Fun, Old-Fashioned Birthday Party Ideas


Today’s post comes to us from Sally yihbntsnhs
Mills Butzin
, the mother half of the mother/daughter writing team  behind Best Buddies Birthdays, a guide to homemade, low-tech b-day parties.

I agree with everything Sally writes below, and yet must confess that when my kids were young we did all sorts of pricey parties, including one at McDonald’s, one at a children’s theater, and one at a bowling alley. (And if you want to know how these turned out: Flood in McDonald’s playroom meant kids had to slosh through stagnant water to get to ball pit. Missing actress meant the kids had to squirm in theater seats for an hour before replacement showed up. And distracted child meant birthday boy ended up in emergency room with finger smashed by bowling ball.) All the more reason to read this corrective post:

Kids’ birthday parties are due for a do-over,by Sally Mills Butzin

When did birthday parties become so expensive and over-the-top? While it may seem easier to hire pricey entertainers and screen first-run movies that match the party theme, these passive activities just exacerbate the inactive lives of so many children glued to screens at home and sitting at desks in school.

As a long-time educator of young children, I know how important it is for kids to engage in active play (and something a little more stimulating than a bounce house). When I hosted birthday parties for my own two daughters years ago, we created backyard fun with treasure hunts, relay races, homemade arcade games, scavenger hunts, hopscotch, and kick-the-can. Many of their grown friends still tell me how much they fondly remember those simple, super fun parties.

As my daughters became mothers and started attending the birthday party circuit with their own children, I asked whether kids still play simple games at parties. “Not much,” was the response I got. It seems that birthday parties now involve scores of kids (and sometimes even parents) watching high-end entertainment and eating elaborate food – sometimes from multiple food trucks. The kids don’t even open their gifts at the party anymore, which is a lost opportunity for showing gratitude.

This really shocked me. So my daughter Charlotte and I decided to buck the trend and put 50 of these simple games into a book (  The key to having a low-cost birthday party is to keep children engaged and successful. The birthday child should select one or two activities that will appeal to the age group and interests of the guests – active games or quiet crafts, for example.

Here are a few rules of thumb for hosting a sane and successful birthday party for a 5- to 10-year old:

  1. Limit the number of guests to no more than the child’s age, and only the child’s best buddies.
  2. Set a two-hour time limit – ample time for games, birthday cake, and gift opening.
  3. Involve each guest with a specific job, such as hand sanitizer-squirter, cake-server, or gift-wrap-collector.
  4. Choose games and activities where every child is actively engaged and feels successful.

Although throwing a homegrown party may sound like a daunting task, it is so worth it when you see the smiles and hear the laughter. Free-Range Kids deserve a liberating, back-to-basics party where they’re actively engaged and having fun on their own terms. —Sally Mills Butzin, co-author of Best Buddies Birthdays


Happier Birthday to You!

Happier Birthday to your kids — and you!



, , , , , , , , , , , ,

51 Responses to Fun, Old-Fashioned Birthday Party Ideas

  1. BL May 11, 2016 at 10:09 am #

    Even at the 5-10 age, I always found birthday parties (my own or anyone’s) to be tiresome and pointless. And that was before the absurd modern expensive ones.

  2. Theresa May 11, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    The only thing is that could stop them from noticing someone that might be a great friend if they gave them a chance. It should about two things the birthday kid and what mom and Dad can afford.

  3. AlanaM May 11, 2016 at 10:41 am #

    I did home birthdays every other year (ie cake, piñata, present opening and games). Sometimes at a park, sometimes at home. I was always nervous but the kids always loved it. (Toss the bean bags, water games, drop the clothes pin, penny toss). Yes everyone got a prize at the end but some got more than others.

    One year my son had a home Beyblades tournament party. He made a stadium out of a giant cardboard box. I didn’t even get to the games because they were playing Beyblades too much. My other son had a home watergun fight party. Again, never got to the games. Inexpensive and fun.

  4. PJH May 11, 2016 at 10:43 am #

    Not to denigrate the thoughts behind the post…

    “…such as hand sanitizer-squirter…”


    No cotton-wool holder, or bubble wrap dispenserer jobs to be handed out?

