Even the “simplest” home birthday parties require a theme, activities, some sort of nibbles if not a spread, cake and ice cream, decorations and goody bags.
With two kids, ages 9 and 11, I know of what I speak. I’m a veteran of 20 birthday parties, after all.
The first few years of b-day bashes are actually the easiest. Usually, they are gatherings of other parents, some with tots in tow (often around the same age as the celebrant) and family members. An assortment of age appropriate toys on a blanket, bowls of goldfish crackers and pretzels, some veggies and dip and a cake are all you really need.
Well, of course it is a bit more complicated than that. The b-day host has to make sure the house is “presentable” and baby-safe. There is naptime to work around. Then there is the decision as whether to make it a parent-party with dinner and wine or a quick mid-day baby-centered event.
After the age of three or four, birthday parties shift to being more about your child and his or her interests and friends. Generally the parents hang around for parties during these years, and there are lots of hands to help with craft activities, lots of eyes to help supervise at the playground. I loved parties during the toddler years because they always felt like community events.
Some of the nicest parties I remember attending when my kids were pre-school aged were simple affairs at a local park or playground or in someone’s recreation room at home. Floor play, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, cake and we were done.
These post-toddler but younger-than-kindergarten parties usually entail some drama of “he has my toy” or “I didn’t get a turn,” but usually problems are quickly solved, and often related to hunger or fatigue. Parties at this age are often quite brief and fairly easy as a result.
I found that birthdays morphed into a new land — one with higher stakes and more pressure — in the early elementary school years. For me, this feeling emerged after an extravagant party thrown by a kindergarten family early in the school year. The family invited the entire class, with siblings, and hired a duck boat. After touring the city and a trip down the Charles River, the hosts treated all the kids and parents to pizza in Charlestown.
From then on it seemed like a race to host the next, greatest party. Talk about pressure, not to mention a fair amount of guilt and even shame if your financial situation does not allow for this type of splendor.
But I digress.
By the time first grade rolls around, parties are often drop-off, meaning the parents no longer stay for the party. This makes things a little simpler, because there are fewer people around and the party can be catered solely to the birthday child and his or her friends.
At any age you have the choice of having the birthday party at home or at a museum, gym or other activity focused place that offers parties.
I’ve found home parties tend to involve a lot of work and planning. Often, I’ve thought they would be cheaper and easier than having a party out, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure that is true.
For me, making the cake for each party is always a highlight of a home party. It is fun to discuss the cake with the birthday celebrant, create a plan or design for the cake and then make and decorate it together.
The low-light for me is always cleaning up -- before and after the party.
Everything in between is usually a blur of noise, games, and, hopefully, fun.
Personally, I find home parties can be stressful. There are also endless decisions about the party theme, what foods to serve, how to handle dietary issues and allergies of guests, how to structure the party, what games to play or activities to do and what on earth to put in the goody bags.
Our home themes have included princesses, make-your-own pizza, monster truck and Lego building parties.
My friend, Kellie, recently mentioned the home-based party she threw for her daughter. “It involved a scavenger hunt, glittery walking trail, and relay races, then a dress up area and games. I’ve never been so exhausted as I was after that party,” she said.
For this reason, some people prefer to have parties outside of the home. There are endless choices out there. The Science Museum, Children’s Museum and New England Aquarium all offer parties. There’s the Plaster Fun Time chain and other retail outlets like Build-A-Bear and events the Lego Store that offer parties. You can plan rock-wall climbing parties, swim or gym parties, gymnastic and tumbling parties, cooking parties, art parties, and let’s not forget bowling parties!
So, what are the some of the best places to have parties?
I asked my kids about their favorite or most memorable birthday parties. My daughter said she loved last year’s party at Dedham Health's Summer Club. You book a party date and rain date at the outset. The birthday is a three-hour time period where kids get to play on waterslides, in the wave pool, zero depth area, lap pool, and splash pad area. The party comes with a reserved table in a covered party area. No outside food is allowed, except cake, but you can include food in your package, making it a very easy party to throw. And you don’t have to be a member to book a party there.
The only nerve-wracking thing was the weather. Our party was held on a day that called for thunderstorms, which an hour before the party had yet to materialize. We went ahead with the party, but had to leave the pool after just an hour when lightening flashed, causing a mandatory 1-hour pool closure after the last sighting of lighting.
Price: Approximately $23 per child including food items from the snack bar (hot dog, hamburger or grilled cheese, chips and drink). Minimum of 10 kids. $19 per person without food. Bring your own cake.
My son’s favorite party was the time we took friends to Archery USA in Dedham. The party included a safety lecture, shooting demonstration, rental of bows, arrows and protective gear, time on the shooting range and then fun activities like popping balloons placed at the targets. There is no party room, but the plaza where Archery USA is located also has a Papa Gino’s and we moved there for pizza and cake. The staff at Papa Gino’s was easy to work with and had our pizzas waiting for us at the time we requested.
Cost: $15 per archer/10 guest minimum. (Papa Gino’s is additional).
Recent addition to area party options include:
Sky Zone, a trampoline park in Hyde Park. BOOK EARLY. This place is extremely popular for parties and weekends book up fast. $16-18 per person, depending on day of week. Rate includes 1-hour jump time, rental shoes and party room, plus two large pizzas and drinks for the group. T-Shirt for B-Day child. Minimum of 10 people.
Laser Quest in West Roxbury. Open less than a year, Laser Quest offers one of the largest laser tag arenas in the state, with three towers, black lights and mulit-levels. Parties include two games per person and private party room. $17/ per person. 8 person minimum.
As kids get older, it can be nice to have an extra-special birthday plan with just one or two close friends. Going to a concert, out for a fancy dinner or to the theatre may be just the ticket.