Christmas index

Party Ideas

When I was a young child, birthdays were always celebrated with a birthday party, held at your own house, with games and too much to eat. Twenty years ago, when I was giving parties for my own child's friends, there was still the same type of party, although some people hired a hall, or took children to a commercial place instead. I don't know what happens now, but here are some memories of mine, plus some tips if anyone is planning a children's party.

GeneralGames and things to do
Thoughts to ponder, first
The start
General comments about games
Food
Party bags
Treasure hunt
Hunt the Thimble
Musical games
Song games
Creeping up games
Tricks and puzzles
Things to make

Thoughts to ponder, first

Before you start, I think you ought to face certain facts. It's not all going to be perfect. No child will thank you for your hard work unless reminded to by a polite mother. You are not doing this to be the perfect parent, or to outshine other parents. There is one aim, and that is, that the children who come, on the whole, enjoy themselves - nothing more. (Oh yes, and that you don't end up a nervous wreck, and not too much gets broken.)

All my parties, both as a child and a parent, were at home, so that is where all these ideas are based. But if your child has set his heart on going to the local hamburger joint - is it really fair to insist on a home party? You will have to negotiate. It's not your birthday, after all! But a home party can be cheaper and more fun. Or a complete disaster. Even with a small house, you can do a fair amount if you clear out the furniture first. Perhaps the table will reduce in size and can be pushed to the wall. Chairs can be tucked under the table. Chairs and general junk can be taken into bedrooms. One year, our sofa ended up on the lawn (it was fine weather, luckily.) This does mean, unfortunately, restoring all the furniture afterwards, when you're exhausted.

Think about the number of children coming. If you do have a small house, then there may be a real physical limit. More children means more complications will arise, you're more likely to get bad behaviour, things are more likely to get out of control, food and party bags will get more expensive. I've heard of a good rule "The number of children should not be more than a child's age", so 5 children for a 5 year old party, and so on. I don't think I ever did more than about 10.

I had a May birthday, so many of my parties as a child were outside. We even did sports! No other party was like this. All my friends had conjurors. I sat through conjuror after conjuror, week after week, and I did get very bored with it! I learnt that you didn't have to be the same as everyone else. Of course, the different party must be a success! And don't try to out-do whatever the previous party did. But if you (and your child) want to try something different, then why not?

Themed parties are popular, but I tend to distrust them. Of course, if your child is mad on dinosaurs or a particular film or TV programme is the craze of the hour, then any reference to this will be popular. But you don't make a party by deciding that 'Pirates' is the theme, buying a lot of Pirate-related stuff, and expecting an instant party. That's just the decoration, and not important.


The Start

Before the start, you need to think what games you are doing and any necessary preparations. You may need to clear the room. You may need to find some suitable music. Try to prepare food as much as possible. So you don't need to open the crips, but plonk the bags, unopened, in the plates or bowls where they will end up. Look out plates, glasses, straws, everything you're going to use. You do NOT want to do this in the middle of a party when your nerves are frazzled!

Some of the little darlings will turn up late. Some might even be early. There will be a hiatus where not everyone has arrived. Opening of presents can fill this time. You can play some music (check with your child that it's acceptable beforehand). Perhaps there can be something to look at. I use one of those lava lamps at parties - children always seem fascinated by them. After a bit, I think you just start, and the late-comers can lump it. Once a mother and her child turned up half an hour late and seemed annoyed that we'd already started. The whole party was only an hour and a half long!


General comments about games

Children get over-excited at parties. And they get bored. Some children hate parties, because they think they will be humiliated in some way. So those are some of the things that you are trying to guard against. I think that you should state, quite firmly, that if any child doesn't want to play a game, they can sit and watch everyone else. They are not allowed to wander round, watching TV, playing computer games or similar. The choice is either play the game, or sit it out and do nothing. (And check halfway through if they now want to join in.) The point of the party is that they enjoy themselves, and you can't compel happiness.

Not all games will 'work'. You will be able to see the difference quite easily, believe me! Either the children are smiling, even boisterous, intent on the game. Or they are wandering off, needing encoragement, looking bored. Try to prepare lots of games, and if one isn't generally working, then bring it to a halt quickly and start something else.

Some games are energetic and some are quiet. People seem to think that a perfect party is one where children rush around the whole time. No. The best plan is to alternate boisterous games and quiet ones. Let them let off steam and shout a bit and run around. Then quieten them down, possibly sit them down, and have a quiet game. The noisy ones will end up better behaved, the quiet ones will enjoy themselves more, and everyone will end up tired but content. Especially be careful round eating. If you can have a bit of quiet before and after the birthday 'tea', then life will be easier for everyone. It makes setting the tea and clearing it away easier as well! Some games need more concentration, others are easier and unstructured. So mix these up as well. On the whole, don't have anything too complicated to start, or as the last game, when they are getting tired. Also, have a mix of games. One musical game would probably be enough.