  5. Vicki Bradley May 11, 2016 at 11:26 am #

    One of my daughter’s best birthday parties, when she turned 10, was having four friends over – they played on the trampoline, spent some time at the park (on their own, of course), decorated cupcakes, made their own personal pizzas, watched a movie, then had a sleep over. Naturally, she opened her gifts in front of her friends, and they all had fun playing with them. The next day, I did take the five girls horseback riding but even that wasn’t too expensive. My kids are now 14 and 16, and I’m so happy the Chucky CHeese birthday parties are over. As a matter of fact, the Chucky Cheese that opened up approx. 5 years ago is now gone – I guess parents got fed up with bad food and expensive games.

  6. Anne May 11, 2016 at 11:30 am #

    Between the ages of five and eight, we always have backyard birthdays with pizza, cake, a piñata, and old-fashioned games like hot potato and pin the tail, with some kind of vague theme like horses. I strongly encourage the parents to leave, and so far they’ve all cooperated. The kids run around and have a great time, and I send them home with plenty of candy from the piñata. All the parties my kids are invited to are at various locations, like the pool or nail salon. They have fun, but it just doesn’t seem like a party.

    In addition to the tips above — Keep things moving and have plenty of easy game ideas ready. Some things will be an unexpected hit while others won’t be — so be flexible and have more ideas than you think you’ll need. We have games with “winners” but simple prizes like leis for everyone. The person who is out in a game like hot potato controls the music for the next round. Our parties are usually outside, but always have a rain plan! Reuse basic game ideas from year to year.

  7. Elsie K May 11, 2016 at 11:37 am #

    A friend of mine told her six year old he could have a party at the last minute and didn’t realize she was already busy that weekend. Her husband told her he could do it and she gave him a list of activities he could do. He assured her everything would be fine.

    The kids made cardboard swords and spent the next two hours slaying the dragon (dad). They never got to any of the other activities. Best party ever. Of course, it helped that the dad is an elementary school principal. I always keep this in the back of my mind. Sometimes simple is best.

  8. lollipoplover May 11, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    “Choose games and activities where every child is actively engaged and feels successful.”

    At the water balloon toss?

    I am a cheapskate for birthdays and parties and feel less is more, but the title of this article and the *rules* listed for parties kind of contradict each other. These seem like parties led and controlled by adults under the guise of an old-fashioned childhood birthday. My mom never gave my friends specific jobs. We just ate cake. There were no other parents at the parties nor did we open gifts.

    And why a 2 hour limit? What about sleepovers? My youngest is the only one who asked for a birthday party this year. She wants a sleepover with her friends. They want to have a cupcake wars type competition and bake her birthday cupcakes. That’s it. This will probably cost under 20 bucks for baking supplies and breaks all of the *rules* for a party as I don’t plan on being involved except to taste test the winning cupcakes.

  9. Roger the Shrubber May 11, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    We are fortunate to have a large usable yard. Birthday parties consist of 6-8 friends coming over and having a run of the place. They seem to be able to entertain themselves and have a good time.

  10. Roger the Shrubber May 11, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    I have a bigger issue with the extravagant birthday parties for teenagers.

  11. Donna May 11, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

    We’ve had a both home and location birthday parties and my kid likes them both. What we do just depends on what my kid wants to do that particular year. Her favorite birthday party so far has been the backyard pool party when we were in A. Samoa, but that is because pool parties don’t happen at the end of October, even in Georgia, so it was a once-in-a-childhood event.

    That said, I very much prefer location birthdays to home birthday parties. I don’t have to come up with activities or clean my house or worry about the weather (which can be very flaky that time of year) or deal with the dogs or single-handedly wrangle 15 young kids. Now that my daughter is older, home parties are fine, but I found the home ones more stressful and much more work at her younger ages.

  12. Meagan May 11, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

    We always just have parties in our home: cake, presents, kids playing. I don’t even organize activities because the kids just want to run around and play. Imagine that!

    I’m too lazy to plan an elaborate party. It seems to work for our kids.

  13. BL May 11, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

    “My other son had a home watergun fight party.”

    A gun? Don’t they have triggers?

    We need a trigger warning!

  14. JulieC May 11, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do a kid’s party, but I did draw the line at spending silly amounts of money.

