Birthday party ideas for about ten 3 and 4-year olds?
August 15, 2014 12:17 PM   Subscribe

We're having our daughter's first kids-only birthday party and we don't know how to do this. I'm looking for advice, especially for games and activities.

I'd like this to be well organized, not just a free-for-all of little kids playing (both because they're really hard to supervise that way, and possibly some could be left out of the play). We are considering renting a bouncy castle - we have a reasonably-sized (but not huge) backyard where other activities could take place also - but who knows if it will rain that day? What other games and activities can we lead the kids in? They're little and still have small-child squabbles; how do we avoid tears and hurt feelings?

I know these kids reasonably well from seeing them daily at my daughter's daycare and they wont be capable of anything as complicated as a treasure hunt or as physical as the balloon popping game (which sounds SO fun but we'll save it for years to come). I'm worried that a pinata will be too hard and lead to tears. Games that may provoke jealousy over the winner aren't the greatest either. I can't do facepainting and don't want to purchase one of those fancy stencil kits. And crafts - that's a lot of work for me, I am not particularly good with drawing and painting myself, and I am afraid that with the attention span of small kids the craft will be left undone anyhow. I guess you can probably tell that I'm pretty stressed about this...

So far, I like the idea of playing Heads Up, 7-Up and Pass the Parcel. What else can we do? If I can come up with the right things to do, maybe I can avoid the bouncy castle expense. Any other bits of advice regarding the party would be greatly appreciated - because if I can't sort this out or if it gets too stressful I know we'll end up booking something expensive at the community centre or what have you. Which isn't the end of the world, but I'd rather succeed at an old-fashioned, low-cost birthday party.
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"Pin the tail on the donkey" still works...

But, you are worrying too much. It will be a swirling flurry of kids for X hours and it will be done. You could have nothing organised at all and they will still have fun tearing your house apart. They behave a bit differently at a party than elsewhere.

We do a "cupcake bar" here that is for whatever reason just the most terrific thing in the history of sugar. Loads of different kinds of candy is put out in bowls, kids are given cupcakes, and they "decorate" the cupcakes. The candy is an exciting thing, the cupcakes are an exciting thing, the decorating is a happy shared activity, it keeps them all glued to the sugar area instead of rushing from place to place, it spares me the hassle of assembling and serving a cake...

You need quite a lot of space for a bouncy castle, it turns out -- I thought of that one year but there had to be a lot more space around all the sides of it than I think I have, so, check with the local rental places and measure your yard before planning too much with inflatables.

We do first-rate loot bags with good loot, and those are set free before the end of the party, so the last bit is just checking out (swapping, showing off, etc) toys. Try to plan things to not be so planned that everybody ends up exhausted, yourself included.
posted by kmennie at 12:38 PM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

We've gone to a bunch of preschool parties with pinatas recently that were a big hit. If you get one where kids can just pull the strings on the bottom, you don't need to deal with a bat.
posted by JuliaKM at 12:40 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The biggest hit of the year as far as birthday things for my kid's preschool class (ages 3-5) was a special treat where everyone got a small cheap plastic shark filled with bright red cherry syrup "blood" which they each could pour into a glass of water and drink.
posted by steinwald at 12:45 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

3 and 4 year old children have very small attention spans to a certain extent. It might be helpful to have a loose outline in mind of key party points that can be swapped around as needed.

First 10-20 minutes: kids are arriving, parents are mingling

Phase 1: Activity A (10-15 min)

Phase 2: Activity B (10-15 min)

Phase 3: Birthday Party (10-30 min)

Last 10-20 minutes: saying thank you, goodbye, closing activity

Have a movie on or some books out so that shy kids can retreat as needed.

Coloring, stickers, watching a movie, singing songs, etc are great for little ones at this age.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:46 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

First, make it short. Not sure if you are in the US, but typically a party will be booked for 2 hours, which is way too long. 1.5 hours for the 3-4 yr group is much better I think. Parents will generally stay for the party at that age, so you'll have a lot of engaged help. I recommend putting together a big craft table with cheap wooden picture frames or cheap paper or wooden boxes, along with stickers, glitter, paint, jewels, and glue sticks. That will take up about 20-30 minutes, and there's no work involved on your part, the kids will know what to do and a lot of the parents will probably sit down to help or to make their own. Make sure there's a table with fruit and cheese and drinks and maybe a bucket of good beer. Then, serve the cake and ice cream, that will take another 20-30 minutes. After that, what about hide and seek? Or, at one of my daughter's parties, I made a bunch of little acorn fairies (I was a power-crafter back then, but any little tchtochke will do, maybe a couple of handfuls of those $1 erasers from the toy store?) and hid them all over the yard. You could also set up a bean bag toss, which is a good "station" to have for kids who are having a meltdown and need something distracting to do. Then, maybe gather all of the little ones together and open presents. Hand out the goodie bags, and wave goodbye!

