, for example, the kids could make a collection of basic pieces to take home with them, such as:

a braided wristband

a lolly necklace

a beaded bracelet.

Step 7: Lolly/treat bags

The type of lolly bag that we prepare for the partygoers depends on their age.

Kids under three

I try to avoid confectionery, so for this age I find cute little boxes, bags or tins that can be used as take-home gifts and I place small treats in them, such as tiny teddies, toddler fruitbars or homemade cookies.

Kids over three

By this age I can no longer get away with a healthy treat bag so I allow the kids to make some decisions about what they’d like in their lolly bags. I try to encourage them to include a small theme-aligned trinket and only a few lollies.

You can use either brown paper bags or small cardboard noodle boxes to put the lollies in. This is a great way to have children involved in preparing for their party. The children can help decorate the boxes or bags using the party’s theme for inspiration. The night before the party I let them fill the bags or boxes themselves — after showing them an orderly process for doing this — and they love it.

Step 8: Party week and party day work schedules

Having a work plan helps me make decisions about such things as the type of food I’ll serve. If I need to make some of the food the night before, I may choose an ice-cream cake, which can be made in advance. This means I don’t have too many things to do the night before or the day of the party.

We almost always have home-made ice-cream cakes at our home parties. They are easy to make and customise with the birthday child’s favourite ingredients. By scooping into cones to serve, there are no plates to wash up and far fewer crumbs!! You do have to make sure there’s enough for the adults too!!

Party week schedule

About a week before the party, I write down everything I need to do over the coming days and I spread the tasks out so that all the work isn’t left to the day before the party. This prevents a repeat performance of times when I left everything to the last minute and ended up going to bed at 2 am on the day of the party. Just having the list makes me feel more organised as I know what I need to do and when. Table 4 is a list of what and when things had to be done for our two-year-old daughter’s water/luau-themed party.

Table 4: party week schedule

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Party day timetable

The party day timetable is really just for me. I enjoy it when our birthday parties are relatively free-flowing for the kids, especially the little ones who are not old enough for structured games. If things are flowing smoothly and the kids want to stick with whatever they’re doing, I allow myself to be led by the mood on the day of the party. By breaking down the party preparation into discrete tasks, I have a clear idea of the work that needs to be done and when. I find this particularly useful if I’m serving hot food and it all has to be ready at the same time.

Another advantage of having a timetable is that if you’re lucky enough to have some adult helpers they refer to this list of tasks if they want to help out. My sisters and close friends have always been fabulous at helping out on the day of our kids’ parties. Having the list — which you can see in table 5 — means that while I’m outside playing with the kids one of my lovely sisters can do things such as putting the pizzas on at the right time and keeping an eye on them so they’ll be ready in time for lunch.

Table 5: party day timing

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Step 9: Emergency plan

It’s wise to have a Plan B if you’re having a party at home that involves outdoor activities. Plan B can be very simple and low-cost. Games such as musical statues, balloons and box construction can all be great standby activities should the weather turn inclement.

One year we had a football party planned for our six-year-old boy. It ended up pouring with rain half an hour before the party was due to start. It continued to pour rain for pretty much the whole party. Luckily, kids are nowhere near as fickle as adults about a little thing like rain so, with Dad out there refereeing, the game went on. (Well, for 40 minutes at least, until the referee decided that was enough!)

Plan A had been to play round robin games of football, have lunch, play soccer-skills games, eat cake and go home. We’d checked out the forecast and could see rain on the horizon so Plan B was football, musical statues (I downloaded the top 40 songs under direction from the kids, which they said were the songs that ‘everyone at school liked’, even though they weren’t to my taste!), lunch, inside balloon games (teams keeping the balloon off the ground and popping a balloon to receive a lolly), eat cake and go home.

When the rain became too heavy for the kids to play in, I was so relieved to have a Plan B and the resources to implement it. With 18 seven-year-old boys in the house, it could have otherwise ended up a bit wild.

Step 10: Thank-you cards

I started sending out thank-you notes for children’s birthday parties when we moved to Surrey Hills. It wasn’t the norm among my inner-city friends to do this, but in the eastern suburbs it appeared to be, and I like the idea of the children acknowledging and being grateful for the gifts they received.

The thank-you cards can be very simple, using a similar design to the invitation. Or, it can be a group photo of the party with a ‘thank you’ written on the back by you or your child.

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