Hosting a child’s birthday party can be stressful and takes time and preparation. There are ways to minimize the work and stress and maximize the memories for your child and others.

Based on my child’s age, what type of party is appropriate?

Ages 1 – 3:  The party is for the family and close friends. The best entertainer would be someone who plays guitar for musical games, or perhaps a puppeteer. A six foot Clifford or Elmo character could well frighten the children more than resemble the cuddly figures on TV and in books.

Ages 4 – 5:  Silly is in! Young kids enjoy games where they can imitate the game leader’s motions, and sing-alongs. Princess parties are popular. Magicians and clowns with experience working with children this age are also great. Costume characters work better for this age, but may need an assistant if expected to do more than pose for pictures.

Ages 5 – 8:  This is the golden age for birthday parties. Kids love learning and roll-playing. Their main fear is being treated like little kids. (I’m biased, but magicians agree these are the perfect ages for children’s magic shows.)

Ages 9 and up:  Some think they are almost too cool for birthday parties, but still want to celebrate. Pool parties might be good. An entertainer would need to treat them almost like grown-ups. Kids still love to learn, so having them learn something is more interesting to them than simply watching.

How many children to invite and how far in advance to plan?  In determining the number to invite, balance the risk of a possibly disappointingly low turnout with cost and crowd management considerations. If the number of guests exceeds ten, seek other grown-up help during the party. Even if requesting RSVPs, accept that an accurate headcount is unlikely. If a theme is chosen for the party, the theme can begin with the invitations. Invitations are best distributed two weeks prior to the party. If professional entertainment is desired, that is best to arrange more than a month prior as popular entertainers often book months in advance.

When to host the party?  Most parties are on weekends with Saturday the most popular. If you plan early, you’re more likely to be able to reserve a popular entertainer and get your invitations out before the guests have other commitments. Friday early evenings are also good times for children’s parties. Ninety minutes to two hours are good lengths, with perhaps the shorter lengths for younger children. Be sure to include on the invitations both the start time and the end/pick-up times. Prepare a schedule for yourself of events for the party. The schedule does not have to be followed exactly, but you do not want to be racing at the end or not have the guests ready to go at the specified pick-up time. As a courtesy to the guests’ parents, make it clear on the invitation whether a meal will be served.

Where to hold the party?  In addition to hosting the birthday party at the child’s home, there are venues that cater to children’s birthday parties.  Some options include kid friendly restaurants, city recreation centers, movie theaters, and venues that offer activities such as laser tag, rock climbing, gymnastics, miniature golf and bowling.  Parent Magazine is a great place to look for ideas. If the party is at any of these places, your home is protected from the onslaught, and you are paying to have the venue clean up.

How to entertain guests?  If you plan to have activities outside, have a back-up plan in the event outside conditions are unfavorable.  Start the party with quiet games that start and end quickly so guests arriving can quickly engage. Starting the featured entertainment 30 minutes after the start of the party helps ensure late arrivers do not miss or disrupt the fun. If a professional entertainer (magician, musician, clown/balloon twister, face-painter, costumed character, tea party, etc.) has been arranged it is usually best if the performer can set up without the kids present.

How to involve the birthday child?  The child can help choose a theme for the party and help prepare the guest list.  The birthday child’s favorite games at school may be good games for the party. The child may have great suggestions for goody bags. Another way to honor the birthday child is to have the cake be his or her favorite flavor.

Should we open presents at the party?  There is no right answer, but I favor not opening presents during the party. Certainly there is excitement and some joy when the birthday child receives valued treasures. But more often there can be disappointment when the gift is redundant or unappreciated.

Here are some more ideas and tips to help with planning.

The Meal:  If the party is at mealtime, keep it VERY simple.  Cheese pizza is an easy choice. Juice cartons are not the cheapest drinks, but are the easiest. The kids usually would rather be playing than eating, so speed, price and convenience can trump the fine dining experience.

Pictures and Video:  Your child (and you) will some day love looking back at photos and recall the fun of this special birthday celebration. Your child may especially enjoy looking back at long-time friends and seeing them as they were then. The time invested taking pictures creates far more lasting rewards than the same time spent decorating or cooking. Take a LOT of pictures. Videotape a LOT of the party. Most of the photos should be candid and action shots – more fun and less disruptive than lined-up poses.

Decorations:  Do it if you want to impress the family or the parents; it is usually less important to the kids. Put a few balloons on the mailbox, by the front door, and in the ‘party’ room and you’ve created a colorful festive environment at low cost and little effort. If you theme the party, a few themed decorations are enough.

Goody Bags:  Kids have come to expect them. Have your child visit party supply stores and pick out a few trinkets. Wrapped candies are also good to include.

Coach the Birthday Child:  Based on the age/maturity of your child, coach your child to greet each new guest upon arrival, and thank guests for coming upon their departure. The birthday child can present each departing guest with a goody bag. Having the child help on thank you notes is a great opportunity to model graciousness.

Enjoy:  Do not expect perfection. In fact, coping with problems may be among the memories you look back on some day and laugh. Know that the entire party will only last a couple hours, but with some planning, some hard work, and some luck, you are providing your child with a wonderful memory that will last a lifetime.

By Robert Westcott, Magician