    Having a party in your backyard is great if you a) have enough space and b) have cooperative weather. Both of my kids have winter birthdays which in California means the rainy season. I am not going to have 12 kids running in and out of my house during a rainstorm and bringing mud back in the house. Sorry. Not gonna happen.

    We had some great birthdays at a karate studio, an indoor floor hockey place (part of a parks & recreation program), etc. The best part was all I had to do was bring a cake and some water and balloons and the staff did the rest.

    My older son went to a preschool with a couple of kids from wealthy families. One of them threw a party for her four year old featuring, I kid you not, waiters in uniform passing food around and about five different “activities” including a pony ride, face painting by a princess, etc. Too funny!

  15. Dave May 11, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    I think birthday parties are largely driven by culture, and the traditions vary widely across the country. I grew up in a heavily Jewish area of Connecticut. The non-Jewish kids’ birthday parties were pretty run of the mill, but the Jewish kids and their moms seemed to be locked in a one-upsmanship battle that escalated with each birthday party and barmitzvah. As a kid, I could never figure out why any birthday was worth that kind of expense or hooplah. Ponies, magicians, dog acts, petting zoos, gymnasts, costumes, pinatas the size of small cars, caterers, etc. One mom tried to get an elephant (or so her son said). It was all highly organized and structured, but we kids often had other ideas and left the moms rather frustrated in their attempts to keep us on their agenda. There was competition on the gift front, too. If your gift wasn’t appropriately over the top, your standing as a friend often (not always) suffered, often due to pressure from the birthday child’s mom. It got to the point by age nine I just politely declined all party invitations. My Scottish mom stopped doing real birthday parties for my brothers and me when we were six.

    My own son’s parties in the 90s consisted of a half dozen school friends playing in the pool and backyard for the afternoon, only loosely supervised from the kitchen window, with cake and ice cream and sometimes burgers on the grill. Gifts were limited in value to $10 in the invitation. It was fun, low stress, and inexpensive for all.

  16. HM May 11, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    All of this presumes one has a backyard. We live with my twins in an apartment in Los Angeles. We’d love to do a party at the park but our kids were born in late November, so the vagaries of the weather prevent us from doing so. Everyone we know lives in an apartment. Those of us who do have the “expensive” party at a venue do so out of a lack of other options and the space to accommodate an entire kinder class 🙁

  17. Felicia Gomez May 11, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

    Or – you can have a few friends over, have a pool party with pizza and cake, no party favors and allow the kids to entertain themselves….that is what we do – and the kids love it….

  18. Rachel May 11, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    Great – love it – we always do low-key parties but I have to admit I often feel nervous about it – many of the parties my kids attend are the grand entertaining bashes – even if you know kids only need simple stuff to have fun, it can be hard to keep perspective, as I bring out my lopsided cake, survey the messy, simple crafts that I let the kids take-over, lead games of freeze dance just like the year before, and the year before…to me that’s a party! And the kids have fun…it’s almost the other parents’ judgment I fear the most…

  19. Emily May 11, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

    Does anyone else remember a book from the 80’s called Giggles to Gumdrops? My mom threw many, many “homemade” birthday parties for me and my brother over the years, and that book was her inspiration. Here’s a link:

  20. fred schueler May 11, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    In Connecticut in the 1960s our tradition was that the birthday person (parent or child) got to dictate the family menu for the day, and in my case at least, as often as possible we did a ‘big day’ of trying to identify as many Birds as we could. I can’t recall any parties.

  21. Wendy W May 11, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    I guess I’d fall in the middle somewhere. No big bashes at outside venues, and no extravagant hired things like princesses and bounce houses. Always home (or local park) parties, and with goody bags, homemade cake, and planned games, all in a matching theme. Oldest and youngest in summer, middle child in MN winter. Homeschooling eliminated the pressure to invite an entire class to the party, but increased the pressure to invite all the same-age kids of our close-knit circle of friends. Not a problem except for one kid whose mother was a good friend of mine, but whom all the boys hated. I was SO glad the first time my son was not invited to his b-day, so we could not invite him with a clear conscience! There were almost always other moms present as we were good friends and it was an excuse to hang out together, as well as providing an extra pair of hands and eyes.

