When Bee Connell decided to have a birthday party in honor of her advancing years, she was extraordinarily outspoken about the theme, venue, and invitation list, which wasn’t that unusual — save for one tiny detail. Little Bee is only 3.
“She knows what she likes,” says Whaley Connell, a local artist who also happens to be Bee’s mother. “She loves balloons and the idea of birthday parties — and was just super excited about having one of her own.”
Bee is Whaley and Barnes Connell’s only child, and this was their first foray into a children’s event set to include more than just immediate family.
“Before, I just did something small at home,” says Whaley. “This was the first time to invite friends and extended family.”
Like anyone who has set out to throw a children’s birthday party, Whaley’s initial challenge was in determining how many children to invite. For very young children, 1 or 2 years of age, having just close family members attend is recommended. For older children, some experts suggest inviting the number of the child’s age plus one. For example, if the child is turning 5, then six invitees might be appropriate. If, however, plenty of adults will be on hand to adequately supervise a larger number, the invitation list could be extended.
Keep in mind that for children in kindergarten and beyond, school policies might already be in place for the number of guests asked and the distribution of invitations. Birthday parties are a very big deal to children, and nearly every first grader’s conversation inevitably focuses on this festive but fretful topic: who is and who isn’t coming, where they are going, what they are doing, whether goody bags will be included, and so on. Be sensitive. If a child wants more than half of the class to attend his or her party, then do some budgeting and invite the entire class, thus sparing the feelings of that handful of children who might not otherwise be invited. Likewise, do not send invitations to school unless everyone in the class is invited. Doing so will inevitably lead to melt-downs, misunderstandings, and more tears and squabbling than any episode of “Real Housewives.”
Whaley had numerous friends and family members attending who could help supervise, so she and Bee decided to invite 10 children to their celebration. While paper invitations should be mailed three to four weeks in advance, Whaley opted for evites, electronic event invitations, that are instantly received, require no postage, make tracking easier, and manage RSVP responses.
“I put the evite out two weeks before the party,” says Whaley. “I thought that, with it being summer, people shouldn’t feel like they needed to stay in town for the party. I wanted it to be more casual — come by if you can and have some fun with us!”
Whether traditional or emailed invitations, include the obvious basics like party venue, date, and the start and end times, as well as other necessary details, such as whether or not special clothing or additional items are required for activities. Whaley requested on the invitation that the children “dress for a mess” since they would be painting and doing arts and crafts. As elementary as it sounds, these little details set the tone for the entire event, and can be helpful to the parents.
“I was hesitant because I had not thrown a big children’s birthday party before,” says Whaley. “And we had just moved into our house and hadn’t yet done any entertaining.”
But because of the sense of security and control it provided, Whaley did ultimately decide to host the party at her home. Invitees were asked to attend from 4 to 6 p.m., which is the recommended two-hour time span for 3 year olds. Younger children are usually equipped to handle brief events, while older kids’ parties might be two to three hours in duration, provided that plenty of activities are available.
When the honoree is under the age of 7, a parent or caregiver is usually expected to stay for the entirety of the party. While making small talk may be awkward with parents you have only ever eyeballed in the preschool car pool line, their attendance is imperative to a smoothly orchestrated, relatively stress-free celebration. For parties feting older offspring, both the child and the parent are no doubt relieved to spend a couple hours apart, especially if no one is nearby monitoring candy or cake consumption. Moms prefer to eat their candy alone.
Most children like to have a birthday theme, such as a pirate or princess party, and while selecting one can actually help in both the development and organization of decorations and activities, you do not need to go overboard. Parents don’t have to create a genuine “Jurassic Park” in the backyard or produce a live unicorn in order for the party to be successful. However, Whaley thought that fully embracing the party theme was a fun challenge, allowing her and Bee to prepare for the party together.
Bee’s theme? A colorful birthday and cake art party!
“I think creating is so important,” says Whaley, “especially at this age. So I wanted a party that was about making art fun.”
Whaley and Bee planned the party theme together. After some brainstorming, Bee decided that she wanted her party to be all about art, birthday parties, and cake. And, because Whaley is an artist, the idea of doing some cake art projects just seemed natural.
“Bee told me she just loves birthday cakes,” says Whaley, “and she wanted to do art projects at her party and show her friends how to paint. That’s how the cake projects came about.”
Children’s parties require some sort of scheduled activity, and counting on kids to “just play” pretty much ensures an afternoon filled with tears, property damage, and alternate exclamations of “I’m bored” and “Joey just whacked Billy with the Hot Wheels track.” Plan party events that are engaging and age appropriate.
For that very first birthday, organized games aren’t suitable, but singing songs and blowing bubbles will be greatly appreciated by tiny guests. Complicated refreshments, such as items containing more than one ingredient, might be enjoyed by adult attendees, but have some simple finger foods ready for the little ones. Presenting two cakes is also a nice touch — one for the guests to enjoy and a small one that is ready to be smashed by the just-turned 1 year old — providing amusing photographic fodder that can embarrass your child for years to come.
Two to 3 year olds enjoy simple games like Simon Says, Duck Duck Goose, and egg hunts, all while consuming handfuls of Goldfish crackers, pretzels and juice boxes. For those in the 3 to 5-year range, scavenger hunts, piñatas, and bounce houses are great ways for youngsters to work off excess amounts of energy.
By age 6, children have typically developed a tremendous desire to spend time with friends, so birthday parties for those 6 to 8 years of age become more than just a great way to spend an afternoon; they are sought-after social events that would put any Jane Austen heroine to shame. The birthday boy or girl will have definite ideas about theme, activities, and menus, so allow the children to have some fun and as much input as possible. Games that present an air of mystery, such as scavenger hunts or guess-the-object contests, go over great at this age, as do magic acts or any sort of pretend play.
