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It's not easy being a parent, and when birthday party time rolls around the job just gets tougher. Kids can be a tough crowd and coming up with unique, entertaining and feasible birthday festivities each year is a challenge, plain and simple. So here are five theme party ideas, complete with recommendations for invitations, decorations, activities and food to help make your job a little easier this year.
Birthday party #1
Theme: Backyard birthday carnival
Remember how your heart used to skip a beat whenever the carnival came to town? Why not give your child a taste of that midway magic by helping him host a backyard carnival for his friends in honour of his next birthday?
Location: Outdoors -- backyard
Age: Seven- to eight-year- olds
Invitations: Buy or make brightly coloured invitations that tie into the carnival theme (circus clowns or balloons, for example). And while you're filling out those party invitations, be sure to let the party guests know that they should wear clothes that can withstand a little mustard and face paint. (A backyard birthday carnival is all about having fun -- not about worrying about whether you just got grass stains on your brand new party dress!)
Decorations: Pick up some brightly-coloured disposable tablecloths that can be knotted together and tossed over a backyard patio set or hung over your back fence to create the look of a circus tent. And be sure to load up on brightly coloured balloons, too. (You can hang them from the laundry line with clothes pegs and add a few to the loot bag of each party guest.)
Food: Serve standard carnival fare: hot dogs, corn on the cob, watermelon, and ice cream-waffle sandwiches for dessert. (Hint: Stick birthday candles in each individual ice cream-waffle sandwich if you want to create a "carnivaly" birthday cake.)
Fun and games: Games are the heart of any good carnival. Here are some guaranteed crowd pleasers that you can make quickly and easily, and at very little cost:
• Bean bag toss: Make some hand-sized beanbags on your sewing machine and fill each beanbag with dried beans. Stitch closed. Then cut a series of holes into a large cardboard box. Paint and decorate the cardboard box and -- voila! -- your first carnival game is ready.
• Ring toss: Make some plastic rings by cutting holes in lids from a bunch of large plastic margarine and ice cream containers. The party guests can then take turns trying to toss the rings on wooden dowels that have been hammered into the grass. (Note: Remove the dowels as soon as you're finished with this particular activity to prevent any of the party guests from tripping and hurting themselves.)
• Fish pond: Make homemade fish out of cardboard and homemade fishing rods using sticks and string. Attach a paperclip to the mouth of each fish and a magnet to the end of each piece of string string. Toss your fish in a fish pond (an empty wading pool works perfectly) and see what the party guests manage to catch.
Loot bags: Look for notebooks, pencils, and storybooks that tie into the carnival theme. Toss in a balloon or two and a small serving of candy floss and you will be sending the party guests home with the ultimate carnival loot bag.
Etc.: Think about hiring a high school student or two to pitch in on party day. It's hard to paint faces and manage the ring toss while you're simultaneously cooking hotdogs and making ice cream sandwiches!
Birthday party #2
Theme: Backyard arts and crafts
Certain types of arts and crafts project were meant to be enjoyed in the great outdoors -- like those projects with wonderfully messy ingredients that tend to splatter and scatter everywhere. So give your pudding Picasso a chance to host the best birthday party ever -- a backyard arts and crafts birthday bash!
Location: Outdoors -- backyard
Age: Five- to eight-year-olds
Invitations: Design invitations that tap into the art motif: e.g., invitations that are covered in paint splatters or that are cut in the shape of a palette, an easel, a sculpture, or an empty picture frame. Let your imagination run wild! And while you're at it, don't forget to include a note reminding party guests to wear clothes that can get a little messy. This is an arts and crafts birthday bash, after all!
Decorations: Go light with the party decorations. That way, you'll have plenty of room to display the art that is created during the party. Hang artwork from clotheslines, tape it to fences or garage doors, clothes-peg it to low-lying branches on evergreen trees, and find other creative ways to turn your backyard into an instant art gallery.
Food: Serve your party guests a birthday cake that has been decorated to look like an artist's palette or -- if your child prefers cupcakes -- ice each cupcake with a different colour of frosting to represent all the colours in an artist's paint box.
Fun and games: Set up a series of craft activity centres in your backyard so that your party guests can move from activity to activity. Here are some of the activities that you may want to include.