If you have a photo printer at home, you could take a few shots and print them out right then and there for the kids to put in their newly glittered and bejeweled picture frames.

You're right, pinatas are usually a terrible idea at any age. Someone always gets too much candy and someone gets shafted.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 12:53 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I was around that age, I loved chemistry experiments. At birthday parties, we'd often do stuff like build baking soda and vinegar volcanoes.
posted by JackBurden at 12:59 PM on August 15, 2014

Our overall approach has been to have about 10 activities ready to go, and then do whichever 2 of them the kids start doing on their own. By the time everyone is there there's only about 30 minutes for activities before cake anyhow.

Based on what's happening in my house right now, I'd see if you can get one or two gigantic boxes from an appliance store, some washable paint or markers, and let them work together to build a pirate ship or a alien craft or whatever. We've done giant silly crafts like that for a couple of birthdays with decent results. (We did body tracings one year, and a "pin the train on the train track" pseudo-game another year, where basically every location was a winner, and they could color their own trains.)

We've also done cookie or cupcake decorating as part of a playdate activity. Painting with frosting or larger candies like minimarshmallows and M&M's worked WAY better than anything with sprinkles. (I'm still finding sprinkles. I learned my lesson the hard way.)

There's been a bunch of pinatas at birthdays lately. All kids were super-engaged; the main trick has been finding a way to keep kids well away from whoever's swinging the bat. Oh, and no blindfolds, give them a few whacks each. Seems to take about 100 whacks from 2-4 year old bodies, so even with double-hitters everyone will probably be able to go twice. If interest starts flagging, that's when the grownups get a turn. :) The ones filled with trinkets and a few candies have worked better than the ones filled with candy. One family has a parent who plays guitar, and the kids sang songs together. I'm putting together music to have a Kid Dance Party as one of our possible activities this year.

If you can get outside, Follow the Leader with everyone taking a turn leading can be silly and fun.

(Also, local traditions may vary, but my son is in preschool and nobody has yet dropped off their kid and left. Around here you'd have a perfectly respectable kid:parent ratio for preventing folks from running off if you just let them play.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:59 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Blow up a bunch of balloons, put on some music, and let them try to keep them in the air as long as possible by hitting them with their hands or feet. This was the most popular activity for 3-8 year old kids at our last party.
posted by belladonna at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

So I never plan much for my kids' (currently 5 and 2 years old) parties. And never once have I had any kid have any issue with that. This year for the younger one I put a large piece of paper up with some markers and had some cake. For the older one, I just let them loose in the backyard with toys (and a swing set and a sandbox, but those are always there). Someone brought a pinata and that was fun. Other than that, the only "activity" we had was singing and blowing out candles.

Kids this age are just happy to play with their friends. They don't need a lot of activities and usually seem more annoyed at adults interrupting their fun to move them to a new activity.
posted by katers890 at 1:34 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: kmennie - I really like the cupcake idea, but how do you do the candles bit with that setup? That's one of my daughter's favorite parts of a birthday.
posted by kitcat at 1:39 PM on August 15, 2014

Response by poster: Also, my house is not very big. At all. If it's raining and we have to be inside, where are the parents going to go? I'm hoping they will leave...
posted by kitcat at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2014

You don't want the parents to leave. You need help! Let them help! Be sure to have enough cool stuff to entice parents to stay.

Musical chairs. You can give a little prize to each kiddo as they are eliminated and a prize to the winner.

Teach them the Macarena Do the Hokey-Pokey.

For the winding down portion of the day, cue up Sophia the First from the Disney Channel. I had a little visitor that was tormenting my cats, we put that on, and zingo, happy on the floor watching, kitties safe for another day.

I LOVE the cupcake bar idea, so do that. Start with the candle in the birthday kid's cupcake first. Sing the song. Then let everyone else loose on the goodies!

Have some snacks and beers for the grown ups. We'll keep a good thought for a beautiful day so you can set things up outdoors.

If it were me, I'd order pizzas to balance out the sugar, and to have something for grown ups to eat while you all make sure that the little ones don't go totally ape-shit. If you order a few, you can get deal. Just get cheese for the kids, that's what they like anyway.