Prizes - oh yes - this can cause problems! I think that you don't want to have valuable prizes. Competition may be a fine thing, but I don't believe that any child really likes losing, and if they have to watch someone else not only get praised, but rewarded as well... I suppose that this is a hang-over from a childhood when of all the parties I went to, I only won one prize. I hated it. (And didn't even like getting the prize.) But there are other ways. Make the prize to be a small sweet, and have a pretty bowl of a choice of sweets and allow the child to choose. Or no prize, and everyone claps the winner. Or even non-competitive games. Or everyone gets a prize. Why not? This is a party, not school or real life! However it's not a good idea to be constantly handing out sweets for every game. General stickiness all round. But an occasional competitive game can change the mood. Children can even compete without there being a winner.


Food

Food has definitely got more complicated! In my childhood, you got some (rather nasty) sandwiches, a bowl of jelly and the Birthday cake. But lately, there are all sorts of food restrictions, of more, or less, medical credibility. Never mind, if a parent says that a child must not eat something then you must try to comply. I had one party where I was balancing no food colouring from one mother, with no beef products (this was in the days of BSE) and therefore no jelly (did you know that it was made of meat gelatine?) from another. Another party, one person couldn't eat dairy products and another was a vegetarian. There may be religious constraints as well. Best to find out beforehand and plan ahead. You may have to offer a choice, and to police individual children who may want to grab illegal foods. The nut allergy may be fatal, by the way, so don't mock it. I think you would need a long conversation with the parent about that. I am less tolerant of parents who believe in the 'sugar rush'. A quiet time after a meal benefits all children, whether they've eaten sugar or not, and I've never found a child being difficult about it. And I think there is medical evidence that the 'sugar rush' doesn't exist. But any child fed a yummy food which he normally isn't allowed may well get over-excited.

The Birthday cake seems to be compulsory, and yet children rarely eat it at the tea. A brilliant idea which has arisen since my childhood is to cut slices, wrap them in paper napkins, and pop them into party bags. Quite apart from anything else, this helps to fill the party bag. This might affect the style of cake. Make a flattish square cake, and put small sweets in a grid-like pattern, and then you can slice the cake into small squares, each with their own sweet.

Surprisingly enough, children have quite savoury tastes. I've seen chocolate brownies completely ignored, while crisps are eaten in handfuls. There are various general rules. Imagine what one child will eat, and multiply it by the number of children. Add a bit for good luck, but that gives you an idea of how much to produce. It sounds obvious, but it's odd how much food some people produce, and then get surprised when it doesn't all get eaten. Another good rule is: Buy food that you will enjoy finishing up yourself! Make sure everything is in small portions. Enormous cakes and biscuits will be left. Cut them into tiny pieces, and let children take one piece, then another one, and then another... Don't spend ages making beautiful food if it's going to break your heart if they don't eat it. If you give several parties, then you get some idea of what disappears, and what doesn't. After that, it's just a matter of balancing your budget with your conscience. My conscience allowed children to eat some trash at parties, I must admit!

Here are some strange ideas that you might like to consider. A fresh pineapple is quite cheap, and a splendid object. Perhaps some children wouldn't like it, but some do, even if they've never tried it before. Cut the pineapple in slices, quarter each slice, then reassemble it into its original shape, complete with its top leaves. This is possible if they're quite thick slices. To serve it, take off the top, and children seize a piece and gnaw it away from the rind. Have a bowl for the left-over rinds. Yes - a bit sticky!

I saw another party having raw carrots cut into sticks. To my surprise, they were very popular. Goodness gracious me! (I hate raw carrot.) Very cheap, and yes, I did do it for my own parties as well.

In our small house, we couldn't get all the children round our table and there weren't enough chairs. I put down a plastic table cloth on the carpet, and everyone sat round it and had an indoor picnic. What's more, I used the table cloth year after year - I still have it, I think.

In my childhood, parties meant jelly and straws for the drinks. Both are very cheap, and both still seem popular. If there aren't too many children, they can make their own 'cocktails'. Use fizzy lemonade (very cheap) as a base. Buy two or three different coloured squashes, orange, strawberry and so on. Cut up some oranges into slices, with a cut to the middle so they will fit on the side of a glass. Allow the children to mix these to make their own cocktail, and drink them through straws. If you have cocktail umbrellas as well, that's splendid. (Very cheap, and they can go in the party bags. Look along supermarket aisles - they sometimes have them.) I warn you that the cocktails look disgusting, but the children are very proud of them.