    I enjoy planning such parties, to the point where I seriously considered turning that type of party-planning into a business. I think it’s fun to come up with games and decorations that all fit a theme. Flexibility is definitely required. One year for my winter boy we planned an outside party involving broomball and foot races on the neighborhood pond. We woke up to -20 temps with -40 windchills. Even Minnesotans aren’t THAT hardy! We had 2 hours between church and party time to clean the basement and come up with indoor games.

    Our friends’ parties were usually similar, or held at local venues such as the bowling alley or gymnastics gym. Nobody I know ever went for the over-the-top options, and many just do family parties with grandparents and cousins.

  22. M. May 11, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    Personally I love doing birthday parties for my kids, I have a blast doing it and it’s my one big creative outlet every year. I do everything diy, from the invites to the food and decor, and I love coming up with cheap creative ways to work everything into a theme. The parties are always at my house, tho I have considered goung to a park instead to limit the mess and keep all the kids out of my kids’ room…last year it looked like a tornado came through. The biggest problem I’ve had is actually having kids show up…last year, for my son’s 4th (superhero theme), I invited 15 kids from his class and only 2 showed up (or even rsvp’d!). This year (star wars theme) I’m inviting 20, hopefully we get a bit of a better showing.

  23. Jessica May 11, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    The one party I’ve thrown I deliberately set up to be easy (and I was still exhausted – parties are not my thing). It was dinosaur themed, so I hid baking soda dinosaur eggs around the yard with a table to “hatch” them (spray bottles with vinegar), a long table with butcher paper, markers, stencils, and stamps, and a kiddie pool filled with sand and play dino skeletons and paintbrushes. All of the food was finger food and nothing had to be explained. The kids had a great time and the parents got to visit. I personally don’t care for parties where the adults have to be actively involved (and yeah, hand-sanitizer squirter sounds beyond ridiculous). Let the kids play – that’s what they want to do anyway.

  24. lollipoplover May 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

    Our top DIY parties:

    Backyard camping.
    Set up tent, cook all food outdoors over large fire (hot dogs, corn on the cob, s’mores) and do an evening scavenger hunt in the dark (we used light sticks to hide clues). Tell ghost stories and sneak out later to scare them!
    (This one has been repeated for one kid several years.)

    Water party (for our summer birthdays)
    Water balloons, water slides, water supersoakers, kiddie pool games, water ice to eat, etc.

    Indoor beach party (especially fun in winter).
    Blow up beach balls, wear bathing suits and lay on beach towels, blast the Beach Boys, eat popsicles and drink fruity drinks with umbrellas.

    We’ve also had parties at venues but I am a cheap, and don’t really think a 5 year-old appreciates a catered affair. Open ice skate (like $6 a kid) where you can bring a box of hot chocolate and marshmallows and a bunch of cupcakes is great. We’ve also done paint ball skirmishes (no food, just extra ammo!) and parks where we just set up in a covered area. Depends on the kid and whether or not I can get my house clean or the futility of doing it.

  25. Shannon May 11, 2016 at 1:53 pm #

    Happy to say we are having a good old fashioned birthday party at home for my daughter this weekend. And she’s very excited! She’s been planning outdoor games with stuff we already have, and we’re doing pizza and cake. Fun and easy.

  26. Trey May 11, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Best parties we’ve had have been where we took about 10 kids (have to include best friends little siblings) and went and did something. Most recently, a group archery lesson, but also horseback riding and a hike at a nature center.
    Parents are welcome to give it a try as well. Everyone has a blast.
    My 9 year old daughter wants her next one to be either at a shooting range or at an indoor parachute/wind tunnel thing.

  27. Michelle May 11, 2016 at 3:01 pm #

    This even seems over the top to me. The birthday parties of my youth did not involve parents arranging games for us, and neither do the ones my kids have. We take them to the park, or the pool, or someone’s backyard, and we tell them to go play. They run around and have fun with their friends / siblings / cousins. Then we sing happy birthday and cut the cake. Then gifts, and then more playing. They have so much fun they don’t want to go home, and the parents don’t have to create the fun for them.