Have sunscreen and bug spray available for all to use.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:26 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like having a lot of little games with small prizes for everybody -- basically what you would put in a goody bag, instead is a prize. One year I even gave kids a paper bag to decorate when they arrived, and then they carried it around to all the stations. The biggest hits have been the fishpond and the ball toss.

I set up a mat as a short wall around our trampoline to be a fishpond, but you can look around your house and see if anything can be re-purposed that way. Then attach a paper clip to each sticker or temporary tattoo (whichever is popular with your crowd). Your fishing pole is any stick with a string and magnet attached to the end.

You can make a ball or beanbag toss by cutting large enough holes in the side of the box. Poster paint or construction paper can make a face or otherwise decorate it. Use any balls you have around in the house. I find it helps to have a weight in the bottom of the box so it doesn't move or tip a lot while kids are throwing balls at it. The time I did that I gave a prize that I only had enough of for each child, so they got a prize the first time they got a ball in, but not for subsequent times.

My daughter likes helping make these games in the weeks leading up to her birthday and it helps a bit with being patient for her party.

It's also nice to have a corner with blocks, or whatever good building toys you already have around the house.

Generally preschoolers will get really bored watching someone open presents. If you want a crowd, you can have your child open with each child as they finish eating their cupcake. You may also want someone less attached to watching present opening to watch the kids who wander back to the games.

Also, don't give out candy as a prize until the end of the party. You will have at least one kid eat their cupcake, drink their juice, and save absolutely none of their candy for later. I still feel bad about that child and how she threw up when she got home.

I think it's unlikely that most parents will drop off their child, but you know this group of parents better than us. If they drop off for playdates, they may for a party as well. If they stay, do your best to give them specific jobs, like hang out near the fishpond to make sure the kids are all getting turns, or whatnot.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:11 PM on August 15, 2014

Also, my house is not very big. At all. If it's raining and we have to be inside, where are the parents going to go? I'm hoping they will leave...

If you don't expect/want the parents to stick around, please note that somehow on your invitation.
I'm all for dropping of my child and running, but the default around here for kids that age is definitely is at least one parent sticking around.

For planning, you might be over thinking the whole thing.
These are kids that know each other, right? They're already inclined to play with each other.

Throw some toys out in the yard, let them run about like mad, feed them sugar, let them run about some more, then send them home.
If you must have an activity, get one of those packages of 25 bubble wands, get a huge jug of bubble solution, and let them have at it, or organize a game of freeze tag or hide and seek.

Pinatas are always a hit around here with that age group. The trinket ones are more popular than the candy ones.
posted by madajb at 7:07 PM on August 15, 2014

Around here, NOBODY does drop-off parties until the kids are at least 5 or 6. So I wouldn't count on parents leaving, if I were you. Just have some chairs at the side of the room & enough cups/beverages/extra cupcakes to offer to the parents and you'll be fine.
posted by belladonna at 7:38 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best parties I've had so far:

Rented out a small train and depot. The kids got to ride the train. I had rectangle cupcakes with wheels on them so that they could decorate their own train car. We had 'depot dogs' (hot dogs). It was fast, it was easy, and it was fun.

Rented out an indoor pool. Kids and parents arrived and swam for an hour. I had everyone get out of the pool for cake and presents. After the kids had already dripped dried, I broke the news to them that they couldn't get back into the pool because the party was over. No fights, no boredom, easy fun.

Since you will be in your house, serve the adults wine. They will have to stay, their children are too young to just drop off. Drink with the adults and leave things unstructured. The kids will play and then you can send them home and take a nap.
posted by myselfasme at 9:02 PM on August 15, 2014

