It sounds pretty simple on the face of it, so why did I almost end up having panic attacks about organising my daughter Sofia’s fourth birthday party?
First off, Sofia’s friends have birthdays around the same time of year, so the first rule was: get in early. One of the mums sent out the invitations for her child’s party over two months ahead of time. This clashed with when we were planning Sofia’s so I had to change date. My husband thought I was mad for doing this but I didn’t want her to have the disappointment of low attendance.
The new date was when another friend turned four so we decided to do a joint party. That should have reduced the stress but didn’t. We immediately started calling up soft play centres, children’s farms and hirers of bouncy castles/play equipment plus suitable venues to house them. Everywhere was booked up or else we couldn’t get a venue and equipment hired on the same day; or was extortionately expensive. This was 11 weeks ahead of the party date. Rule number two: get in early (again!).
Booking a catered for party at a farm, soft play centre or similar does take so much of the stress out of it. The venue is suitable; you don’t have to worry about the food, entertainment and clearing up. However, do check out the small print as costs can suddenly mount up. Do you have to pay extra for siblings and parents? One venue allowed one adult free per eight children. With a guest list of 30+, that was quite a lot of adults to pay for. Is a cake and candles included in the price or do you need to provide your own? Similarly, do they decorate the room?
As time started to run out we decided to host the party at our house. For this fourth birthday party, all parents stayed, but (from anecdotal accounts) it seems that by five, many parents drop off their child. So, you need to establish who is dropping and running as you may have sole responsibility for many more children than you had bargained for and may need to bring in reinforcements.
A theme seems to be de rigueur at the moment and it does actually help with the organisation. We settled on Pirates and Princesses as that hopefully catered for everyone (both the party girls went with the pirate theme by the way).
Once the theme, venue and time are confirmed, get the invites out ASAP. I had to sit down with Sofia for quite a while to confirm the guest list, ensuring that she had remembered everyone she really wanted there and hadn’t included those that she’d once said hello to at nursery. We opted for a start time of 2pm. This gave us plenty of time in the morning to prepare stuff and also meant that the children had already had lunch at home and didn’t arrive immediately wanting to sit down for food.
After the invites are out try and do as much in advance as possible. I immediately booked a face painter, which worked well as it gave something for the early arrivers to get on with while waiting for the rest of the guests. I found Party Delights was great for getting our pirate and princess plates, table clothes, loot bags etc. We also bought two piñatas from there. A word of warning on these though, you often have to buy the stick and the actual toys for inside separately. The pound shop was great for getting loot bag fillers, pass the parcel gifts and games prizes, and the local toyshop had lots of pick and mix pocket money toys, which were also ideal. Pass the parcels were made up days in advance – do not underestimate how long these take to do! – as were the loot bags.
If you are having a cake custom made, sort this out sooner rather than later and collect the day before so that you are not running around on the day itself.
The food worked well. We taped plastic tablecloths onto the floor and had a picnic with all the food we had prepared in the morning. This meant that the children could sit where they liked. We went for both healthy options and party treats. We opted for cartons of drink instead of cups so they could grab their own and we didn’t have to spend ages pouring stuff out. It also minimized spillages.
The best advice is to keep it simple; something I didn’t really do and wish I had. As a friend remarked, the more games you try and plan the more stressful it is trying to rally tons of kids to do something you probably want to do more than them. My husband – getting carried away – ordered glow in the dark badges (which I had to write every child’s name onto) and glow sticks and bracelets. They looked good, but I spent a ridiculous amount of time breaking the sticks and badges to make them work and not actually focusing on the party itself. We had a disco room, and I think the children would have been more than happy to have their face painted and have a boogie followed by the party tea. Instead, I was continually trying to organise them to sit in a circle or do this game or that game.
So my experience taught me that to make everything as stress free as possible, plan well ahead, especially if you want a particular venue; prepare as much as possible in advance and try not to be too ambitious.
At the end of the day, they are just happy to be with their friends playing and dancing. What’s stressful about that…?