    Sometimes when they are older we go somewhere that actually has an entrance fee, like the jump place at the mall. But then they get a bit older and want to go back to just having a party at someone’s house, but running around and playing becomes sitting around and talking. We just had a surprise party for my 18yo, which consisted of cake and lots of friends showing up at a house where she thought she was going to be babysitting. My friend’s daughter had her 21st a couple of weeks later, and that was just dinner and a campfire in her backyard.

  28. Donna May 11, 2016 at 3:33 pm #

    While we’ve had and been to many birthdays at various venues around town, but none have been catered affairs. It is just cake and maybe pizza if the party is close to a meal time. Catered parties for kids are definitely outside my socio-economic level.

    My birthday parties were almost always home parties, but I also am not a big birthday party person and I had my last birthday party at 12. I only remember my brother having one home party. My parents rented a pool and had a pool party for him for many years.

  29. andy May 11, 2016 at 3:57 pm #

    I thought people go to venues for kids birthdays because it is less work and less cleaning afterwards. You pick up the place and pay for it, you don’t have to be organize all details nor decide what you don’t care about. Popular venues for birthday parties here are indoor playgrounds where they mix organized program and free play time. When I have seen how wild packs of kids run around there, I was sure I don’t want to have such pack running at home.

    We haven’t organized birthday party there, we do them more traditionally – like family affair – grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles and so on.

    The simple party described in article seems like more work then I am willing to put into birthday party.

    “As a long-time educator of young children, I know how important it is for kids to engage in active play (and something a little more stimulating than a bounce house).”

    Besides, it is birthday party, we don’t have to frame everything in important educational terms. Maybe bounce house is not the most stimulating thing in the world, but it is fun and kids like it. If it is expensive I wont pay for it, if it is cheap I will. I refuse to worry that 10 minutes spent there were not stimulating to the maximum.

  30. Jessie May 11, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    Probably the hardest thing about throwing my son’s (simple, low budget) parties is fielding constant texts from moms asking what ingredients are in the cake, who else is coming, could I please give their son his melatonin at 9pm, what time did they to sleep, are they having fun, etc!

  31. Mike May 11, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

    This is what may happen if you hire professional entertainers for a child’s birthday party.

  32. Beth May 11, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    Maybe it’s a geographical thing, not opening the presents at the party? I have never heard of that.

    And @Jessie, not to mention the parents wanting to stay at the party. My gosh, all the kids invited to our house had parents that I knew and knew us; we weren’t going to bring out the machetes or play “throw-your-friend-down-the-stairs”. But yet, most parents expected to bring their child to the party and stay for the party. (And no, they didn’t live far away.) It was enough entertaining the kids, and my plans did not include anyone else.

  33. Jennifer May 11, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    Hand sanitizer squirter? God forbid kids eat cake without killing all the bacteria on their hands first. Come on!

  34. Ater May 11, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Shit, I’ve got my 2 year old’s birthday in a couple days and I didn’t realize I was supposed to entertain them (guests aged 3-10). Shouldn’t they do that themselves?

  35. Stephanie F May 11, 2016 at 11:22 pm #

    Still sounds too complex for me. We do parties at home. I provide cake, snacks and drinks, the kids figure out what they want to play on their own. I just call them over at an appropriate time for cake or to open presents… if they don’t ask on their own first.

    We have a smallish air hockey table and a foosball table and those have turned out to be the best for birthday parties. Even at my 7 year old’s birthday party, the kids spent the most time with those, and there was barely a mess to clean up after the party. We’re lucky to have room for those tables, but frankly they were some of our best purchases for that reason.

  36. Katie G May 12, 2016 at 6:59 am #

    How about getting people to RESPOND to the invitations?!!

  37. Buffy May 12, 2016 at 8:33 am #

    @Ater. so … they just get the run of the place? No toys, activities, or games available, no food planned? Entertaining takes many forms.

  38. Stacey Gordon May 12, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    I think we need to get past the notion that every minute of kids’ lives needs to be some sort of Disny-fied, magical, whimsical, marketing bullsh*t moment.

