How to Entertain and Engage Kids at Birthday Parties
The most important thing to remember when planning a birthday party for kids is - duh - to PLAN. If your little darling guests are left to their own devices because you didn't plan enough activities to keep them busy the whole time, rest assured they will find something to do, and chances are you won't like it. The other consideration is that all these ankle biters have parents that you will likely have with you through much of elementary school. You don't want to get a rep as a bad party-giver. That would be a bad thing. But listen up and I will give you my secrets for successful rug-rat party planning.
Activity Activity Activity
If you want to have the party at your home, you can do it. You just have to plan to keep your little partiers busy. The best thing you could do for everybody concerned is to run these curtain-climbers ragged. If you do, they will leave with angelic smiles on their cake-plastered faces and their parents will love you too because the little cupcakes will all go home and want a nap.
But you have to be careful, too, because you don't want any trips to the emergency room with your little treasures.
You can have a very successful party by patterning the affair after the Double Dare Game Show of the 1980s (see link below). Divide your group of little animals into 2 teams and have them engage in such competitions as a race in which partners transport baloons held between their foreheads across the room to fill a large box - whichever team gets the most baloons in the box wins; in the same vein, players transport ping pong balls on plastic spoons held between their teeth to fill a large box on the other side of the room; or a race in which one partner has to get out of a large sweatshirt and the other partner has to get into it, Have an array of very silly prizes for the winners, such as funny hats, or sunglasses with the nose, strings of brightly colored beads, glow-in-the-dark bendable sticks, or plastic Hawaiian leis. For a two-hour party, plan to have around ten such games to occupy their time until cake. Move quickly from game to game so they have no time to be bored.
The actual Double Dare game is based on questions. I think it goes something like this: the moderator asks a question of one team and they have the option to skip their turn, answer it, choose a dare, or choose a double dare. This would be a good game if you knew what questions to ask. We tried questions we thought our third grade crowd could answer and were rewarded with puzzled silence. But playing the game without the questions works out just fine. It does not hurt to keep an eye on how the party is going and to be prepared to improvise or change the rules to help encourage the kiddies to have fun.
If it is a summer party, by all means have it outside. Then you can have games that involve water, suds, shaving cream, mud, all kinds of great stuff kids love. Have them transport suds from a bucket into a plastic trash can across the yard using a toy plastic shovel such as you'd use at the beach. Have the guests wear bathing suits to the party, and at the end, turn on the sprinkler so they can get cleaned off before cake time. Serve the cake on a picnic table in the shade.
Plan to conclude the birthday cake festivities as parents are arriving to collect their wonderful progeny. The down time after the cake tends to be the most problematic. That is why I recommend you always save the cake business with the wish-making and candle-blowing for last.
Change the Venue
If you can afford it, one of the best things you can do is have your party at a place other than your home.
If your herd of little beasties is old enough to pick up a bowling ball, a bowling party is a great idea. Usually the bowling alley will serve pizza. All you have to bring is the cake, and clean-up is completely not your problem!
Roller or ice skating is also good, but the potential for injury is somewhat greater. It's a lot of fun, though. Roller skating rinks usually offer pizza and a place to serve birthday cake. Ice skating rinks usually offer hot chocolate, but the cake thing will have to happen back home.
A trip to the movies is great for kids 6 years old or older, provided you can find a movie appropriate to their demographic. The kids find this satisfying, but it does not really engage them. For the parent it can be a mixed blessing. Between the drive with a car full of other people's kids, the movie, and back to your house for the cake, it can be a long day. I took a bunch of kids to see the Pokémon Movie. I almost did not survive.
Laser tag is fun for kids between the ages of 8 right on up through age 15 or 16. Actually it's kind of fun for adults, too. And, as in roller skating or bowling, the laser tag establishment will doubtless offer pizza and a venue for serving the birthday cake.
An arts and crafts place can be a good choice, such as a place that offers pre-made ceramic sculptures that your kids can glaze. Near our home we have an arts center that does birthday parties wherein the party goers make a project out of different shapes that they glue onto a piece of foam core, or throw a pot on the potter's wheel. Arts and crafts work tables make an ideal place to serve the birthday cake.
You can also do arts projects at home if you have enough indestructable surface to offer your little artists.
Things to Avoid
I recommend discouraging the idea of a sleep-over. Sleep-overs with more than three guests invite the same kind of power struggles the children contend with in school, as they decide who is going to sleep next to whom, when the light should be shut off, etc. Also sleep-overs are very long. What usually happens is that the exhausted adult hosts put the party guests in front of the TV for a few hours before lights out. Whining or bickering is usually the result, as so much inactivity without rest seems to irritate the youngsters. If your child wants a sleep over, tell them they can invite one or three friends over another time. Hint: avoid threesomes, because someone is always the third wheel.
Videos in general are to be discouraged at birthday parties, if for no other reason than they are not special, and they deter engagement. The birthday party is a social occasion and an opportunity for socialization and growth. Don't squander it with the electronic babysitter.
Do not stick with your plans after it becomes apparent they are not working. Be prepared with Plan B. So nobody wants to play your games, your prizes are lame, and fights are breaking out. Make some calls, pack them in the minivan and take them someplace fun. The whole idea is for the kids - especially your kid - to have fun.