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PLANNING THE PERFECT BIRTHDAY BASH

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by Katrina L. Cassel

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Does the thought of entertaining 10 preschool children send you into a panic? How about 10 nine-year-old-boys? Planning the perfect birthday party can unnerve the most organized of parents. Here are some ideas to help you plan that special day without feeling overly stressed:

What kind of party?
—Decide if the party will be at home or away. If you have a small house or apartment or it isn't child- or teen-proof, you may want to have the party at the gymnastics facility, pizza place, skating rink, or bowling alley. If you have a big yard where you can have a barbecue or set up games, you might want to host the party yourself. Have a back-up plan in case of rain.

—How many children do you want to invite? Some parents use the rule of one child per candle on the cake. Others invite the whole school class. Decide how many children your budget and your nerves can handle.

—Determine your party budget. You’ll pay by the person at pizza places, skating rinks and other venues. The good news is that the cost may include everything — cake, entertainment, and a party bag.

—Decide on the theme. Let your child help you plan. For younger children, pick a theme and plan simple games around it. If you choose a Blues Clues theme, make everything blue — pin the tail on a blue dog; play games with blue balloons. For an around-the-world party, have the children come dressed as though they were from another country. Make cardboard passports and provide stickers for different countries. Party goodies could be souvenirs from each country — plastic sunglasses for the USA, fans for Asia, and so on.  Make the cake to look like a globe. Older children might want a theme based on a reality show, or a mystery to solve.

—Keep the party short. For preschool children, an hour-and-a-half is long enough. Plan parties for the morning before nap time. School-aged parties shouldn't be more than three hours long, unless you're planning a slumber party.

Planning
—Once you've decided on the number of guests, the budget, and the theme, make a shopping list. What food, party favors, and place settings do you need? What do you need for games? What will go in the party bags? Make your first stop the dollar store. You can often find the same items as you would at a party shop.

—Line up entertainment if this is in your budget. Ask for and check references before hiring a magician, clown or other entertainer. The cheapest entertainment isn't always the best. The most expensive one may not be the best, either. Ask other moms for their recommendations.

—If you're having the party away from home, book it well in advance. You may get a better deal if you have the party Monday-Thursday, rather than on the weekend.

—Consider hiring your babysitter to help with the party if it's for younger children. She can help supervise games, serve refreshments, and trouble shoot. Parents may also volunteer to stay and help.

—Plan plenty of short games. Plan more than you think you'll need in case a game goes more quickly than you expect, or flops. Have a favorite DVD ready for extra time.

—Make sure the invitation gives all the important details. Follow up with phone calls if you feel it necessary.

—Have a few extra treats in case someone shows up you didn't plan on. A parent may forget to RSVP, or a sibling may tag along. A prize may get broken or a cupcake dropped.

—If you don't know all the children personally, check ahead for food allergies. Nothing is worse than having a 4-year-old come to a party and not be able to eat the cake or drink the punch.

Party Day
—Don't worry about having a spotless house. Children don't care if the bathroom is sparkling or the carpet freshly steam cleaned. They're there for the fun and treats. Just tidy up and save your energy for the party.

—Pick up the cake early. Check that you have enough treats, plastic silverware, and plates.

—Be flexible and plan for the unexpected. Keep a sense of humor. The point of the party is to have fun, not to have everything perfect. Someone will spill a drink. A plastic prize will get stepped on and broken. Deal with it, and move on.

—Have a video playing or a craft set out to entertain early guests.

—Open the gifts at the party and have the birthday child thank everyone. You might want to use a digital camera or Polaroid and take pictures of your child with each gift giver and their gift. Send the picture home with a quick ‘thank you’ written on it.

—Have a final fun send-off activity to keep partygoers occupied while they’re waiting to be picked up.


PARTY IDEAS & THEMES

Magicians, clowns, other entertainers: These are usually a hit, but don't hire anyone  without meeting them first and checking references.

Art/Craft Parties: You can purchase simple craft supplies and kits for home, or pay for a certain number of children to make a project at a craft store.

Cooking Parties: This can be as simple as decorating cupcakes or as elaborate as preparing specialty food together.

Live Animal Parties: Meet at the zoo or hire someone to bring the animals to you. Check references and safety issues ahead of time.

Science Parties: Get a book of simple science experiments and set them up around the kitchen or bathroom. Turn the geniuses loose.

Storybook/Dress-up Parties: Either have little ones come dressed in a certain theme —favorite character, prince or princess, zoo animal — or have dress-up clothes available. Take pictures on a digital camera or Polaroid that you can send home with them.

Tea Parties: Tea parties and teddy bear tea parties are popular for the youngest party goers. School-aged girls sometimes enjoy a more formal tea party fashioned after an adult affair.

Detective Parties: School-aged children will enjoy finding clues and solving a mystery — especially if it results in treats at the end.

PARTY IDEAS FOR PRETEENS

Crafts parties:
More elaborate crafts such as ceramics or pottery can be done at home or at a craft shop.

Sports facility parties: Gymnastics, swimming, roller skating, ice skating, and bowling parties can be hosted at the appropriate facility.

Makeover parties: Hire a beautician to come to your house and give make-up and hair styling tips. Get parental permission before making permanent changes to hair. Many salons now host girls’ parties.

Sleep over parties: Limit it to one gender. Provide lots of snacks and appropriate DVDs and let them make their own fun.

Hired entertainment: This age group is harder to please than the younger group so make sure bands, magicians or other entertainers are familiar with what preteens like and want.

Scavenger Hunt: Divide into teams and give each team a list of items to find. Have prizes for winners and losers alike.

Video arcades or other entertainment complexes: Video games, laser tag, simulations or virtual reality games are a big hit with the guys, but can empty your pockets in a hurry. Save this for a special birthday.

Special trip: Trips to a special event or tourist site offer a change of pace for older children.


KATRINA CASSEL, M.Ed., is a mother of six and author of several advice books for kids.


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