It's the Big 0-3
June 3, 2011 12:22 PM   Subscribe

What are the basics of a birthday party (with lunch) for a 3-year old?

I'm hosting a birthday party for my 3-year old but it occurs to me that having never been to a kid's birthday party since I was a child 40 years ago, the rules and expectations may have changed. The party is from 11-2 on a Sunday, which was chosen in case her invited friend have naps to work around. So we'll be feeding the kids lunch.

I expect that there will be about 4-5 other kids from 2-4 years old along with their parents. A few are friends who have kids of a similar age and a few are kids from daycare. So not everyone knows each other but I don't imagine that's a big deal.

We're not hiring entertainers or getting a bouncy house or anything fancy like that. We're having cake and ice cream and that parts seems fairly self-explanatory. We'll probably do that after lunch and at the end of the party by 1pm.

Specific concerns:

1. Should I plan an activity for the kids? I'm sure they'll be fine just running around playing but do people usually orchestrate the party a bit more at this age?

2. What are some good, easy lunch choices that can hopefully appeal to parents and kids? I know what we would eat on a normal lunch routine obviously but should I go beyond lunch meat, cheese, and fruit?

3. Do I need to provide good bags for the kids to take home?

4. Should we open the presents at the party or wait until the guests have left?

5. Do I send thank you notes on behalf of my child to those who attend?

Are there big no-nos for kids birthday parties these days or things that everyone does now that I have no clue about?
posted by otherwordlyglow to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just did this, although planned it for after lunch.

Yes please have activities planned! Multiples of toys are great to avoid fighting over individual ones. We opened gifts at ours and provided gift bags. Give the gift bags as they leave. We sent cute thank you notes in our daughters voice.
posted by Big_B at 12:30 PM on June 3, 2011

1. Absolutely. At that age, you want to keep them occupied. Come up with some fun games.

2. Keep it simple. Lunch meat would be fine.

3. They're always nice to get and needn't be expensive. Avoid bogging them down with a ton of candy, though.

4. At the party. It's part of the fun that the gifters get to see the reaction of the giftees.

5. Yes, absolutely. People who gift a gift should always be formally thanked.
posted by inturnaround at 12:35 PM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: I've been to a lot of 2 & 3 & 4 year olds' birthday parties and they almost never open the gifts there. I'd recommend against it as it can be disappointing, confusing, monotonous, and easy to lose track of who gave what. I'd err on the side of politeness and send thank you notes. As far as big no-nos, I'd just be cautious of loading them up on tons of sugar (cake, ice cream, juice, candy, etc). Healthy snacks & savory alternatives maybe. I'd vote for maybe one organized activity at this age. It can be not-fun to try to keep wrangling kids into doing something all together (besides eating & singing happy birthday, etc).
posted by mattbucher at 12:35 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having hosted kiddie parties, here are some suggestions:

Serve small cupcakes instead of a big cake, you can arrange them cutely on a platter and put candles in. If you serve ice cream, get some small cones.

Make sure everything is finger food and smallish.

Play simple games, like pin-the-tail on the donkey or Simon says. If you give prizes for games, it is really nice if everyone else also gets a prize for playing.
posted by fifilaru at 12:38 PM on June 3, 2011

I also agree that the presents should NOT be opened at the party. In fact, put them out of sight. Open afterwards and of course, send a thank you note.
posted by fifilaru at 12:39 PM on June 3, 2011

1. At one of my daughter's birthday parties, we had a make your own crown activity. As everyone arrived, we let them decorate a crown. It was a good icebreaker; after they finished, everyone just ran around the house and played. We used a kit from Lakeshore Learning with foam crowns and peel and stick decorations, and everyone had fun with it. Even some of the parents made crowns. Bonus: if they use the foam letters to spell out their names, then you can tell who's who (and whose crown belongs to whom).

In Southern California, a pinata is de rigeur; we found one at Party City that doesn't require a stick to open; it has colored strings hanging down and each kid takes a turn to pull one to try and open it.