• Ping-pong ball painting: Put a piece of paper in the bottom of a dishpan. Add a couple of squirts of different colours of watered down liquid tempra paint. Toss in a ping-pong ball. Now paint a picture by blowing the ping-pong ball across the page or by gently tilting the dishpan back and forth.
• Straw painting: It doesn't get much messier than this! Paint a picture by sucking a small amount of paint into a straw and then blowing the paint out through the straw and on to the page. (Hint: You may want to provide plastic smocks for this particular activity.)
• Footprint art: How often do kids get to feel the wonderfully squishy sensation of paint between their toes. Give each party guest the chance to dip his/her feet into one or more dishpans of paint filled with various colours of paint. The party guest can then walk out on to a giant sheet of mural paper that has been spread out on the grass. Note: The dishpans may be a bit slippery, so you may want to hold each guest's hand to keep him or her from slipping.
Loot bags: Sketch books, miniature picture frames, and an inexpensive plastic folder suitable for carrying home some of the art that was made at the party all make great loot bag treats.
Etc.: Be sure to have bins of soapy water and plenty of old towels next to each activity centre so that the guests can wipe their hands (and, in some cases, wash and wipe their feet!) as they go.
Birthday party #3
Theme: Backyard science
Your child is hooked on every science TV show going, and he's famous -- or infamous -- for the "experiments" that he likes to carry out in the kitchen and the bathroom. So what kind of birthday party are you going to throw for your in-house Einstein? A backyard science party, that's what!
Location: Outdoors -- backyard
Age: Nine- and 10-year-olds
Invitations: Come up with fabulous invitations that hint at the weird and wonderful experiments that birthday party guests can expect to partake in at the Truly Amazing Backyard Science Birthday Party Bash -- if they dare! After all, it's not everyone who has what it takes to stare down a volcano or to do battle with the dreaded green goop...
Decorations: Think weird. Real weird. Then hit a local science shop and load up on colourful, eye-catching posters and props. Remember, the weirder, the better.
Food: Give your menu a "mad scientist" twist. Serve your guests their juice or soda in plastic beakers and give everything you're serving a crazy new name, like "experi-burgers" for what's on the grill!
Fun and games: And now for the reason the party guests came to the party -- the wild and wacky science experiments. They want to see stuff go fizz, boom, bang!
• Backyard Volcano: Everyone's seen this experiment -- and everyone wants to see it again. Take a clear bottle with a slender neck (a small plastic pop bottle works well) and place it on a cookie sheet or inside a large bowl. Using a funnel, drop enough baking soda into the bottle to cover the bottom with a layer about 3 cm thick. In a separate mixing cup, combine 1/2 cup of vinegar, two drops of dish detergent, and a couple of drops of red food colouring. Pour the soapy red mixture into the bottle using a funnel. You'll soon have "lava" erupting out of your homemade volcano!
• Super suction lips: Use a piece of modelling clay to seal the opening to a pop bottle so that there's only room for the straw to fit in. Then try to drink out of the bottle. Because you're preventing any new air from getting inside the bottle, you'll need to have super suction lips to get anything up the straw.
• Goop. Is it a solid or a liquid -- or something in between? Find out for yourself by whipping up a batch of this ooey-gooey stuff. Mix water, cornstarch, and a few drops of green food colouring together on a cookie sheet. (You'll know you've achieved the right consistency when the goop is thick enough to push with a spoon and yet runny enough to slip through your fingers when you try to pick it up.) Totally weird!
Loot bags: Hit your local science shop to scoop up items like a child-safe magnifying glass, a gyroscope, and other fabulous (and inexpensive) loot bag treasures. Talk about finding your way to loot bag nirvana....
Etc.: Think about turning your backyard science party into a costume party, too. It's yet another way to crank up the fun factor.
Birthday party #4
Theme: Backyard birthday party games
Forget about all those indoor games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (well, at least until the weather gets colder). The Backyard Birthday Party Games is all about having a blast in the great outdoors!
Location: Outdoors -- backyard
Age: Eight- to 10-year-olds
Invitations: Make the outdoor games theme clear to your guests right from the start. In addition to making (or shopping for) invitations that tie into the sports/games theme, you'll want to remind party guests that they should come dressed for outdoor play. (In other words, leave the fussy party clothes at home.)