“Tweens,” kids age 9 to 12, enjoy gift grabs, “would you rather” tournaments, balloon stomps, bean bag tosses, and anything sporty. Once they officially become teenagers, hormones and a sense of infallibility mean that party supervision needs to be increased, rather than decreased, and while a teenager might want unilaterally to select the venue, events, and party guests, make sure that all the aforementioned pass your parental acceptability test.
Whatever the age, a successful birthday party requires planning and a good schedule to keep the party flowing and the guests engaged and on track. For Bee’s 3-year-old celebration, Whaley wisely provided more activities than her little attendees needed, thus avoiding any lull in the afternoon’s entertainments. Bee’s friends were greeted by a bounce house placed just outside the Connell household.
“You can’t go wrong with a bounce house at this age,” says Whaley. “We had tons of colorful plastic balls inside, and I thought it was a good way to get it started.”
She also constructed a giant cardboard cake to go with Bee’s cake theme, painted white with paper-towel-roll-holder candles, and set it up in the driveway. Jars of pre-mixed paint, bowls of colorful pompoms, and sparkly confetti provided the children with an opportunity to paint and decorate it any way they saw fit.
“They kind of took it upon themselves,” says Whaley. “I didn’t really have to tell them what to do. Some of the children sat there for a good while and really enjoyed it. It was fun!”
Approximately half an hour into the party, Whaley led everyone to toddler sized tables that were covered with brown craft paper, there were individual cardboard mini-cakes set for each child, colorful paints, sparkly glitter, and little cherry-like pompoms.
“It was an invitation for the children to create and to decorate their very own birthday cake. The point was to have fun and make a mess,” she says. “I was very surprised at how well the kids took to the painting activities. I actually thought that was going to be a flop, so I had the bounce house as a backup, but I think it was really successful.”
And newly 3-year-old Bee took her hosting duties very seriously.
“She was definitely helping to herd the kids,” says Whaley. “She was telling them, ‘Come on to the bounce house!’ and ‘This is how you paint a cake!’ She was very much in charge.”
When it was time for refreshments, Whaley, with the help of her mother-in-law, quickly removed all the supplies off the toddler tables and replaced them with a clean tablecloth, birthday hats and noise makers, and of course, cake.
“I wanted to get that in at the end so everybody could leave before a sugar crash,” she says with a laugh.
Whaley enlisted the help of her mother for the preparation of ham biscuits, mini tomato tarts, and fruit cups that could easily be picked up by children but also enjoyed by adults.
When providing snacks for your youngest guests, remember that the amount eaten is typically inversely proportional to the amount of time it took to prepare. Those five-hour, made from scratch, individual cheese soufflés will be primarily ignored, while slap-together-jelly-sandwiches will be wolfed down with gusto.
Tying the party theme into the cake decorations is a nice touch for every celebration, and Bee’s actual birthday cake, the one made of flour and sugar and not of cardboard, was designed by local baker Nicole Storey of Izzabee’s Confectioneries, who used pictures of the plates and napkins to match the motif.
In years gone by, gifts always followed cake, but now many parents are going with a “no gifts, please” alternative. This personal decision needs to be made before the invitations are created and should be discussed with the honoree in order to avoid confusion or disappointment. It is perfectly acceptable to say “no gifts” on the invitation or evite. It is also okay, and quite nice, to request donation items in lieu of gifts.
No mention of gifts on the invitation is social-speak for “please bring a gift you think will be enjoyed.” Then the decision needs to be made as to whether or not the gifts will be opened at the party or later. Again, that is a personal decision, but the age of the attendees might help with that determination. If there is a fear that the guests will get restless or jealous, postpone the gift opening and send thank you notes later. Older children, however, often enjoy watching the reaction of the recipient when the gift they brought is opened.
Whaley opted for the no-gift approach for Bee’s party.
“I think there was so much going on already with the arts and crafts activities,” she says, “and gifts would have just created a little overstimulation.”
Bee’s birthday bash ran seamlessly. Whaley believes that planning, being in tune with the age group, and playing to personal strengths are key to a successful party.
“My mother-in-law is athletic, and when I was planning the party, she told me she hosted an Olympic themed party for her daughter at age 3. I thought, ‘What a smart thing,’ and I took the advice to heart,” she says. “If you love crafts, host an art party. There are just so many ideas.”
And, whenever possible, enlist help.
“Everyone pitched in, which is what I think people do when you are having a small kids’ party,” says Whaley. “The other moms were great. Everyone was so kind and wanted to help. I was very overprepared, and I do think that was helpful.”
When the party was over, the children took home their mini-cake creations as party favors. Many parents still rely on the oft-used goodie bag, but the trend is to get away from bags stuffed with candy, possible allergy-inducing foods, and cheap plastic toys that will inevitably break before guests make it home. A homemade craft, a single jar of bubbles, or sidewalk chalk make nice alternatives, will be enjoyed for a longer period of time, and will certainly be appreciated by any parent who has stepped barefoot on a broken, birthday-party-favor bit of plastic in the middle of the night.
As the guests departed, Whaley finally got a chance to relax and reflect on Bee’s first official birthday party. “Afterward it just felt like, ‘Whew! What a whirlwind,’” says Whaley. “But it went really well and actually exceeded my expectations. It was what birthday parties should be — happy and fun!”
Whaley laughs. “I think she just loved eating the cake!”