One day, a friend of mine saw me in line at the grocery store. I was balancing boxes of Capri Suns, cheap plastic goodie bag paraphernalia, and a super tall cake with a Barbie thrust through the middle. I was running late, and I was fearing my child's guests would arrive before I did, so I was probably sweating and out of breath. I was tired of the birthday party already, and it hadn't started yet.
Figuring she could commiserate, I said, "Birthday parties wear me out." And she said, "But they are so joyous."
Ah, spoken like someone who has a really good nanny.
Preschool birthday parties are joyous, but, the truth is, when my kids were younger, I tended to lose sight of what a successful birthday party is: a memorable event that makes your child feel treasured. I invested way too much into the vision of what I wanted the birthday party experience to be, without thinking enough about the experience from the point of view of my child. I stressed about not leaving out siblings, of having age-appropriate goodie bags for a range of children that was way, way too wide. Somewhere along the line, the magic of the experience was lost.
Now that my kids are a little older, and I have a few more parties under my belt, I do it differently.
Here are some tips for throwing a birthday party for children ages 5 and under.
It's much easier to get everything done when you plan ahead.
Keep it short.
A two-hour party is plenty long for children age 3 and under. Children ages 4 and 5 can generally handle an hour or two longer, but you don't need to go nuts. Birthday parties are tremendously stimulating for a small child. Throw in some sugar, and tantrums are inevitable.
Keep it small.
The rule of thumb is to keep the number of guests equal to the age of the child. Too many guests take the attention away from the child who is being honored. If you have a large extended family (especially if your family includes cousins with a great variation in ages) you may want to consider having a family celebration separate from the celebration with friends. We have started having our family over for pizza the night before or the night after the children's party.
Keep it simple.
Ask your child for ideas on activities, games, crafts, or food to have at your party. Kids are surprisingly imaginative and often know exactly how they would like their birthday party to be. Plus, their ideas are often surprisingly simple. Asking your children to describe the type of party they would like to have is a good starting point. If it's over the top, you can simplify from there. For example, if your child longs for a grand princess tea party, ask everyone to come in their favorite dress up outfit and decorate paper or plastic mugs as your activity. The birthday girl can be responsible for pouring apple juice and handing out the finger sandwiches.
Ask for help.
Ask family members, older siblings, and friends to stick around. If there is a child who you worry about how to handle behaviorally, invite the parent to stay for the party.
Make each guest feel special as they arrive.
Young children can feel tentative at first in a festive, noisy atmosphere, so make sure to make them feel welcome. One really popular idea that we have done in the past: Enlist an older sibling or a parent to do simple face painting for each guest as they arrive.
Give the wee ones something to do.
You don't need to go overboard, but having a plan is important, and will help the party go more smoothly. This age will engage in free play for quite some time. And then you can have a simple craft station, followed by a simple game, if you are feeling ambitious. Simple crafts can include making photo frames (Orientaltrading.com is great for simple ideas such as these.) All you need is some stickers and squares of cardstock with a 4×6 square cut into the center. Then you can take a photo of the child with the birthday boy or girl and print it immediately (if you have a digital camera kit equipped to do so) or send the photo in the thank you note. If there's time, you might play some games. Kids love simple party games, such as Duck, Duck, Goose and Ring Around The Rosy. But beware that once a group of children gets riled up, it can be hard to bring them back down.
Use music to help with crowd control.
Fun, lively kids' tunes can get the party started. When everyone starts to get a little wild and crazy, switch the music to soft classical. The kids probably won't consciously notice a difference, but you are bound to see a change in their behavior.
Maintain order at gift giving time.
Too often, the children are feeling wild and a bit out of control by the time it's time to open gifts, and it's hard to regain control once the gift wrap starts flying. Start in an orderly fashion by placing two chairs side by side. (Kid sized chairs are best.) The child who is opening gifts sits in one chair and the giver sits in the other while their present is opened. This way, the giver feels singled out and special as she watches her present being opened. This also sets up a perfect photo opportunity, when you are guaranteed to have just the guest and the giver in the photo.
Make the birthday girl or boy feel special.
One tradition that we've been doing for our children once they turn four is to give the birthday child an inexpensive single use disposable camera (if you look for these on sale, you can get them for under $ 5.) Tell them that the camera is theirs to document their birthday and birthday party in whatever way they like. When the photos are developed, they can put the prints in an inexpensive plastic mini photo book. Kids take such pride in photos they take themselves.
Go for quality rather than quantity. Young kids love anything with their name on it. Here's a popular idea that we've used: Find inexpensive little sketchbooks and use rubber stamps to spell each guest's name on the front. Tie a ribbon around the front so it looks extra fancy to young eyes, pair it with a couple of crayons or markers and a lollipop, and you're all set. Kids also love to unwrap things, so instead of filling a goodie bag with small items, you might gift wrap a more meaningful item and send it home with them.
Some more ideas: My 5-year-old recently came home from a party with a full-size Hershey's bar, and she was the envy of the entire neighborhood. Another big hit: My sister-in-law once had a spring garden party for her 5-year-old with mini terra cotta pots tied with ribbons and a tiny silk flower. Each child got to plant a seed during the party and take the pot home as a party favor.
Quick and Easy Thank You Notes.
An easy way to do thank you notes is to save up all of the artwork your child creates on any given day, cut the page down the middle, and fold each half into a card. Ask your child what he or she would like to say to each of the guests, in turn. Write them up and ask your child to sign their name, if they are able. If not, they can draw a little picture (or not, depending on the time you want to spend and the patience level of you and your child). Insert a photo of the birthday child and the guest enjoying themselves, and you're done till next year.