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Everything You Need to Know to Throw a Perfect Party

Shorten your to-do list and lessen your stress with our birthday-bash ideas.

Set the scene for a super slumber party.
Set the scene for a super slumber party.

Your child's birthday is nearly here! Find out what you should know before the big day. We've compiled great ideas for games, food, and decorating tips to make the party a success.


Types of Parties:

Theme & Character
Pool/Outdoor Parties
Off-Beat Ideas

Theme & Character Parties

The Basics

If there's one character that covers all your child's clothes and dominates the toy chest, a character party is an easy choice — plus you can use those toys, stickers, and posters to help decorate. A theme party is a great way to unify all the aspects of the birthday party from food to games. Don't limit yourself only to TV characters or perennial favorites like dinosaurs and space — if your child is crazy for Hans Christian Andersen, hold a "Fairy Tales" party, or have an "Under the Sea" party for fish fiends and give out goldfish (real ones or just the crackers) for favors.

Best for: Ages 2-10


Buy a pack of invitations with the character, or make your own using clip art or other pictures you find on the Internet. For an even more hands-on approach, make the invitations with stickers and pictures pasted onto construction paper.


If you've picked a popular character, chances are there are whole sets of plates, napkins, balloons, and banners you can pick up the store. But you don't have to break the bank decorating with store-bought items. Create posters and banners with your child before the party — you can make a great collage of jungle animals or circus performers, or outline a few characters or creatures on big poster board and have kids color them right on the walls.


Be creative with food and snacks to make them suit your theme. Use food coloring to make green cookies for an alien party, put caramel popcorn in a wooden box for a treasure-trove snack, or just come up with creative names: make "Ingredient X Punch," display "Jungle Jelly Beans," or cut up a "Super Power Pizza."

For a cake, the obvious choice is to make or buy one decorated to your theme, but you can also buy figurines (such as dinosaurs) and decorate a plain cake. Check out your local dollar or discount store for toys that could double as cake toppers.


Coloring activities are easy to find for any theme and are a great way to entertain guests as they are first arriving. Then you can hang up the pages as part of the decorations! You can find printable coloring pages online that you'll just need to photocopy. Just make sure you have enough crayons to go around.

It's easy to customize Pin the Tail on the Donkey to any theme — just substitute the character for the donkey and change the tail to whatever you think works best — pinning a nose on a clown, the crown on a princess, or the wand on a magician.

Create a Bean Bag Toss with a big cardboard box and some paint. Create bean bags by filling old socks with rice or beans and sewing them closed. For the target, cut a hole in one side of the box and paint around the hole — make it the mouth of the character that the children have to feed.

Make a piñata that reflects your theme and fill it with treats that match the party, like Reese's Pieces for an E.T. party or gold coin chocolates for a pirate party.

Favor Ideas

Coloring books
Small toys and puzzles
Pencil toppers or erasers

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Slumber Parties

The Basics

Slumber, or sleep-over, parties have little to do with sleep and everything to do with late-night giggling and games. Since the kids will be spending the night, it's best to start this party just before dinner time, between 5-7 p.m. Kids should bring their own sleeping bags and pillows, but have a few extras on hand in case someone forgets or doesn't have one. Before guests arrive, talk with your child about when you expect everyone to be in bed and other ground rules, such as what TV shows and videos they are allowed to watch and if any areas of the house are off-limits. But make sure you also tell the guests yourself about bedtime rules so the birthday girl doesn't have to seem like a party pooper.

Best for: Ages 8-Up


Create the mood by designing an invitation in the shape of a pillow, or picturing a night sky or pair of PJ's on the front. Remind kids to bring sleeping bags, pillows, toothbrushes, and pajamas. Also, be specific about drop-off and pick-up times, so you don't end up taking care of guests the next day as well.


You probably won't need to do much in the way of decorating other than clearing out enough space for everyone to lay out their sleeping bags. Bring in any extra pillows and blankets and create a comfy space.

For a campout theme, put glow-in-the-dark plastic stars and planets around the room and bring in some plants. You can even set up a tent inside with flashlights, books, and board games.


There's something about pizza that goes perfectly with slumber parties, but any fun food works. Let guests make their own tacos or cook up some burgers and hot dogs. For dessert, instead of cake, why not let kids make their own s'mores or sundaes?