Decorations: Create an Olympic-style banner welcoming the athletes (a.k.a. party guests) to your first-ever Backyard Birthday Party Games. If you really want to go all out, you could bring a portable stereo into the backyard and play the theme song from Chariots of Fire or Rocky each time a party guest arrives!
Food: Serve beverages in sports bottles (be sure to write each party guest's name on the bottle so the everyone can keep track of whose drink is whose!) and have a fruit platter that the guests can nibble on in between individual events. Then, when the games are over, wrap up the day with a gala barbecue a make-your-own-sundae bar. (You can stick a birthday candle in the birthday boy or girl's sundae once he's finished heaping on the sprinkles.)
Fun and games: Wondering what types of events to work into your backyard games party? Here are a few ideas to try.
• Pool noodle hockey: Play a game of lawn hockey using pool noodles and a beach ball.
• Four-legged race: Everyone's tried the three-legged race. Why not add a third person and try the four-legged race?
• Shoe scramble: Everyone chucks their shoes in a pile. When the whistle blows, you have to scramble to find your own shoes and get them on your feet. Note: If the game is too easy, try playing the game blindfolded.
• Wheel barrow race: Break into teams of two. The person who is going to be the wheel barrow gets down on his hands and knees. The person who is going to be pushing the wheel barrow supports the other person's feet and the two teammates make their way across the yard, racing against the other teams.
• Sleeping bag or sack race: Each player hops inside a sleeping bag or sack. When the whistle is blown, the players race across the yard by hopping or wiggling their way across the field. (Note: The players may tip over while they're making their way across the yard, so make sure the yard has been cleared of obstacles.)
Loot bags: Look for goodie bag items that tie into the games theme, like balls, pool noodles, and other inexpensive toys that can be enjoyed outdoors.
Etc.: Make sure your first aid kit is fully stocked before the party begins. Hopefully, you won't need it, but it's always best to be prepared when you're planning a birthday party that involves a lot of active outdoor play.
Birthday party #5
Theme: Nature crafts
Here's a new twist to the ever-popular arts and crafts birthday party: why not encourage your child to host a birthday party that focuses on nature crafts? If you really want to go all out with the nature theme, kick the birthday party off with a walk in the woods. That way, the party guests can have fun gathering rocks, pebbles, twigs, and other materials that they'll need for the various nature craft projects.
Location: Outdoors -- walk in woods, outdoors -- backyard
Invitations: Pick up some nature postcards in a nearby stationery store or gift shop and use them as party invitations. Don't forget to remind each guest to wear clothing that is suitable for both a walk in the woods and slightly messy crafts.
Decorations: Since most of the party will be taking place outdoors -- either in the woods or in your backyard -- Mother Nature is handling most of the decorating for you. All you need to pick up is a plastic table cloth to cover the picnic table or other work surface where the party guests will be doing their crafts.
Food: Offer party guests an assortment of sandwiches, veggies with dip, and fresh fruit to nibble on while they're working away. Then, when it's time for everyone to join in the singing of "Happy birthday," bring out a cake that has been decorated with animal tracks.
Fun and games: Depending on how much time you allow for the birthday material and the types of materials you're able to find during your walk, you may want to plan to have your party guests tackle one or more of the following projects:
• Rock Painting: Decorate the rocks using acrylic paints (or, if you prefer, non-toxic permanent markers) and then use spray varnish to seal the resulting creations.
• Bookends: Cover the outside surface of a set of wooden bookends with glue. Then stick pebbles or other small natural objects that you picked up during your nature walk to the bookends.
• Nature Mobile: Twigs, pinecones, acorns, and other items from nature can be transformed into an eye-catching mobile. Simply cross two twigs to form an X" and hang the objects you've collected from the twigs using rope or twine. Then tie a large loop of rope through the centre of your mobile so that your party guests can hang their mobiles from a hook in the ceiling or over a window at home.
Loot bags: Party guests will appreciate receiving some craft supplies that they can use to tackle another nature craft at home -- perhaps a wreath and some ribbon that they could finish decorating with some twigs and pinecones; or a set of blank cards and some clear adhesive sheets that could be used to hold pressed leaves or flowers in place.
Plan to have an assortment of natural materials on hand, just in case your nature walk gets rained out. Otherwise you could end up watching your craft projects get "rained out," too!
Ann Douglas is the author of The Mother of All Toddler Books and The Mother of All Parenting Books. She can be contacted via her website at www.having-a-baby.com.