Oh, games, with prizes! When my daughter turned four, we lived in a particularly impoverished neighborhood, and we weren't too flush ourselves. She and I made a papier mache dinosaur pinata together (it was just strong enough to last through 16 or so kids to each take a couple of whacks) and then we played 'pass the parcel' (a gift is wrapped in multiple layers of wrapping, music is played, when it stops, the child holding it gets to remove a layer) musical chairs, pin the tail on the donkey, statues (god, kids love this game), and one my mother taught us called 'squeak piggy squeak' where a child is blindfolded, and the other kids sit in a circle around them. They reach out and touch one kid and tell them to squeak or quack or moo and have to guess which of their friends it is. These games are good because they include everyone and are silly and funny. Prizes included pencils, notepads, funny erasers, that kind of thing. One good thing is that you can rig these games to ensure that everyone gets a prize. This party was the talk of the neighborhood for months afterward, and my daughter still remembers it, 17 years later. Cost very minimal, I served hot dogs and cake and ice cream. Goody bags were modest, with candy, small toy, balloons, pencils, hair elastics, etc. It's really old-fashioned, no theme, no costumes, and really egalitarian (I dislike costumes, crafts, etc, especially at that age because it becomes somewhat of a contest for BEST) What it does require is your total involvement in the process and preferably with an assistant, but it's so FUN! I hope to have grandchildren just so I can do it again.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 12:45 AM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah. The parents are NOT going to leave a 3 or 4 year old. If space is an issue you can request only one adult on the invitation but 5 or 6 is really the minimum for a no parents party.
posted by saradarlin at 1:11 AM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agreed that no one does drop off parties til the kids are 5 or 6. Only invite as many kids as you can handle parents (and probably siblings too. My kids' 5 birthday was at a gymnastics place and we had paid for 12 kids and 6 siblings showed up. Many of them were much older.)
Unless it is the social norm to invite the whole class, only invite kids your kid is close with.
Have enough food and drinks for parents and siblings too.
3 and 4 year old don't do all that well with organized activities, so the bouncy house is probably best.
I'd do bouncy house, then food and cake. Goody bags with stuff from oriental trading company. Have extras for siblings.
At that age you can still probably get away with no presents. But base this on the social norms of your circle. Once my kid was 5 things changed and presents became important.

I have lived in very urban areas for the past few years where it is normal to go to a gymnastics places, science center, pump it. Up etc, for birthdays... Less mess for you and lots of space for everyone.
posted by k8t at 2:12 AM on August 16, 2014

I just got back from dropping off my kid (age 3-1/2) at a birthday for a 4-year-old. I did not stay. This really depends on the kids, parents, etc. I noticed one parent staying behind which is fine, too. However, if you make it clear that it is the parent's choice to stay or go on the card, odds are you'll have a smaller group of parents to contend with. She's been to 4 bday parties this year, two were parents stay and two were optional, we left. But we know her friends and the parents in those situations.

I agree with everyone that you don't need to plan much, if anything. Have a focal play area, plenty of snacks and don't stress. I like the idea of passing out the loot bags early. Another option is to put them outside the door midway thru the party. Then, if some kid is having a hard time leaving, tell him that his goodie bag is on the front porch. :)
posted by amanda at 1:44 PM on August 16, 2014

Dress up! Get a bunch of large pieces of fabric in different colors and textures and let kids get creative (capes, togas, scarves, etc.) Go thrifting for simple, silly pieces (hawaiian or plaid or 70s button-up shirts, elastic waisted skirts, adult sizes can be worn like a dress or jacket plus scarves or any other random thing that catches your eye). Maybe pick up a few kid sized costume pieces at Target/Party City/etc. if you feel like its. Silly hats. See how long kids will free play with this stuff and/or set up a photo taking station (make a backdrop out of butcher paper or a plastic tablecloth).

Use a sheet as a parachute (cut it into a circle) and bounce balloons on it or have kids take turns underneath as others wiggle it on top of them, etc. (Or order an actual play parachute online somewhere, cheaper than a bouncy castle and resuable!)

Bubbles! Make your own solution which will work better than storebought (basically, Dawn or Joy dishwashing liquid + water + glycerin, recipes abound on the interwebs), put it in cookie sheets, shallow plastic tubs, plastic plates and you can buy or make lots of bubble wands. And/Or you can make these with string and straws and kids can try to make BIG bubbles.

Snack mix bar: put out different types of goodies with scoops and let kids fill up bowls or plastic baggies to take home. Can go healthier or junkier (cereals/granola, nuts, dried fruit, candy, goldfish, marshmallows, popcorn).

Pinterest can be good for DIY games and activities, but you may have to ignore some overly-precious, overly-styled parties staged for mommy blogs. Use search terms like: preschool, birthday, DIY, games, activities, etc.
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:15 PM on August 16, 2014

As far as avoiding tears, it might be good to have some kind of out for shy kids or ones who just get overwhelmed. For example, being blindfolded for a pinata would absolutely have made me cry at that age. I would also make some non-sugary food available. This thread is making this former shy, hypoglygemic child glad to be a grown-up (not that the ideas aren't good).
posted by Comet Bug at 11:01 PM on August 16, 2014

« Older online 12-step recovery meetings   |   building solid community in your thirties and... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.