The timing of the food is quite important. Not too early, as after the food, the party has a definite feel of "it's nearly over". Not too late, as then the parents start turning up. Work out something definite to do after the food, to restart the party. This could be watching part of a film. A lot films have good action sequences, lasting for about ten to twenty minutes. Find a good one, position it in the right place, time it so you know how long it lasts, and you have peace and quiet (apart from the soundtrack) while you remove the worst of the crisps from the carpet. They probably know the film already, so it doesn't matter that they haven't followed the plot. My own favourites was the race in Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, the highschool dance in Grease, and the trains in Great St Trinian Train Robbery - shows my age! This advice has also dated - you can't position a DVD at the right point in the same way as a video tape, alas... If you don't like the idea of a film, then perhaps a few tricks or puzzles to entertain them for a bit.


Party Bags

There weren't any party bags when I was young! But now they seem to be a tradition. They can get expensive, but there are ways round that.

You need to work out a budget. How many children are there? How much do you feel like spending? What is that per child? Probably not very much. Start with the bag. You can buy special party bags, fitting in with your theme, no doubt, but they will cost you. You might be able to find unthemed, cheaper party bags. Or you can use still cheaper bags, even plastic or brown paper food bags, and put a little decoration on them to make them look special. A sticker, perhaps, or some decorated sticky tape, or tie it with a ribbon. Proper ribbons are expensive, but you can get cheap ribbon-type stuff at Christmas. You could even make your own bags, if you have some interesting looking paper spare (perhaps old wrapping paper?) Stick the edges with sticky tape or glue.

What goes inside them? Here cost becomes an important factor. Sweets (candy) are cheap, and it's hard to resist a few in the party bag. Have a look in the supermarket for small bags of sweets. But don't use a bag per party bag. Buy several different types of sweets, open all the bags and put a few of each in each party bag. That way each child gets a good mixture and it doesn't cost as much. Avoid chocolate, I suggest. It melts at too low a temperature! Still, you don't yet have a full party bag. A slice of birthday cake helps, of course!

Have a look for collections of things rather than individual items. You need to buy multiples of single items, which multiples the cost, but you need only buy one collection and split it up. If you can find a cheap bag of marbles, then put one marble in each bag. You can buy a page of stickers, and let every child have a few or even one. Stationery is good - packs of pens or pencils or felt-tips are quite cheap, which means that a single pen or pencil or felt-tip is VERY cheap! If you have a stapler (and the time), you could make little note-books to go with the paper. Little cocktail umbrellas are good (see the food section, above). Prowl round supermarket aisles, and Pound shops, and use your imagination. Would that pack of twelve costing a pound and containing XXX be interesting to children? If you have to find ten party bags and you buy toys at a pound each, then five toys per bag cost 50. Buy ten multiple packs of this and that costing a pound each, then each party bag will contain 10 items (possibly rather eccentric) and the total cost will only be cost 10.

I'm not quite sure why we can't treat party bags as doggy bags, and children fill them up with left-over food. Saves on the clearing up as well!


Games and Things to do


Treasure Hunt

Treasure hunts are always popular at parties, but they take a lot of organising, and there is always a risk that people will discover part of the treasure hunt before they should. Here is a treasure hunt with no preparation and very little equipment, which clears itself away automatically. You need two balls of wool (preferably different colours), two adults, and two small bags of sweets, so there is about one sweet per child. Divide the children into two, and assign an adult to each group. Give the bags of sweets to the adults (in case you don't trust the children!) and a ball of wool to each group of children. Now explain the rules. Each group is going to lay a trail of wool for the other group. The ends of the balls of wool are tied to the start of the hunt, and each ball is unwound by the children to make the trail. They can wind it in and out of furniture, they can even go outside (weather and adults permitting). All children must stay with their group, and all can naturally suggest good places for the trail to go. The adult is responsible for the children in that group, keeping them together, and trying to make sure that the ideas aren't too wacky. After a bit, the trail laying is over, and the bags of sweets get tied to the wool at the end of the trail, and all children return to the start point.

Now for the clever bit. The children follow the other group's trail, and again they must all stay together, but they must also rewind the balls of wool. This will involve untangling them from the furniture, and of course breaking the wool would be cheating! Since the trails were laid by one group for the other group, they will be of the right complexity, and they are tidying up the wool as they go, so by the end, everything is back to normal. The sweets are duly found and probably eaten on the spot. And you even end up with the original balls of wool! Although they may have gathered a few twigs from the group who thought that climbing a tree as part of the trail was a bright idea....