    At the center of everything, whether it’s over celebration of a birthday, elaborate decoration of a nursery, organized sports for kids too young to even know what the hell they are doing, is an industry that profits. Everything is a Kodak moment and with the advent of social media, it has only become more frantic. Look Look, look what my little Johnny or Sally can do. Attention Attention. Feed the beast.

    They have brainwashed parents into thinking that these things are necessary for children. They are not.
    They have imposed an adults notion of what they all wished their imaginary childhoods could have been like if their parents had only been more engaged, and creative and blah blah blah.

    The madness needs to stop.

  39. BL May 12, 2016 at 8:51 am #

    @Stacey Gordon
    “They have imposed an adults notion of what they all wished their imaginary childhoods could have been like if their parents had only been more engaged, and creative and blah blah blah.”

    I’m glad I had the “free-range” childhood I actually had in real life and not the least bit sorry I’m not a kid today. Why anyone would think a constantly-scheduled Disneyfest, or overorganized sports, would be better, is beyond me.

    Besides, I never liked Disney cartoons as a kid. Warner Brothers, yes. Hanna-Barbera, yes. Not Disney.

  40. Stacey Gordon May 12, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    Hehehe.. Yea, I always thought Bugs Bunny could kick Mickey’s @ss any day of the week… To answer your question:

    “Why anyone would think a constantly-scheduled Disneyfest, or overorganized sports, would be better, is beyond me.”

    It is simple. Because you have to buy stuff for those things. That is the key. Every other week at school is some dress up like some movie character or book character theme. Imagine doing that when we were kids? There was no place to buy a costume too look exactly like a movie character. Now there is. Imagine that?
    Party themes? Available for purchase at Party Schity… and so on…

  41. CrazyCatLady May 12, 2016 at 9:26 am #

    I have two kids with birthdays in December, and one in May. When we lived in Montana….we took the camper (and old school bus) and went sledding and had coco. When we moved to CA, we did the park or played at my house, outside as weather permitted. I did make gingerbread houses for the kids to decorate a couple of times, and we did Popsicle stick bean launchers at another. Mostly….it was the park or as they have gotten older, one or two friends over and maybe a trip to the movies.

    When they were little and we were poor college students, (and being in CA helped) we did “Green” birthdays. I asked that people give my kids an outgrown game, a used book or something along that lines rather than buying something new. Some people still always brought new, but the coolest things were most certainly the hand-me-downs that were given to my kids. I did this because our community of friends was small, the birthdays were near the holidays and I really wanted people to spend their money on things for their own families. (Some families really didn’t have the money but had been gifted lots of toys when what they really needed was some cash for the rent or food.) It was mainly the same group of kids for both of my kids.

  42. lollipoplover May 12, 2016 at 10:24 am #

    “I think we need to get past the notion that every minute of kids’ lives needs to be some sort of Disney-fied, magical, whimsical, marketing bullsh*t moment.”

    I take issue with calling this an old-fashioned childhood-type party that is hyper-scheduled to pack adult-led activities into 2.0 hours with cake and presents. That’s as modern day helicopter as they come.

    I do like birthday parties and family traditions but with 3 kids, we need to divide attention, energy, and money to many different things and historically the less complex the party, the better the time. I almost feel like singing the song “Low Expectations” around birthdays as they wind up happier and pleasantly surprised with unplanned and unexpected fun vs. highly planned activities. Anyone who has purchased an overpriced pinata from Party Sh*ty understands this.

    For one of my son’s birthdays, we got the extra-large party pack of red Solo cups for them to build giant pyramids than crash them on bikes, skateboards, and scooters. It kept them occupied the whole time.
    They did not want adults to play games. They made up their own games.
    Which was good because I was nursing a newborn and chasing a naughty toddler. I fed them, they weren’t interested in opening presents, they just wanted to stack Solo cups. So I let them do this the whole time.

  43. Emily May 12, 2016 at 10:43 am #

    >>Anyone who has purchased an overpriced pinata from Party Sh*ty understands this.<<

    Does anyone else here really hate the concept of a piñata? First, you buy (or maybe even make) something for the express purpose of having a gaggle of kids smash it to get to the candy inside, and then there's always a fight over the candy. Second, a lot of pinatas on the market are "character" pinatas. So, suppose the birthday kid is a big fan of, say, Big Bird. Party day comes, and there's a Big Bird piñata hanging in the yard, which the kids are all supposed to attempt to smash with sticks. However, if, instead of a Big Bird piñata, the birthday kid's parents got an actor playing Big Bird to attend the party, the kids would probably all run and hug and kiss him, and want pictures taken for later. Actually, it'd be even more ironic if they had both at the same party, with the kids being all affectionate with their beloved character in person one moment, and then smashing that character's likeness the next.

