Having worked in events for several years before embarking upon my journalistic career, I thought I knew everything there was to be known about planning a party. Where to hold it, what to serve, who to invite and how to entertain them. The more lavish, and quirky, the better. But then came children… Nothing had prepared me for the pressure you feel as a mum to put on the perfect party for your offspring. Pressure not only from the little angels themselves, but from family, friends, and most importantly other kids’ mums. Slip up on your superhero knowledge with Stanley, or serve sandwiches instead of brioche to Bronwyn, and your ranking in the Mum of the Year stakes at the local nursery or school falls faster than a flamingo on a unicycle. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s not pretty.
Up until now, my son’s birthday celebrations have been fairly dignified occasions. For his first, we went for a curry (he particularly enjoyed the mango chutney), for his second – an Italian (cue hilarity at his attempts to inhale spaghetti) and for his third, a cake and some crisps at home with the family. So far, so quiet and uneventful. But as he approached the Big 4, it became increasingly clear we would have to organise some sort of shindig for him and his peers. Up until now I have always been the second youngest person at his parties as we just tended to fill the room with grandparents (the beauty of coming from broken families is that your kids get double the grandparents, thus double the love – and gifts!) but this time we had to make it all about him. So the preparation began in earnest. I consulted books, emailed friends and even found a few hints from Pippa Middleton after a particularly late-night Google search. Then I found Tommy Balaam, creator of the Captain Fantastic children’s entertainer empire, and all my questions were answered. Gleaning advice from Tommy himself and the blog on the Captain Fantastic website, I managed to pull off the exhausting feat of hosting a kid’s birthday party, and coming out the other side in one piece. So here’s what I learnt:
Also – make sure you book the venue with enough time either side to set up and pack down and entertainment! Grandparents are great to get on hand for clearing up duties after everyone has gone!
2) Pick a theme
Kids love to dress up, and a theme keeps things interesting, but keep it generic – If your child is a Batman fan – pick heroes and villains. Don’t do anything too gender specific. Not all girls want to be princesses, and some boys do! Girls can be superheroes, and boys can be ballerinas. Our son is Solar System obsessed, so we had a Space Party. It’s good to give guests the option of dressing up, but not make it compulsory. A theme allows as much or as little as they like, whereas stipulating Fancy Dress can put pressure on parents, and kids.
There’s so much to consider when choosing an entertainer. The most important factors are: Are they reputable? Do they carry the relevant insurance? What experience do they have? We were recommended Captain Fantastic by several friends and couldn’t have been happier. A good entertainer will have great reviews as well as examples of their work on their website. And I must admit I even used advice from the Captain Fantastic blog to help me plan other elements of our event.
4) Structure it right
Two hours is normally enough for ages three and up, one hour will do for littler ones. If you have more than one form of entertainment – dedicate areas and times throughout the party so they can be made the most of! We did bouncy castle for half an hour at the start, and then Captain Fantastic for two hours, with a break for refreshments – and the cake – in the middle. This is a great opportunity to regain control of the room, give the entertainer a quick breather, and keep hungry kids happy.
5) What do I feed them?
Make sure you know if any guests have specific allergies or dietary requirements, or separate food and clearly label it vegan, halal, kosher etc. Lunch boxes are great as it keeps mess to a minimum and most kids will finish the contents of one – if you have a spread of food there are always leftovers. We learned this when we ended up eating egg rolls for a week! Or to save on effort – just order a pizza delivery!
6) The cake
A cake can make or break a children’s party. Bring out the wrong one and you’ve got tears on the tablecloth before bedtime, or serve up one that’s too small and the kids will be revolting (to be fair, they’re pretty revolting by this stage anyway). It’s good to bring out the cake to a Happy Birthday sing song, then quickly whisk it away and promise a piece in a party bag, otherwise you face a free-for-all more intimidating and out-of-hand than a Black Friday sale at Wilkos. Order a cake online, buy a branded one from a supermarket, or make it yourself. Kids don’t care what it tastes like, it’s cake, it just has to look right. I managed to rope in my husband to create Baby Boy’s masterpiece – a Solar System cake, of course, complete with asteroid belt and dwarf planets for our little amateur astrologist.
With a party on almost every week during the school term, it’s easy to reel in horror at the thought of all the plastic being piled into landfill after each event! But making just a few changes can cull the carbon footprint of your party. Use recyclable paper plates instead of plastic ones, get guests to carpool if they can’t walk to the event, and check out eco-friendly gifts for party bags such as wooden toys rather than plastic ones.
8) Who to invite
Ask your child who they want to invite. Much as you want to see your friends who also happen to have kids, if they’re not who the birthday boy or girl wants to see, just leave it for a later date. We set up a Facebook event page and kept it private to invite most people, and those that we weren’t ‘friends’ with we just posted an invite to. For older kids, discreet invitations after school, or emails, can avoid hurt feelings if you’re not inviting the whole class.
Invite at least a month in advance to ensure you have a good idea of numbers, but allow for a few no shows on the day, as well as last-minute extras when siblings may come along too.
9) Wrapping it up
At the end of your party, your entertainer can help to wind the children down ready for home-time. Speak to them about this before and see if there can be a ‘signing out’ song. If you’re going it along, just start turning off the music, deflating the bouncy castle and clearing up the mess – people will soon get the hint! Have party bags ready and initiate a cue.
It’s always hard to ask for particular presents, or put off unwanted ones, but if you want to lead guests in the right direction, create a Wish List from a shopping site so you can send a link to anyone who asks. If you’d rather not be overloaded with piles of gifts then just say there’s no need to buy presents. And just accept that if you choose a theme you are likely to get presents along those lines.
11) Most importantly: have a good time!
Serve beer if you want to (to the parents, not kids), get dressed up if you want to, or take a back seat and let someone else do it all for you. At the end of the day, if you’ve done all you can to make sure Birthday Boy or Girl is having fun, there’s not much else you can do. And if they see you enjoying their party, chances are they’ll be smiling too.