2. I'd throw some veggies into that mix, and maybe some chips for the adults, but otherwise it looks fine. The parents looooved the Illy coffee drinks in a can that I had at my daughter's birthday last year.

3. Goody bags are always fun, and if you have a pinata they can put their pinata loot in the goody bag.

4. If it's a small party, go ahead and open the gifts at the party. Lots of kids like to see the birthday kid's reaction to the gift.

5. Some etiquette folks say that if you've thanked the giver in person, you don't need to send a note. But kids always love mail, so a note is always appropriate.
posted by mogget at 12:42 PM on June 3, 2011

0. Three hours is a really long time for a bunch of 3s. 2 is more typical at that age -- 90 minutes is not unheard of.

1. You must have activities. The kids will make you and each other insane. My youngest just turned 4. There were two parties (of about 20 last year) that we actually had to leave, and those were the two with no planned activities. Three year-olds need at least some structure.

2. Pizza is the default, at least here in NYC. Often there's a fruit plate or something as well.

3. It varies but (again here in NYC) the answer is generally yes, with some bubbles or stickers or something in them. Nothing pricey.

4. Do not open presents at the party.

5. Do send thank-you notes. Always. That's just polite. Others may or may not do it. You should be a trend-setter of politeness if they don't.
posted by The Bellman at 12:43 PM on June 3, 2011

An early childhood friend of mine always threw bitchin' parties. Or, technically, her mom did.

Things that were great:

-have a theme (one was a tea party, another was a princes and princesses party, a 50s party)

-"match" the food to the theme (for instance, you're not having a sandwich, you're having a rock and roll sandwich, which is normal sandwich parts that are rolled up like a jelly roll instead of flat like a sandwich)

-have a craft (I remember making a princess hat (paper party hat with sequins to glue on) at the princess party)

-have a face painter (this can be you, a friend, even a neighborhood teenager; the drawings don't have to be good--just somewhat recognizably what the kid asked for)

-have a goody bag with themed gifts (we got a fancy tea bag, a fancy cookie, and some sort of cheapo little toy that I don't remember in the tea party bag)

Have "stations" where the kids can check in while they're playing, and don't try to force any activities. Let them run around all they want, and when one comes up to you saying he's bored, shuffle him over to the face painting area. Or whatever.

As to your questions 4 and 5: have your kid open the gifts at the party. It's a good way to teach your kid to be gracious (no "but I already have one!" or "I hate yellow!" but, "cool, thanks Kaylie!"). And have your child send thank you notes. At this age, it's probably best to give your kid crayons and some paper and have him draw a picture of whatever the present was and write "Thank you, Logan! From, otherworldlyglow Jr." Or even just "Thank you!" if motor control isn't there yet. You shouldn't send them on behalf of him--he needs to be part of the process. (That's what my parents did, and I've been willingly writing thank you notes since I was a preteen.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:43 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: As a grandmother, I have attended several of my grandkids parties in Portland, OR. I think there are probably cultural differences in this. Here are some Portland ideas:

Present opening seems fine if the child does not stress over toys, but it might be chaotic and the giver of the present may have left by the time the presents are opened. (This is a issue with bigger parties more perhaps.) That means, ask someone to take notes of who gave what, so that no matter how you say thank you, you do know who to thank.

One great planned activity was an art table. Kids and parents alike sat at it and it was a great focal point.

One great unplanned activity was a bunch of balloons. The kids ran around the house (it was February) like mad with a couple of them each. All it took for a fabulous time when you're three. You need helium ones for the most fun I would think.

One nifty decoration thing my daughter-in-law did was sew each of her children a banner with Happy Birthday [+ the name] on it. The design was that each letter was on a pointy flag that were all strung together (kind of like the ones you see at gas stations). It was intended to be displayed at birthday parties only. Festive, not a throwaway thing, and something to have for a long time. A bit of work obviously. You could start with name at age three and do the Happy Birthday next year if you're out of time.
posted by Prayless at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2011

"4. Should we open the presents at the party or wait until the guests have left?"

There seem to be regional/local expectations about this; where I am, gifts are ALWAYS opened at the party at children's parties, but some of my friends from college are in places where that is NEVER done. Can you sound out a couple of local parents about what's typical where you are? Here people get offended if you don't open the gifts at the party because they want to see the child get excited, etc. And, yes, it's used as a manners training tool for graciousness and everything. (And no one gets too wound up when the child fails at graciousness, at least until they're 7 or so.)

"5. Do I send thank you notes on behalf of my child to those who attend?"

Again what I have noticed is that if the child is too young to say "thank you" or forgets to say "thank you" very well in person in all the excitement, notes are sent (usually by the parent, sometimes with the child scrawling something). If the child the child is old enough to clearly say, "Thank you, Jason!" at the party itself, notes are not sent.

I typically err on the side of overformality and would be inclined to send notes regardless, but I've noticed other parents can get a little shirty if they think you're raising the etiquette bar for the whole community. A lot of parents think children's parties have gotten too expensive/overdone/emphasized, and prefer a much less formal affair, and they interpret formal thank-yous as part of the overdoing-ness of kids' parties. So, again, I'd try to find out the community norm.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:55 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is the time set in stone? Recently my friend had a birthday party for her 3 year-old. It was 1 hour long. It was held after lunch (1-2 pm). The activity was decorating cupcakes. Then they got to eat them! There were a few little side games like pin the tail on the donkey. And that was it. It was AWESOME!! It was not at all overwhelming for the children OR for the parents. It was a lot of fun. Just an idea.
posted by Sassyfras at 12:57 PM on June 3, 2011

I found this site to have useful tips when planning my three year old's birthday party. Two hours is plenty long for 3 year olds.

Most of the other questions have been adequately dealt with, but with regards to opening presents at the party or not, one thing to keep in mind is your child's temperament. For our son, each new present is super! cool! and he wants to run off and play with it *right then*, so opening gifts with a bunch of party guests sitting around waiting would become tiresome really quickly. We actually requested "no gifts" but some people brought one anyway, and we opened them after, and it took him four hours (!) to get through the new gift opening. So there's that.

Also, opening the gifts in front of the guests can lead to awkward comparisons if someone spent significantly more, or less, than other guests, or forgot a gift altogether. When in doubt, I'd skip it.
posted by ambrosia at 1:01 PM on June 3, 2011

I agree on not opening toys at the party. My mom still cringingly remembers when I opened a gift at a party and exclaimed that I already owned this particular My Little Pony.
posted by spec80 at 1:27 PM on June 3, 2011

3. I'm going to go against the grain here and say start your boycott of the goodie bag early and don't ever give in to the pressure to provide one!

By the time my first child was 5, I had bucketloads of cheapo bubbles and stickers and things that go over erasers on pencils and ball and cup games and pencils....junk, all of it. I decided on his 5th birthday that I wasn't going to provide them anymore, but I did provide one party favor per kid for each party we threw. I never spent more than a few dollars per kid (I also didn't invite TONS of kids to each party; that kind of chaos is not fun for anyone).

One year was a superhero theme, so we cut an inexpensive flat sheet into kid-sized superhero capes, had the kids draw on them with fabric paint and markers that I borrowed from a crafty friend (thereby covering the obligatory party game/craft portion), and cut strips on the end to tie them. The kids LOVED THEM and I was thanked by many a parent for not providing goody bags. My daughter had a fancy-dress tea party one year so that year's party favor was dress-up crowns. Got a bag of stick-on jewels, some heavy-duty cardstock crowns and the kids went to town decorating them.

Get creative and provide something actually useful or tied to the party theme. They can make homemade playdough (of course, make sure there aren't any gluten allergies), or superhero capes, or homemade shrinky-dinks. There are tons of resources out there.
posted by cooker girl at 1:30 PM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I put coloring books and crayons from the $1 store. Otherwise stickers work too. Just be safety conscious (i.e. do not buy toys from the dollar store). Books and stickers always are the cheap way to go.

No candy. Choking hazard + sugaring them up.

Yes on the games. I woudln't do duck duck goose or anything exclusionary. You can also do coloring time, playdough time, etc. Sing alongs help.

Food. Well for our in parties we always do pizza a few ways. Seems cheap/easy. But yea lunch meat is cool too. Always have a non meat option such as pasta or cheese. For drinks go with juicy juice, water, milk. Never have soda and try to stay away from junk juices (at least my friend are in the same boat with no junk food for kids).

I would say defiantely open gifts at the party. My friend tried pulling "thanks for coming" and everyone groaned and pushed her to open them. We love seeing the kid's reaction (good or bad) and it's a sign of gratitude. For pricing wars I don't view it as that at all! I know everyone has different economic situations and it's the thought that counts. A child doesn't NEED a toy, or even a gift. A lot of our friends who are in dire straights, we just tell them to show up and have fun. We honestly don't care. If people care and compare--those aren't the people you want at the party anyway. Besides, grandma/grandpa always bank up for our son anyway. I don't expect anyone else to.

or you can always say "no gifts" or "donate to a foster/child group who don't have toys". Friends of ours did those options as well. (honestly I prefer money so I can get him a bond for the future; but hey, that's just me. Even $10 will double to $20 down the road so all contributions are generous to me).

Yes on the thank you cards. Even email suffices if you're paper conscious or dont' have the time.
posted by stormpooper at 1:31 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Should I plan an activity for the kids? I'm sure they'll be fine just running around playing but do people usually orchestrate the party a bit more at this age?

I live in an area where this would not be typical, and in fact, parents who planned an activity for 3-year-olds at a birthday party would be seen as overdoing it. (Hired face-painting would be like riding an elephant into your bar mitzvah reception.) But we're probably more heavily into simplicity around here than other places. I have thrown several little-kid birthday parties and haven't had an "activity" yet. Our guests have stayed for about 3 hours, just hanging out, watching the kids enjoy themselves tearing up the playroom. But we do serve beer and wine for the parents, so that may explain why everyone's happy to stick around and not getting too fussed about the missing art project.

2. What are some good, easy lunch choices that can hopefully appeal to parents and kids? I know what we would eat on a normal lunch routine obviously but should I go beyond lunch meat, cheese, and fruit?

Pizza, plus a raw vegetables platter, fruit salad, maybe some hummus and pita? Or, 11-2, you might go the brunch route, with bagels, a few flavors of cream cheese, fruit salad, veggie platter, and a couple of quiches (the beauty of quiche is that you can fully make and bake it the day before and then reheat it in a 300-degree oven for about 20 minutes before serving).

3. Do I need to provide good bags for the kids to take home?

What I've done here is: small pot and trowel from the dollar store, bag of soil, seeds. You can write the name of each child on each pot and trowel.

4. Should we open the presents at the party or wait until the guests have left?

We open them at the party but don't call people around. That way if people aren't interested (and many aren't), they don't have to feel some obligation to witness the consumer pageantry.

5. Do I send thank you notes on behalf of my child to those who attend?

We always do, and so do the parents of the children whose parties we have attended. I don't know any just-turning-3-year-olds who can write anything other than their names, if that, so I've had my kids dictate a part of the letter (generally answering the question, "How do you like the ____?")
posted by palliser at 1:38 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

We also don't plan activities except maybe an crafty thing like those foam stickers or something. I think that activities end up getting everyone stressed out. My friend does them at her parties and it ends up being a big mess trying to gelt all the kids in line to whack the pinata or whatever.

And definitely say no to the gift bags if possible. A small book (you can get them at the dollar store) or coloring book is great.

As for opening gifts, we do that as the guests arrive so that the birthday kid and the guest (and the toy) get a bit of special time together.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:43 PM on June 3, 2011

For The Moo's last birthday party we made bean bags and invited each kid color or decorate their own with fabric markers. Then we had a game in the carport where the kids tossed their bean bags into colored circles (drawn on with sidewalk chalk) for small prizes. It was fun for the kids and it incorporated an art activity and a game all in one.

Disclaimer: The Moo is not my Moo. He is my roomate's Moo.
posted by dchrssyr at 1:45 PM on June 3, 2011

1. Most kids just turning three aren't necessarily good at playing *with* others yet. A parallel activity, like a simple craft, would work well. Anything with stickers would be a big hit. And yes, balloons. Just let them hit balloons in the air. Good grief, my son could do that for hours.

2. Let them make their own pizzas. We did this for a playdate recently. I bought little pizza shells and let the boys spread their own sauce and sprinkle the cheese. Then you can have different toppings. The advantage of mini-pizzas is they hardly take any time to cook. If you wanted to have some "grown-up" toppings, parents can really get into custom pizzas, too.

3. Ugh. Such mixed feelings about goody bags. I'm a big fan of consumables--for my son's third party I did big decorated sugar cookies. That is what I would like sent home with my son, not another stinking plastic box filled with candy (which is the trend here lately).

4. Open presents after. Have your child receive each gift from the giver, say thank you and then put them aside. Kids that little don't always understand, and you can avoid a lot of potential conflict.

5. I think that if ever you think it might be appropriate to send thank you notes, you should go ahead and do it. It's just classy. No one complains if they get a thank you, and you might really make someone's day. (I say this but I didn't do them for my son's party--but it was a school party and there were 20 kids.)
posted by wallaby at 2:00 PM on June 3, 2011

We've been attending a lot of parties for kids this age.

In our circle, the "activity" is having the party at a park or indoor play area, so the kids can run around and not worry about being organized. This is good for a kid turning 3; when they turn 4, they can do group activities better. Take a cue from your day care. Do they get the kids all doing the same thing at the same time? Do the kids like it, or do they squirm like crazy until they are freed?

Having a craft available is a good idea. Again, not all the kids have to do it, and not all of them need to do it at the same time.

Goodie bags are key in our circle right now. As a parent, I hate them, but the kids love them and that's what it's all about, I guess.

The trend for us is not to open presents at the party when the child is turning 3. It is super boring and somewhat confusing for the other children. When the kid is turning 4, the trend here is that they do sometimes open gifts at the party. At that age, the kids are finally developing the social skills to understand what is going on, that it's not their own birthday yet, that they'll get a turn later in the year, etc.

Personally, I always send thank you notes or emails, but not all the parents do this. Some of the parents have several small children, and they just say "thank you" at the party and leave it at that. I'm totally fine with this. They're doing the best they can.
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:25 PM on June 3, 2011

Response by poster: To be clear, I don't expect that everyone will stay until 2 and sort of assumed that a few of the kids, especially those that are from daycare, would leave after cake, which I guess we'll do at 12:30 not that I see the responses. The other kids are the children of friends of ours and I'm guessing that, as per the usual, the parents will probably end up socializing and will linger longer, depending on the child's tolerance.

But yes, BALLOONS are big and my daughter has requested them for sure. I think with balloons and stickers we may be set but I'll plan one activity as a fall-back. Pin the Tail on the Donkey might work though I'm guessing a few of the kids might hate the blindfold. I like the assisted pinata idea! I forgot that I also bought a bunch of foam animal masks that I think the kids will have fun with and the theme is Pink Mod Monkey.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:26 PM on June 3, 2011

and the theme is Pink Mod Monkey

Oh man, then you really need to make Monkey Ice Cream! (Better known as one-ingredient ice cream--frozen, food processor'd bananas--healthy and delicious!)

It's pretty easy to make food "monkey" themed. Back when I was babysitting, I used to make monkey pancakes as a treat for the kids: regular pancake batter, some chocolate chips, a mashed up banana or two, and some walnuts. Leave walnuts out if there are any nut allergies, obviously.
posted by phunniemee at 2:33 PM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: Open presents after the party. Kids that age have no sense of space for that kind of thing, and all the kids will end up swarming the birthday girl (and toys). No adult will actually get to see the kid open the presents, and you'll never keep track of who gave what.
posted by litnerd at 2:37 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, it must be regional, but I have never, ever been to a child's birthday party where the gifts were opened later. And I've been to what seems like hundreds of them after raising three kids. I can't even imagine what that would be like. Attending a small party, I would be disappointed and maybe a little miffed if the gifts were not opened while I was there. If, however, I was at a big party with a big stack of presents, I would probably be more understanding. Maybe it's a southern thing.
posted by raisingsand at 2:48 PM on June 3, 2011

Just wanted to offer an old rule of thumb, which was the number of child guests should equal the birthday girl's age, so in this case three. Doesn't help you now if your invitations have already gone out, but keep in mind for the future. And I agree that at this age the party should be short short short. End by one and then everyone can go home and take a nap... you'll need one, too! Have fun!
posted by Breav at 2:56 PM on June 3, 2011

1. Should I plan an activity for the kids?

No, don't bother.

2. What are some good, easy lunch choices that can hopefully appeal to parents and kids? I know what we would eat on a normal lunch routine obviously but should I go beyond lunch meat, cheese, and fruit?

Nah, that's plenty.

3. Do I need to provide good bags for the kids to take home?

Nope. It's a terrible habit. Nip it in the bud. At my daughter's most recent party we put out a box of books (used, from our shelves or thrift stores) and let kids pick some. They didn't leave empty-handed, and we got the gentle glow of self-righteousness.

4. Should we open the presents at the party or wait until the guests have left?

At three, I would wait. No biggie either way. Just don't make a big production out of it.

5. Do I send thank you notes on behalf of my child to those who attend?

posted by The corpse in the library at 3:20 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't have kids, but I am a huge fan of thank-you notes and am really glad my parents ingrained that habit in me! Obviously age-appropriate - you could write them and have her sign, or have her draw a picture of the gift, or whatever.

There are toonnnnss of great crafts and party ideas online, especially those with a budget in mind. It'd be fun to do stuff that's related to the theme, like "pin the tail on the monkey."

I agree that traditional goodie bags are just full of *crap.* However they don't have to be. I remember around 5th grade a girl gave out twirling batons as favors - it wasn't a cheerleading theme or anything, but I thought it was so cool!

Those animal masks are cute - could you get a "safari" backdrop and have a "photo booth?"
posted by radioamy at 3:45 PM on June 3, 2011

Don't forget the MommyJuice. Um, if you're into that kind of thing.
posted by kestrel251 at 4:14 PM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: If you open the gifts later (the norm here in NYC at age 3), do specifically mention the gift in the thank you note ("thank you for the stickers and the markers and the glitter pens!") lest the giver think some part of the gift went missing.

Do have some adult food and beverages on hand too -- coffee, coke, mimosas, what-have-you. I hate going to these things and having to make do with Teddy Grahams and Elmo fruit punch in teeny boxes.
posted by xo at 4:28 PM on June 3, 2011

Watched an interesting study where they had two groups of kids at a party with a jumping castle- one group got mega sugar lunch and the other group didn't. They all still ran around and where hyper and crazy because IT WAS A PARTY! and still managed to sit still for a puppet/magic show (no fidgeting). (this was older kids, but still!)

My point: they will be crazy and hyper whether or not you give them sugar, because PARTIES ARE EXCITING! YAY! :)

Have fun, have things on hand to distract as needed. Have things to do but don't force the kids to do stuff ("but I don't want to play that *boring* $superfungame") if they don't want to.
posted by titanium_geek at 4:59 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. I see no reason to plan an activity for a three year old. Just have lots of toys on hand and accessible, put up all the things you absolutely don't want destroyed, and let them run around and play as they will.

2. For a party for three year old? Pizza is fine by me. It's a party! For toddlers! Toddlers are picky, but nearly unanimously they'll all eat some form of pizza. Adults, too. But that's in lieu of whatever else you have planned. Cheese? Fruit? Lunch meat? All fine. No need to do any more.

3. Not necessarily. It's nice, but not required. At the most recent birthday we went to, the three year old was proud to have been the one to pick out all the items that went in the bags for her friends, but.....I don't expect anything like that, or care all that much. You could even do a helium inflated balloon for each of the kids, and that'd be a big hit.

4. I've seen it done both ways with toddlers. At the party where the presents were opened, not too many of the kids paid attention. But she had fun opening them in front of people. At the other party? It would have been a disaster. Go with how your kid is feeling and how the party is going---I wouldn't put a stop to the action by requiring the presents be opened if your kid is having a good time otherwise.

5. I've received and not received thank you notes. Totally up to you. I don't think many people would expect a three year old to send one, but if you have the time and the inclination, go ahead. (And that would be one argument for opening the presents later---easier to keep track of who gave what.)
posted by zizzle at 5:23 PM on June 3, 2011

I kind of get the sense that a competitive kind of game, the kind with a winner and a loser, may not be something a just-turning-three-year-old is ready for. They're a little too young to get that "It Is Just A Game And You Are Not A Bad Person If You Lose." I'd focus on everyone-make-your-own-something (someone said "crowns" up top, or make sock puppets or masks or t-shirts or something where everyone gets one of their very own to take home). My mother was still doing "everyone make your own whatevers" for my birthdays when I was six and seven.

Or a movie -- maybe get a video, but rather than it being a typical "throw a video in the DVD player" kind of thing, dress up the living room like it's a "real movie theater," where you have pretend tickets and a popcorn stand and ushers and all that. It may be novel enough to tickle the kids, even though it's just watching another DVD.

I've also heard the rule of thumb that a good way to figure out the maximum number of kids to invite is "the age of the child plus one." So, for your kid, four friends would be about right. Of course, if your kid has five cousins who are all coming, plus her bestest friend from daycare, then that's fine too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:40 PM on June 3, 2011

I think even three year-olds will expect party games, so yes to activities. We found that we needed a lot more games planned than we thought we would, because of short attention spans (and things like Pin the Tail on the Donkey just don't take that long anyway). The children didn't want to run around or play on their own, but waited to be organised into games. Lunch - we prepared far too much food, sandwiches, sausage rolls etc - the children were too excited to eat much.
posted by paduasoy at 5:42 PM on June 3, 2011

Best answer: Let the day care parents know if siblings are invited or not. It's awkward for them to ask.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:51 PM on June 3, 2011

Response by poster: That's an excellent point about the siblings, I hadn't thought about that but I did word the invitation to the parents to say that they and their "children" were invited and asked that they let us know the number of adults and children who would be attending. It didn't occur to me that they might bring siblings but I think it's a pretty open invitation and it'd be fine to bring them. Really though I'm not sure any of the daycare kids will come.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:58 PM on June 3, 2011

Oh, I want to emphasise EmpressCallipygos' point about winning/losing games. Everyone wins games are good.
posted by titanium_geek at 10:48 PM on June 3, 2011

(sorry for multiple post!)
I know from experience that you don't want lots and lots of balloons sitting around after a party. So give them away as party favours! Tie the balloon loosely around the wrist (or to a pant belt loop or overalls, etc) to stop tears on it floating away. Kids that small won't care if they aren't helium, even*! (disclaimer- I am not a 3 year old)

we had collected the balloons from a nearby event - day after highschool grad (when we were older we'd go and drink the unfinished (but unopened) bottles of soft drink) :)
posted by titanium_geek at 10:55 PM on June 3, 2011

Nthing the universalness of Pizza.
posted by Artw at 11:09 PM on June 3, 2011

Goody bag - split up a big box of washable markers, gummy bears, teddy grahams or other not-totally-sugary treats in those small reusable containers are good; the container can be re-used.

Superhero party with capes - brilliant. Disposable tablecovers would make good cape material, too. Might be a bit much for 3 yo.

Can you be outdoors? We had a water party where everybody got small squirtguns, actually squirt fish, not gun-shaped. And other water toys. Hot day in August spent throwing water was fun. 2nding the idea of using a local park, with a good play area. Just make sure there's a shady area.

Do you have a sand box? That's a fun activity at that age, and then you have a sandbox.

So - Arrival, with healthy snacks like veggies & dip. A game or activity, like throwing (non-latex) balloons. Lunch, with vegetarian, non-dairy, non-wheat options, and no groundnuts, unless you are certain nobody has an allergy. Then isinging, candles, cake, ice cream (cupcakes, and ice cream in cones = great advice) and presents get opened.

The last hour or half hour, maybe movie time. Milo & Otis, Fern Gully, classic Disney, are some good choices - older movies that they may not have seen before. Provide art supplies and quieter activities for kids who don't want to watch a movie.
posted by theora55 at 8:06 AM on June 4, 2011

Just wanted to add that one thing that has vastly changed since you attended parties as a kid, is how many and severe nut allergies there now seem to be. You might want to make sure your your party foods are peanut-free, or at least check in advance if there will be anyone with special needs on that score.
posted by Mchelly at 5:54 AM on June 5, 2011

Response by poster: So the post-party update: 5 of her friends showed up, though one of them was after nearly everyone had gone home so for most of the party, it was my daughter plus 4 of her friends and that was a perfectly manageable number. People showed up at around 11:15, we served lunch at around 12, had cake at around 12:45 and a pinata at about 1:15 and most people left by about 1:30 with some there past 2. That seemed to work just fine and before lunch was served, the kids just played around with each other and went out in the backyard for a bit.

The lunch menu was: cold cuts, cheese, rolls, chopped Mediterranean salad, macaroni and cheese, and fruit salad. I waffled on whether to do the mac and cheese but it ended up being a great success and most all the kids ate tons of it. The chopped salad was actually a leftover from the night before but was nice to have on hand for the adults and the chickpeas in it were good for kids, too. The cake was purchased and though it was a mess (chocolate with blue whipped cream on top!) it was yummy. Sangria, soda, milk, juice, water, and coffee were all available for drinks.

I had a bunch of activities on hand but we didn't really end up needing them. The foam animal masks were fun for the kids to try on and I had markers and small canvases for anyone who wanted to draw and a few kids used those. I had pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and a toy walk ready to go if it seemed like an organized activity was needed but the kids were fine just running around and some of the parents did some book reading as needed.

I stuffed the pull-string pinata with 6 small treat bags, one for each child as suggested in the thread and though it was a disappointment to the kids who thought it would be chock full-o-candy, it did make things more equitable and less frenzied. The treat bags had seed packets and soil pellets (with instructions), tiny tissue packages, blinky rings, crayons, and stickers. All the kids also got to pick a helium balloon on their way out.

We did not open presents at the party and I think it was totally fine with everyone. I think it would have been impossible to keep the other kids together and quiet for the opening and they wouldn't have enjoyed it. We opened presents later in the day after a nap and we had cleaned up. I'll send out thank-you notes later this week.

Overall, the party turned out really nice and a few of the parents actually complimented me on a well-organized, minimal-chaos, but fun-filled party. It helped to be super organized and have a lot of flexibility to change course as the party progressed. Can't wait for next year!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:29 AM on June 13, 2011

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