  44. TeacherJR May 12, 2016 at 11:40 am #

    @Emily –

    LOL! Never thought of it that way. I live deep in the Southwest, where Hispanic traditions are the name of the game. The family all goes to the park, the kids run around and entertain themselves while the adults sit and talk, and every party has a pinata and a jumping castle.

  45. lollipoplover May 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm #


    I have a photo of my daughter at a friend’s party where they decimated an Elmo pinata and she did not want any part of the bloodbath to get candy, she wanted the HEAD of Elmo that was left from the pinata. I’m pretty sure we took it home! I have weird kids…

  46. Suleymania May 12, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    “Sometimes even parents”?

    There must be something in the water in our town because here it’s always parents. And except for my wife and I, who alternate parties, it’s almost always both parents of each child guest. One party I took my son to a few months ago was at an indoor trampoline kind of place, and because it was near a mall and I needed to do some Christmas shopping, upon arrival I asked the host if it was a drop off party. She looked at me as if I were speaking Japanese. She didn’t even respond. At another party (at which I was conspicuously absent), my wife floated the idea of our son’s next (seventh) birthday being a drop off party and she reported that the moms practically fainted.

  47. lollipoplover May 12, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    “One party I took my son to a few months ago was at an indoor trampoline kind of place, and because it was near a mall and I needed to do some Christmas shopping, upon arrival I asked the host if it was a drop off party. She looked at me as if I were speaking Japanese. She didn’t even respond.”

    How rude. Our closest indoor trampoline place is 40 minutes away. Add that each way to 2.0 hour party and you’re basically asking parents to give up 4 hours of their Saturday to Look at me!!! LOOK AT ME!!!
    Yeah, no thanks. I’d rather have bees in my hair.

    I would clarify if it’s a drop-off party ahead of time. Around here, after age 6 or 7, they are all drop off parties unless they are doing a family thing at someone’s house and they whipped up a nice pitcher of sangria for us adults to enjoy while the kids play on their own. Both parents stay? Do they not have hobbies, interests, errands and chores outside of watching kids bounce?

    The craziest party my daughter went to was when she was 5 (and still in a booster seat) and invited to one of those Sweet and Sassy kiddie spa partie T he girls were taken to the spa in a limo (parents weren’t invited) from the house. I was close to asking them if there were seatbelts in the limo (my daughter begged me to go for the ride) but decided against it and let her go. She loved the limo, the spa not so much, but liked having her nails painted and doing things I normally don’t do with her(my nails are destroyed from hours in the garden). She came home saying this friend had a *fancy* mom (we were very into the Fancy Nancy books at this time) and enjoyed the experience Personally, if I had a limo for the day, I would NOT take a bunch of 5 year-olds for toddlers and tiara treatments and instead enjoy a cafe crawl through the city.
    Different strokes for different folks.

  48. Havva May 12, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    I don’t know if opening/not opening is a regional quirk as Beth suggested. Opening the presents at the party was just part of the schedule that kids expected when I was a kid on the west coast. But now that I have a kid on the east coast it is just not done. My understanding is that around here it has generally come to be seen as a rudeness. I was a bit surprised by the notion, but I came around very quickly. Our experience with opening presents afterward has been quite positive. First of all there is more time to play, which got my daughter to drop the request the one time she asked about opening presents during the party. Most importantly, I think, it puts material possessions a distant second to relationships and play. It avoids comparing of gifts, and reactions to gifts. And when the kid is feeling let down and lonely after all the friends have left, it the presents can be pulled out as both a wind down activity and a positive reminder that their friends love them, even after they leave. It also lets the child take time to play with and appreciate each gift as it is open. And then there is the learning to show gratitude angle.

