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BEAT THE BIRTHDAY BASH DASH
It wouldn't be a birthday party without a few surprises. Like the piñata that won't break (or that breaks on the first whack); the guests who don't show (or show with siblings in tow); toddlers who love Barney - then shriek with terror when the $150-per-hour purple dinosaur waddles in the door.
Parents suffer at both extremes of the exertion scale: burnout from overblown extravaganzas, and regret (amid chaos) from under-planned free-for-alls. Families, not surprisingly, face this high-expectation affair with a twinge of trepidation.
Balance Schedules and Budgets
Paula Jhung, author of Guests Without Grief, urges parents to simplify. "With so many bells and whistles, we've forgotten how to relax and enjoy our guests," she says. "These are not coronations. They're birthday parties."
But will your miniature monarch accede to that? Is there a way to host a "simple" party with enough pizzazz to please a discerning princess?
Absolutely, says Wendy Moyle, mother of three and president of Shindigz, an online party supply store. "Keep your parties short and active. Kids will remember more, and parents will hear more details about the party." Generally, limit parties to two hours. Sustaining momentum longer than that is a challenge for even the cleverest host, and it's always preferable to send guests home wishing the party had been longer - than shorter.
Name that theme
To the uninitiated, themed parties sound complicated. But in practice, they actually streamline the planning by providing a framework for decision-making. A jumble of unrelated games and crafts adds to party chaos, while a theme gives the birthday celebration coherence.
With your child, consider his or her interests: horses, model rockets, ballet. For little tykes, focus on a favorite color or activity: puzzles, tricycles, painting. Then build the invitations, decorations, games and food around the theme.
Lively invitations will energize a party before it begins by priming guests for fun to come. For a Baseball party, cut invitation "pennants" from felt, or pen the invite onto plastic balls that you hand deliver. Fishing theme? Tie the invitation to a small bag of fish crackers or worm-shaped candy. Keep it simple, and remember that this isn't an art contest. Let your birthday child help.
Give surefire classic activities (dress-up relay, treasure hunt, piñata) a thematic twist. For example, pass a stuffed bear as "hot potato" for a Teddy Bear Party. "Shipwrecked Castaways" follow clues to find a coconut and trinkets - then crack open the coconut, which is an experience kids will remember.
Make a plan
As a rule, prepare one activity for each 15 minutes of party time, plus two or three extras as back up. Also start with a small snack early on to keep energy up. (serve the cake and ice cream towards the parties end.)
If space permits, host parties at home. The trend toward hiring an entertainment complex or restaurant to organize parties makes hosting as easy as dialing a phone and writing a check. But Jhung urges parents to scale back on the fireworks and reclaim this rite of parenthood.
A simple gathering in a child's home, planned with the child's input says "Happy Birthday" more sincerely than the glitziest party orchestrated by a stranger.
If the convenience of a hired location outweighs the benefits of an at-home party, you can still personalize the event. Make the cake, provide your own prizes, and plan a game that centers on the honored child - so her celebration is not a clone of every other "Birthday Burger and Pizza Palace" party.
Start and end strong
For the youngest partygoers, begin gently with a craft of cooperative activity. Jhung recommends sidewalk chalk or the irresistible refrigerator-sized cardboard box (usually free for the hauling from an appliance dealer). Beforehand, cut windows for light, then provide guests with colored markers and stickers for "interior decorating".
For older kids, Moyle begins with a relay or partner-obstacle course to get blood pumping and kids laughing. Follow next with a calming activity, then continue to regulate the excitement's ebb and flow to keep the fun coming, but hysterics at bay. Remember, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Get ideas from game books and online party sites.
"End with a bang," advises Moyle. Organize take-home piles of coats and party favors before beginning the closing activity. Then fill the final minutes with festivity. Break the piñata, release helium balloons, or run your silliest relay. The goal: Send guests packing with grins on their faces and the host still standing.
AVOID PARTY PITFALLS