Have plenty of snacks on hand, such as popcorn, pretzels, and chips. For drinks, stock up on juice boxes and bottled water. Avoid giving caffeinated drinks and candy after the cake.

Don't forget breakfast! Buy a few variety packs of cereals so everyone can find a choice they like. If you host a sit-down breakfast, continue the festivities with doughnuts and pastries, or waffles with fresh fruit and whipped cream.


Some tried-and-true activities, such as Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board and Truth or Dare, will inevitably find their way into the nighttime festivities. Or set up a Beauty Parlor with nail polish, hair rollers, and peel-off masks.

To work out excess energy, why not suggest an early-evening Pillow Fight? Or pull out Twister. If you're feeling ambitious, set up a Scavenger Hunt for the guests. Make a list of things they can find in the house and yard, and include some fun prizes they can find like toys from the dollar store or mini-books.

To end the evening and get kids in bedtime mode, have a movie or two on hand. Have the children get in their sleeping bags, turn down the lights, and start the show.

Favor Ideas
Pocket flashlights
Travel toothbrush and toothpaste
Compasses and folding cups
Diaries or blank books

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Pool / Outdoor Parties

The Basics

If you've got a big backyard or a pool, and your child's birthday falls in a warm season, having an outdoor party is always great fun. You can have more guests since there's more space, and kids won't get easily bored in the great outdoors.

One caveat: Have an alternative plan in case of bad weather. Whether you move the party inside or choose to take everyone to the movies, be prepared.

Best For: Ages 4-Up


Send out any sun and fun themed card and let guests know what activities you're planning and what they need to bring. For a pool or water party, they'll need swim suits and towels, for sports they'll need sneakers. If swimming is involved, ask about each kid's swimming ability and encourage weaker swimmers to bring water wings or life jackets.


Cover tables with colorful tablecloths and have plenty of balloons everywhere. Or set up a Picnic Area somewhere in the yard, laying down blankets and weighting them with picnic baskets full of coloring books, cards, and other relaxing activities.

Balloons that are partially filled with water and partially filled with air will float on a pool's surface without sinking or blowing away. Not only does it make the pool look more festive, the kids will love swimming in the balloon-filled pool.


A natural choice is to bring out the barbecue grill and make hamburgers and hot dogs for the guests. Set up a "fixin's station" so children can make their meal just the way they want. Make sure to also have a vegetarian option such as veggie burgers or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for children with dietary restrictions. Juice boxes are great for outdoor events, since there's nothing to break and it's harder to spill them.

Set up a snack table with grapes, goldfish crackers, pretzels, and other summer snacks. Consider having an "ice cream stand" a family member runs out of a cooler instead of cake. Fill the cooler with Popsicles and ice-cream sandwiches and let "customers" order what they want.


A pool party will naturally invite games like Marco Polo and Water Volleyball, but any outdoor party can easily incorporate water play with a Slip 'n Slide or Wet Banana, or just turn on the sprinklers and watch the children make up their own games. To start things off, split the guests in half and play a game of Tug of War with the sprinkler in the middle, so the losers get soaked!

Hot Water Potato is a fun twist on the traditional game, using water balloons instead of a potato. Give it an extra edge by saying that if the "potato" drops and pops, the culprit gets sprayed with a hose. And the winner, of course, gets to throw the balloon!

For older children, having a water balloon fight is a great way to get everyone involved. Make sure you set a few rules (like no aiming for heads) so it doesn't get out of control.

Have alternative games for kids who don't like water or the sport of choice. Catch and Frisbee are great choices that only require two kids but can include everyone. Bubble blowing and kite flying are great for children who want to play alone.

Last, don't forget about traditional games like Tag, Dodgeball, Duck Duck Goose, and Blind Man's Bluff.

Favor Ideas
Beach balls
Sidewalk chalk
Rubber balls
Water squirters

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Destination Parties

The Basics

The great thing about having a bowling, mini-golf, movie, arcade, or zoo party (just to name a few) is that almost everything is taken care of — you just have to send out invitations and decide what you want to do about food. Going somewhere can be a costly option, especially if it's a large group. If you start the party at your house, you'll also have to figure out how you're going to get all those kids to the next location.