    I truly do get the author’s instinct that saving the present opening for later “is a lost opportunity for showing gratitude.” It was my first thought too. But experience has shown that it doesn’t seem to be true, courtesy of the thank you note. I dare say the process brings out the better angels of a child’s nature.

    After my daughter’s most recent birthday she unwrapped a present from one of her best friends and promptly declared “I hate it!” Unlike if her friend heard that, I knew it couldn’t be true. We had a copy and she loves it. I thought immediately of what I would have been dealing with if she had said it at the party. Trying to quickly correct. Help the friend feel better. All the other kids wanting their presents opened now. I could almost feel myself falling back on “you don’t mean that, say thank you” and I was so glad it was a private moment and that useless phrase could be dispensed with. Privately it was very easy to teach gratitude. We discussed how much she plays that game, and how much more she would play it if she could. She clarified that she didn’t want two of them, and I assured her that it could be exchanged, and that her friend was trying to make her happy. We talked about how it would feel if a friend said “I hate it!” about your gift, and how embarrassed they might feel if we told them we traded it in. We talked about how we could, and should, still show gratitude. We focused on what a fun game it is, and wrote a thank you note that said how much she loves playing that game with daddy. In a burst of understanding the spirit of gratitude she asked me to add that she would like to play that game with her friend. Rather than having a painful tiff to deal with, and sour feelings about the ‘bad’ present, she ended up with the joyous realization that her friend probably gave it, because she also likes the same game. On Monday my daughter went to preschool eager to share that joy. It wasn’t the first time a few moments of thought rescued a ‘bad’ present and created actual joy.

    We still have adults in our life who ask her if she wouldn’t like to open presents right away, and we let her do that with them. But unlike me as a child, she doesn’t seem to feel the compulsion to give an initial impression. In fact she seems quite free to be confused, and withhold judgement. When she really is overwhelmed by the urge to say something negative, she whispers it in my ear. Letting me treat it as though she said “what is it?” or “what does it do?” It doesn’t take long for her to find joy in the gift, and when she dose she shares that joy freely, and thanks wonderfully. Weather she is inherently a kinder person than me, or weather the gratitude coaching of writing thank you notes has set radically different expectations, I’m pretty sure she hasn’t lost the opportunity for showing gratitude.

  49. Emily May 12, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    @Havva–What a great story about teaching your child gratitude. Anyway, what I got from that was, there’s really no one singular formula for throwing the “perfect” child’s birthday party, because every child is different. Some kids don’t have the attention span for parties longer than two hours, and some do. Some kids like sleepovers, and some don’t. Some kids like active parties, others are more into movie parties, or spa parties, or fancy dress tea parties, or video game marathon parties……and some kids prefer to open gifts at the party, and others don’t. Honestly, I wouldn’t make a hard-and-fast rule about that, because there are so many variables at play–the preferences of the birthday kid, the maturity of the guests, whether or not there’s significant income disparity among the guests (so as not to embarrass the one kid who didn’t bring anything, or brought something smaller than what most of the other guests brought), and of course, the timing of the party. If the kids are blissed out in the swimming pool or on the trampoline, or slow to finish their cake and ice cream, I’d just leave them be. If they’ve burned through all the planned activities and getting bored, then yeah, sure, I’d consider opening gifts if I knew it wouldn’t lead to a meltdown. My point is, so much of Free-Range Kids is “Trust yourself. You know your own kid(s), so make your own decisions for/with them, rather than letting some outside force tell you what to do all the time.” So, nobody should put too much stock in what some “old-fashioned birthday party expert” says, even if it’s well-intentioned.

  50. E May 12, 2016 at 3:58 pm #

    I grew up not ever having a birthday party (aside from cake with my siblings).

    My kids had parties at 1 (if you want to call it that, basically some family came over), 5 and 10 (not 5 thru 10, ages 5 and 10). I think my youngest didn’t even end up having one for his 10th birthday.

    I never felt pressured to have big parties for them because I didn’t feel like hosting them. I told them from the get go they could have parties at 5 and 10 and we all survived.

    (I got the idea from a coworker who had 4 kids and said there was no way they were having 4 bday parties a year).

  51. bluebird of bitterness May 12, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

    The ultimate birthday party planning guide: