Terrific, not Terrible, Twos Party
September 28, 2011 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me throw a birthday party that doesn't suck for my soon-to-be-two-year-old.

This was supposed to be a small party for just our close friends, but stupid me got all ambitious and invited a number of neighbors (and their kids) as well. Since many of these people have never been to our house before, I have just upped the pressure on myself. Swell! Plus, last year's party was all adults, since my kid was too young for friends, but now things have changed.

Anyway, there will probably be a dozen-ish children at this thing, ranging in ages from 1.5 to 4. I think I've got the food covered, as I plan on having a ton of juice boxes, and we're borrowing a hot dog roller from a friend, which will be fun. I'm more concerned about keeping said kids entertained for a couple of hours without losing my mind, as I will have the usual party-minding duties to contend with.

Since the party's in a couple of weeks, I was thinking about maybe setting up a station for kids to paint miniature pumpkins, but at this point I'm open to just about any idea.

Salient points:

1. I'm leery of planning on any activities that require being outdoors, because, given the mercurial weather this time of year, it could be 75 and sunny or it could be 50 and raining. Also, going out into the backyard requires going through the basement, which is currently filled with spiders and basement junk, and to get that kid-friendly would take way more work than I can give at this point.

2. The budget for this is pretty limited. We're cooking all the food, buying the cake, and ordering the favors off of Etsy. I'd thought of hiring a face painter, but a cursory search tells me that they usually start at the $100/hr range, which is too much for this particular event.

3. The party itself doesn't have any major theme, although I'm not opposed to it. Since it's still early October, it feels a little soon to do anything overtly Halloween-y, but I did just get the Oriental Trading catalog in the mail and it was filled with all sorts of neat (and insanely cheap) Halloween stuff, like fake vampire teeth and cute lollypops and stuff, which was tempting.

4. As I said above, a lot of the neighborhood moms are coming to this, so I acknowledge there's a lot of self-inflicted pressure to make it fun. I don't really socialize with these ladies a lot, but for the sake of my daughter, I want to establish friendly relations and a positive precedence for her to be included in future events. Luckily this neighborhood doesn't have a sense of one-upmanship, as far as I've been able to tell, and the birthday parties around here are pretty reasonable, e.g. no crazy inflatables, no Cirque du Soleil acts in the garden, etc.

I'd love to hear any suggestions, recommendations, and warnings from folks who've thrown toddler parties -- what to serve, what to avoid, how to make sure the kids (and parents!) have a good time.
posted by shiu mai baby to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You can paint their faces yourselves: cheap tub of cold cream + dixie cups + food coloring + paintbrushes = totally doable little-kid facepaint. It doesn't look fantastic like the real face paint does, but it's much cleaner and easier and cheaper, and frankly the 2-year-olds don't care how it looks cuz OMG FACEPAINT.
posted by brainmouse at 3:06 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Haha Cirque Do Soleil acts... that was funny. Keep it simple. As long as there is food, some music and a birthday cake, the neighbors should have a great time. You're cooking? Fabulous! Be your warm self as a hostess and don't worry about making it amazing for them. This is about your two year old. Have fun with it, if you can!
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 3:09 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your best bet here, to avoid meltdowns and keep the fun factor intact, is to plan less, not more. Kids at 2-3 years old play alongside each other more often than together, and are entertained by very small things. Really. The less you have to worry about facilitating, the less you will be stressed. And when parents are stressed, birthday kid is stressed. When parents are relaxed, birthday girl is more relaxed.

(We didn't even talk to our kid about her 4th birthday party. We invited some friends, rented a local church basement that had a low key kids space with toys, and her dad brought her over at the last minute while I was all, "Oh hey, love! Happy Birthday. Here's a balloon! Go play." Some craft stations, nothing else. We had cheese pizza, juice boxes and cupcakes. Boom. Easy. Everyone had fun, no one had tantrums. Goody bags were distributed at home, presents unwrapped at home AFTER the party. Music was grown up but fun music that was kid-appropriate. Lovely, lovely time.)

The mom friends are going to be more impressed by fun and low key than they will be by Cirque de Soleil or anything else.

Face painting? Get this kit and hire/borrow a local high school kid to do it. As brainmouse says, "Kids are all, OMG FACEPAINT!" They will not care about professional or amateur stuff. Just be sure to give limited options. Star, flower, butterfly, pumpkin. They can pick one of the four. If you want to keep it exciting but neat and easy? Do temporary tattoos instead.

Paper the walls of one room or a floor with large rolls of white paper, hand out crayons and stickers, and let kids go to town drawing on the walls. Easy. No fighting over turns or toys.

Buy a bunch of blank puzzles and have the kids color their own puzzles. Also easy. Or have them color paper bag puppets. No glue. No paint. No markers.

Pull-string pinata with small BAGS of candy/favors inside, one for each kid. So when the thing breaks, every kid gets one. No scrambling, no fighting.

Let the kids decorate their own cupcakes (you do the frosting, they do the sprinkles!) Or let them use real paint brushes to PAINT the ketchup or mustard, etc, on their hotdogs.

If you want to do something organized (I wouldn't, but hey! Go nuts), give the kids pots and pans with spoons and Dixie Cup shakers and have a parade for the birthday kid with some music playing.

No paint, no paint, no paint. Don't do that to yourself. Time for that when she is older.
posted by jeanmari at 3:36 PM on September 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

Don't overthink it: Painting pumpkins is fun and at this age the kids don't care that it's early October.

For my son's 3rd birthday my husband and I blew up about 20 beachballs and let the kids go nuts in the backyard. It was basically awesome. If you don't want to do the outdoors, maybe you have a playroom to do that inside?
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:37 PM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

My one piece of advice: keep it short. A birthday party for a two year old should be 90 minutes, max. That will help you figure out the activities.
posted by ambrosia at 3:38 PM on September 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I'd not suggest painting anything as an activity. What about decorating miniature pumpkins with those foam stickers instead? Much easier cleanup.
posted by ambrosia at 3:40 PM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ay yi! Well, at this point, the party is no longer for your two-year old. That's a lot of people, and a lot of kids, to keep inside and happy for as long as it would take to get through what you've already suggested. You've got to be free to deal with your kid's inevitable meltdown. Now that you're in deep, here's how to stay afloat, because I've done this to myself too, and I have survived:

First, I would suggest making it an open house. From this time to that time, folks can drift in and out and partake of what they will. Having everyone arrive at once or get it together to leave is stressful for little kids. There's still naptimes to consider for some, and a couple of hours is just plain too long for little kids to behave well in out of their element. Forget planned activities - have stations where kids can colour a banner or paint their pumpkins, but don't try to orchestrate.

Keep outside an option. Really. That's too many people indoors for too long. If it's raining, have a stomping in mud puddles portion of the party. Throw thrift-store sheets over what you have to and use fairy lights, but also, consider having something like a parade (just marching around the block with noisemakers and flags) to burn off some steam and keep the noise level manageable.

Keep the food simple, self-serving and make as much ahead as you can ahead of time so you're not cooking and trying to hostess at the same time. Make an action plan and have as much done the night before if you can. Chips in bowls, straws in juiceboxes already, even, or moms and kids will be getting stabby with them and you'll have cellophane everywhere. And um...juice boxes are easy, but a lot of juice and kids means kids that have to pee and use them as weapons and get hyper and...bottles of water are probably just as good.

A face painter can only do one kid at a time, and they all get cranky in the line up and itchy from the makeup and it gets everywhere. Temporary tattooes are easier.

Consider getting a helium tank and balloons from a party store, and designating one adult to do that. They'll have fun dancing with the balloons and bopping them around and there will be popping them and crying and losing them so have lots and lots. In fact, hire any local teens you know to be your lackey and to wrangle the kids as your best investment.

Just buy a roll of paper and roll it on the floor and let kids and adults colour it with birthday messages and stuff. It's easy to clean up and you can re-use the washable markers you might want to buy. (on preview - what jeanmari is saying)

Pinatas are good, but the kind with the strings are better than the kind you bash, and yes, again jeanmari is right - bags are better than loose things.

Don't buy lots of oriental traders crap, please please please. We get it from every party, and it's fun for five seconds and goes in the trash. The theme is your kids' birthday. End of story.

And, to make nice with the moms, something they can enjoy like a glass of sparking wine or a fancy fizzy water with fruit garnish and a tray or sushi while their kids have fun is probably the best way to ingratiate yourself. Your kid is still young for friends, and the best way for it to be a good party is if you're cheerful and relaxed and not trying to Martha yourself. Good luck!
posted by peagood at 3:46 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My child turned two on a blistering hot summer day in NYC. We had reserved the building's gigantic playroom and so during the previous weeks we had invited anyone and their visiting mother-in-laws who popped into our line of vision: drop by! When we went down to the playroom to decorate that morning, we saw it had been flooded and workmen noisily and dustily were filling the space. So dozens of people, some just casual neighbors, crammed into our 2-bedroom apt. It was 100 degrees and of course, just as the party started our air-conditioner broke.
You know what? It was actually fun. The toddlers ran around. They put dried beans into dixie cups and shook them to a Music Together tape. Pizza arrived and everyone ate it. The parents followed their children from room to room or hung out chatting. Kids cried and were picked up until they stopped crying. They decorated cupcakes and had sugar meltdowns. They ran around with the fallen streamers. A father sang and played guitar and some of the kids jumped to the music. A kid bashed another kid in the head with the guitar. Everyone lived.
Then it was over. The house was trashed. I lost my fear of kid parties and my notion that I could really plan for or control them.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 4:04 PM on September 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

I would keep the activities simple. Our kids are in that age range, so I've probably attended close to 20 birthday parties for kids under 5 in the last few years. I can only think of one (for a four year old) that had any sort of organized activity (it involved painting and was a substantial mess). At the rest of them just all the kids just had access to the host kids' toys, backyard, swingset, bikes/trikes, or whatever. Parents chat with each other as the kids run around screaming, they have something to eat followed by cake, then go home for nap time.

Just noticing peagood's comment: helium baloons are pretty magical to most young kids, so I would consider that.
posted by partylarry at 4:13 PM on September 28, 2011

Bubbles and Balloons. If you have plenty of both you will be golden.

Some inexpensive games:

Pour a couple bags of rice into a casserole dish and mix in a bunch of safety pins. Have the kids find as many safety pins as they can. Older kids can be blindfolded to make it harder for them. Make sure you do this somewhere that can be easily swept or vacuumed. The one who gets the most wins.

Drop the [something] into the [something]. Have the kids stand on a small stool and put a jar or a cup on the ground at their feet. Give them something to drop into the jar, but they have to hold it up to their nose and let go. For example a car themed party you could use Matchbox cars. When I was little we used clothespins. Pennies work well too. The one who gets the most in wins.

If you aren't scared of a slight mess you could make some cornstarch goo for the kids to play with. Even the littlest ones will have fun with that. If you're extra brave you could let them make it and color it themselves. If you provide little condiment sized plastic containers the goo could even be one of the favors. Another idea along the same lines would be homemade tootsie rolls, I just don't know if it would hold the kids' attention long enough. Of course it could be an activity to keep the adults busy!
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:35 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having cupcakes frosted and ready to decorate would be a lot of fun for the whole age range of kids you're talking about here.
posted by lemniskate at 4:43 PM on September 28, 2011

We had a keg at our two year old's birthday party. Didn't do much for the kids but the parents had a great time!
posted by COD at 5:28 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best birthday parties we've done:

For my son's 4th birthday, he wanted to invite friends over to play with his new Hot Wheels track (his birthday is shortly after Christmas). So we made a simple car-themed cake, set up Hot Wheels track in the living room, cleaned up his room and put streamers over the door, and that was about it. He played his favorite CD in his room, and he and his buddies spent the afternoon running up and down the stairs playing with various things while the parents sat around in the kitchen, snacked, and chatted. Lovely!

This summer for my daughter's 3rd birthday we did something similar. At her request we had a "pink" party, served pink lemonade and pink cupcakes on pink plates with pink napkins... you get the picture. I made a big bowl of pasta salad and had deli for sandwiches, and the moms got to hang out while the kids played in the back yard. There were lots of balls to kick around and a bubble machine. Worked out great.

Balloons are good. Get lots of balloons, enough to send one home with each of the kids.

Opening gifts after everyone goes home is a good idea at this age -- esp. with such a big crowd, opening gifts takes awhile and the kids get restless and bored.

It's nice to have a separate snack spread for the grown-ups if you can, but don't stress over it.
posted by hms71 at 7:19 PM on September 28, 2011

enjoy the kids playing and having fun. don't try to make them perform...just enjoy their presence and sheer enjoyment of the moment!
posted by swmobill at 8:32 PM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

For one of our kid's parties, we had signs directing arriving guests to go around the side of the house and directly into the backyard.

It was great b/c it cut down on interior foot traffic and established the backyard as the primary party space.
posted by gnutron at 8:37 PM on September 28, 2011

They're two years old, so the main things will be:

1. Lots of food that can be grabbed and eaten without plates and a big mess, appropriate for kids that age. Healthy food. Not salty/sugary food, or at least not much.

2. Lots of space for the kids to run around with. Put stuff away. Keep unsafe (or easily destroyed) areas locked. The more the kids can toddle around without being told to knock it off or removed from inappropriate areas, the better.

3. Unlike the first birthday party, which was for you and your friends, this is the first birthday party for your child and their friends. Which means they'll have all this attention aimed at them, which two-year-olds love. And they'll be playing (or parallel playing) with their friends, and watching all the adults mill about. So it is kind of hard to do things wrong.

At the end of the day: relax. It is a two-year-old party. Keep them safe, give them healthy food, give them room to run around and be as noisy as possible, make sure your child knows in advance they'll need to share their toys with their friends, and you're good to go.
posted by davejay at 8:59 PM on September 28, 2011

You have a lifetime of complicated parties.

Your kid won't know it is his day. Have some people over for food. Let the kids play in the yard. No paint. No organized games.
posted by k8t at 9:03 PM on September 28, 2011

Keep it simple for the kids. Have a place to change diapers. Serve wine and beer for the adults. Everyone will leave happy.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:42 PM on September 28, 2011

Best answer: Helium balloons and temporary tattoos get a +1 from me. Easy and lower stress than paint. My kids wore comfy clothes to birthday parties, but there's always a few Moms that don't want their kids to get "messed up", so if you do paint and they don't know you are having paint, that might not go over so well. Temporary tattoos, in a Halloween theme? That seems like a winner.

Another +1 to the rolls of paper and crayons or coloring all over idea, especially if you get the Crayola Wonder stuff that only works on the paper and not your walls or floor. Kids like to color, and some adults like me do, too, when they get the opportunity!

Yes, way too many kids in the house! Allow for the idea of outside stuff, and have some balls and bubble wands, maybe a bean-bag throw, set up for people to play whenever they want.

Put out a request for extra chairs! You'll want some porch or folding ones for outside.

Pour a couple bags of rice into a casserole dish and mix in a bunch of safety pins. Have the kids find as many safety pins as they can. Older kids can be blindfolded to make it harder for them. Make sure you do this somewhere that can be easily swept or vacuumed. The one who gets the most wins.

Oh, no. I don't think that's a good idea! Birthday child is turning *two*. Lots of little kids coming to the party, the age when everything goes into their mouths. Safety pins are not so safe when swallowed.

And while I'm on that, I'm really easy-going about most stuff, but hot dogs is not the best choice for really small kids. I mean, they're at the top of the list for chocking hazards and you've got pediatricians saying kids under 4 shouldn't have them at all, and do you really want the hassle of cutting them up into teeny tiny pieces for all the kids? Because you will be expected to do that, with kids that age.

Maybe just have grazing food until the cake comes around?

You can have healthy snacks:

Ants on a log--peanut butter on celery, with raisins on top.

Cups or cupcake wrappers of "trail mix", which could just be pretzels, yogurt covered raisins or craisins, Cheerios and M&Ms.

Cheese, veggies and chips with dips for the adults. Have some wine to go with the cheese, if you like.

The kids will be happy because there will be cake. Yay, cake! I'd suggest you have those individual cups of ice cream, too. Easy to serve.

And most of this stuff can be set up ahead of time, so you are not running around like crazy!

Last thing: your child is two. There may be a meltdown at all the excitement and stimulation. Don't let it stress you. It happens all the time at this age.
posted by misha at 12:42 AM on September 29, 2011

The kids will run around and amuse themselves. The Power Moms who hired an elephant and a barista will be fuming inside that the kids are having as much (probably more) fun just being allowed to run around, duck by a table occasionally for chips and an artificially coloured drink, then doing more running around.

Don't have a theme. They're two years old. Have cake and candles and singing and a bag full of sugar for them to take home.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:26 AM on September 30, 2011

Response by poster: These are all terrific suggestions, and I'm so grateful for MeFites preserving my sanity once again.
posted by shiu mai baby at 7:57 AM on September 30, 2011

Response by poster: A quick follow-up: The party was grand. Kid got a 2-hour nap prior to the start of the festivities, so that more than just about anything else was key to the success.

We papered the entry hallway with drawing paper, as suggested by jeanmari, and put a bucket of washable markers, crayons, and chalk there so kids could start scribbling. The layout of our house made the hallway the most logistical spot for this, and didn't jam up traffic or anything.

I made my own bubble solution using water, dish soap, and corn syrup, so kids got to play out in the front yard (supervised) and make giant bubbles.

I had another station for decorating mini-pumpkins using foamy face stickers, per ambrosia, and the kids loved getting to take them home.

Lastly, I had a little table set up with a make-your-own-mask kit I found at Michael's, which the kids did and voluntarily(!) wore throughout the whole party.

The food was great, we ran out of beer only at the very end, and everyone had a fabulous time -- especially the birthday girl. Exhibit A, Exhibit B.

Thanks once again to everyone for all the wonderful ideas.
posted by shiu mai baby at 12:51 PM on October 20, 2011

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