Birthday Parties: Picking the Right Theme

J Jordan
March 6, 2014

Birthdays are special, no doubt about that. Regardless of the fact that people the world over have them, that many share one with you or your kids, and that it's only 24 hours out of a whole year, birthdays are the one time when it's okay to feel special, perfect, and like whatever you want to be: a princess, a pirate, or even Lightning McQueen.

For parents, the joy and fun of their own birthdays generally transfers to those of their children. Whatever the parent's favorite birthday was—the place, the theme, the presents—might become the favorite of the child, too. On the other hand, parents also often try to create for their kids the birthday they never had. Obviously, there's a level of achievement in the birthday event arena that can only be capped by imagination and money.

These days, it seems like kids' parties are as complicated, detailed and sometimes as expensive as a wedding! But, does the kid even realize all this effort and cash has been laid out so he can enjoy riding a real pony? Probably not. Likely he will remember the pony, though, for the rest of his life. And perhaps when he has a child of his own he will pass on the tradition. Or, maybe he'll just get a cake with a horse on it (so much more practical!).

So how do you create a memorable birthday for your child—which thereby extends to you, your child's friends, and often your own friends—that is fabulous and doesn't break the bank? Lucky for you, there are several easy options for throwing a great shindig that are mutually enjoyable by all without assuming you'll need to get another credit card.

Many parents find themselves at a loss. For starters, most cannot stand the thought of supporting a brand, even if that brand is the kid's super-ultra-mega-uber-favorite character ever. (You know who I'm talking about: Dora, Diego, anything Disney.) But then parents come up against picking themes or places that are age-appropriate. While we understand a parent's desire to provide a unique experience for their children, keep in mind that often the kid's universe revolves around such a character, at least for now, and buying the hats, plates, napkins and balloons for a birthday is usually pretty inexpensive. It's also generally located in the same place, so if you need a Plan B, and fast, you can usually pop over to the local drugstore and whip up something.

But, OK, so you're refusing to give in to corporate consumerism. We totally hear that. We still advise you to hit the local dollar store to see what's in stock. Whether you have something particular in mind or you're just looking to be inspired, it's truly amazing what you'll turn up in the overstocked aisles. Again, it's inexpensive, and that means you can get a lot for a little. And often there are brand name items that didn't fly off the shelves in the other stores, so now they're half off for you at this one.

Before we get further into this business of themes, the best advice we could give on creating a memorable celebration for your child is actually two things:

1. Planning, planning, planning. Make the time, and take the time, to shop as far in advance as you need, make the phone calls, send out the invites, get the friends and relatives together, or whatever it is.  If you want your child to be happy at her party, then you need to be happy, and you're only going to be happy if everything is the way you want it. That doesn't generally happen when you work on the fly.

2. Don't worry about it. Really. Kids, their friends and their parents don't really notice that you forgot to dust or that you didn't have time to organize the DVDs or that there's a strange stain on the carpet. OK, fine, they might notice it for a moment, but with that many screaming, frolicking kids around, there are sure to be stains, and it will be so hectic no one will have a chance to really mull it over anyway. Relax.

All right. Now that we've agreed to allow for the proper amount of planning and to take this whole thing in stride, let's consider what cool, affordable, fun and memorable options are out there. Personally, we agree with the adage that a picture paints a thousand words (or whatever) so please buy lots of those silly little disposable cameras and let the kids have at them. They're cheap, they're fun, and there's nothing kids like more than playing with something they think belongs to adults. Plus, if one breaks, so be it. And you never know who's going to turn out to be the young photography genius. Pics taken by kids are generally fabulous, often with a little coaching from mom or dad. Plus, the pics can be posted and make nice thank you notes. And, cameras go with any theme or location.

And speaking of location, where is the best place to have the fête? Some would say their home. It's already child-proofed, everyone knows where everything is, and there's easy access to things like changing tables and bathrooms. Others would shudder at the mere thought of unleashing the mini-beasts all over their freshly steamed carpets and hardwood floors. Both have really good points. If you decide to venture outside of your home, the local park is generally free (or close to it; some require a permit for larger parties which can incur a small fee) and a great place to have a party where everyone can play sports and run around without having to worry about breaking anything. Older kids seem to love cookouts and barbecues, as do the parents. Parks often offer things like guided tours that are great for kids and their parents. Often, though, if the weather turns foul, it can force a cancellation.

The zoo is another great option. The zoo can be an actual zoo, or it can be one you create in your own home (which often feels like a zoo anyway). Kids can have their choice of whichever animal they'd like to dress up as, and they can either come in costume or you can provide masks, whiskers and tales. Even better? The kids can create their own masks with paper plates and a few other supplies. Crafty indeed! Then you can provide animal appropriate-snacks—an imitation of what an animal might eat, such as Ants on a Log or Haystacks.

If you're looking for something a tad quieter and perhaps even simpler, also consider having a tea party. You can get as extravagant as committing to a whole Alice in Wonderland theme, or you can go extremely traditional and serve whatever it is you think the Queen would have for her tea. That's actually a great way for kids to learn about another culture, and the finger foods often served at real teas can be fun for kids to try. If you don't want to serve actual tea, try for juice or hot chocolate or lemonade. Those work just as well. Tea doesn't have to be gender-specific either if you go with either of these routes. And, you'd be surprised how many kids really like those little cucumber sandwiches. Go figure.

Another fun idea is an explorer or adventurer theme. There are lots of opportunities for learning with this theme, but when you think of the accoutrements—the binoculars, big hats, magnifying glasses, old maps, a tent in the back yard—it all hangs together in fun. A simple arts-and-crafts project for this theme is making your own treasure map. Kids love it (so do adults). Also, if you dump a little sand in your backyard, you can bury actual treasure in it, and by treasure I mean candy, toys and takeaway bags for your guests.

Themed out? Have everyone meet at your child's favorite place—home, the backyard, the park—have everyone bring a dish, make cupcakes and call it a day. Have the cameras and good conversation at the ready then just hang out. Truthfully, it doesn't matter if you provide a pony or the perfect gift or most amazing theme. What does matter is that a group of loved ones have gathered together to celebrate your child.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

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    over a year ago

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