Best For: Ages 6-Up


Send out invitations tied to your activity — faux movie tickets or a card shaped like a bowling pin — and be specific about exactly where to meet and whether you will be providing transportation or if parents need to drop off and pick up their children. If you're doing something like ice skating, you may want to encourage kids who have their own equipment to bring it.


Most places you go to will have a concession stand, but it's a good idea to bring granola bars, boxes of raisins, snack-sized bags of chips and pretzels, and juice boxes to save money and trips back and forth from the stand. Bring enough brown paper lunch bags for each child and divide a jumbo popcorn (or two) among them. You can also bring fun-sized candy bars and other mini treats. Check with the venue to check that bringing your own food is okay — most places will let you bring in a cake, but some movie theaters don't allow any outside food.

Decorations & Activities

Just bringing a banner and some balloons to wherever you're going should be more than enough. Again, check beforehand to learn what the venue allows.

The destination should be the main activity, but it's a good idea to bring coloring books and crayons so kids can keep busy while waiting or if they get tired of the activity.

Favor Ideas
Movie theater gift certificates
Photos of guests taken during the party
Jacks, marbles, or yo-yos
Medals or awards

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Off-Beat Ideas

The Basics

If none of the traditional parties appeal to your child, or what he really wants is to have a "different" party, throw out tradition and try to really create a party that speaks to his interests. If he likes nothing better than breakfast at a fast-food restaurant, have a "Good Morning Party" at the hot spot. If she's a bookworm, host a book exchange party. A mystery lover? Enlist the whole family to play parts in a Mystery Dinner party. Or consider going on a tour of a fire station or other field trip with a few friends.

Two especially well-loved themes: Arts & Crafts and Tea Party. Tea parties are especially good for younger girls who may not want a lot of people but still want to have a fancy day.

Best For: Off-beat kids of any age


Be creative with an Arts & Crafts invite. Copy a recent picture your child has drawn or tie it to the main craft activity — a tie-dye design or spin-art picture. Also, be sure to tell guests to wear clothes they can get messy.

For a Tea Party, send teacup-shaped cards or swanky-looking invites with instructions to come in "dress-up clothes." You can also suggest guests bring a stuffed animal friend.


For the Arts & Crafts party, cover a few tables with sturdy white paper tablecloths and put down centerpieces of crayons so kids can draw right on the tables. Put out all the supplies you'll need on another table. Hang up a hand-painted banner and invite guests to add their own personal touch.

For the Tea Party, set the table with pretty tablecloths, flowers, doilies, flowered plates and cups. Create a place card for each guest which lists their full name, or let the guests pick their own title — such as Princess Birthdaybottom — and copy it down when they arrive.


Instead of cake, let the guests of an Arts & Crafts party decorate their own cupcakes with different colored frosting and sprinkles. You can carry the do-it-yourself theme all the way through by letting young artists create their own mini-pizza masterpieces.

For the Tea Party, make lots of fancy finger food: little pastries, cookies, and tiny sandwiches with the crusts removed. Place them on silver trays and have a family member serve the guests throughout the tea. As for the tea itself, most children aren't big fans of tea, so pour some lemonade or juice in a teapot for the guests to sip from their teacups.


Arts & Crafts are the focus of activities — you just have to choose which ones you want to include. You can set up different "stations" where each table has a different craft, such as Painting, Collage, Spin Art, Potato Stamps, Modeling Clay, even Shrinky Dinks. Or you can choose one activity as the focus such as Tie Dye. The great thing about the Arts & Crafts party is that the finished products become the favors the guests take home.

For a break from crafts, play Pictionary or an Art Trivia Game. Or set up a Face Painting Station.

Beyond the Tea Party itself, you might want to set up a game of croquet for the young ladies. Backyardless? Set up a trunk full of dress-up clothes and an area where the girls can give each other make-overs. Then take polaroids of the beautiful results that each can take home.

And don't forget to rouse everyone for a grand rendition of I'm a Little Teapot!

Favor Ideas
Crayons or colored pencils
Colored chalk
Beaded necklaces
Plastic costume jewelry
Plastic tea sets

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