Hunt the Thimble

You need to have some small object and show it to all the children (it doesn't have to be a thimble). Someone is chosen as 'it' (or volunteers) and goes out of the room. Then the object is hidden (or perhaps positioned in view, but not in an obvious place). The child returns and tries to find the object. There are variants to this game. You can say "Warmer", "Hot", "Colder", and so on, depending how close the child is to be object. The rest of the children join in by originally chosing where the object is put, and then joining in the 'warmer, cooler, warmer, hot, red-hot!" chorus.

This is physically quite a quiet game, as most of the children are sitting down. But they may get excited with yelling out. I suppose that it is another type of treasure hunt, but it is quite different to the previous game.


Musical games

Musical games are great fun. They are usually good, boisterous games, where children can work off some energy. A typical games is musical chairs, where you have a number of chairs, one less than the number of people, and people walk round them to music. Every time the music stops, everyone tries to sit down, and one can't naturally, so that one is 'out'. There are several rounds until one child is left, the winner.

There are a few problems with this. You have to have enough chairs. More importantly, you start having more and more children who are 'out', and are increasingly uninterested in the game. So here is an alternative. Get everyone to take off their shoes. Have a number of chair cushions or pillows all over the floor. (Perhaps you could use mats as well.) The children dance round to the music, and when it stops, they must rush to stand on a cushion. No-one is out. Next round, you remove one of the cushions, and do the same. Gradually the same number of children have to crowd onto less and less cushions, and for the last round, everyone is desperately holding onto each other while they are all standing on a single cushion! Yes - there are no winners. But it doesn't seem to mind. It's a quick, energetic game, and usually ends up with everyone giggling and falling over, rolling around the floor! You do need a quiet game afterwards to calm them, though. And enough cushions to play, of course.

Another musical game is a quiet one - statues. You play as before, but when the music stops, everyone freezes, possibly with one foot in mid-air! The first to move is 'out'. Since they need to be absolutely still every now and them this is a calmer game than the previous two.

Musical games require music. Look out some good CDs or music on a player or computer first. Possibly discuss the type of music with your child. The player will need to have a pause button. One way to keep children who are 'out' to stay interested in the game is to let them to control the music.


Song games

One problem with song games is that the children really need to know the song. Also, I suspect that these are age-specific. They are used a lot when children are smaller, and as they get older, they may start to feel superior to them. The joke is that when even older (or adult!) they may enjoy them again. I think it might be best to ask your child if a game is acceptable.

Here is a good game using the song "My bonny lies over the ocean'. Click here for the words and music. Everyone starts by standing up. They all sing the first verse and chorus.

My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea,
My bonnie lies over the ocean, O bring back my bonnie to me.
Bring back, bring back, O bring back my bonnie to me, to me.
Bring back, bring back, O bring back my bonnie to me.

Every time you sing a word beginning with 'B' (such as 'bonny'), then you sit down. Or if you're sitting, you stand up. It starts simply, with one movement per line. By the chorus, people are bouncing up and down. This is energetic without being boisterous, as the children need to think what's happening (or at least copy each other). Also, since they're just standing and sitting, you don't need much room. By the way, you end up standing up!

There are various songs with actions. A good one is Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Everyone sits down with their legs in front (but slightly bent), and sings (or just says if you don't know the tune):

Head, shoulders, knees and toes; Head, shoulders, knees and toes;
Eyes and ears and mouth and nose; Head, shoulders, knees and toes.

You touch the relevant part of part of the body at each word. Now do the same, but don't say 'Head' - just touch your head. You say or sing the rest, of course. For each 'verse' you say (or sing) less and less, but you are still making the movements, all together, in rhythm with the song. At the end, the whole group is entirely silent, but all making the same gestures. This turns a simple nursery rhyme into a fun game. But some children might object to its childishness.

The hokey cokey is a good boisterous song and dance which doesn't need much room. You need to start standing in a circle.

You put your right arm in, your right arm out: In, out, in, out, You shake it all about.
You do the hokey cokey, And you turn around. That's what it's all about!
Whoa, the hokey cokey!, Whoa, the hokey cokey!, Whoa, the hokey cokey!,
Knees bent, arms stretched, Rah! rah! rah!

Generally speaking, everyone does what the song tells them too. So everyone puts their arms in towards the centre of the circle, then puts them by their sides, then does that again, twice, quickly, and then shakes their arm. YOu can wiggle your hips at the words 'hokey cokey' if you want, and then make a complete turn. At 'Whoa, the hokey cokey!' you join hands and rush towards the centre, then retreat. That's done three times. Then bend your knees (so you drop down slightly), then stretch upwards. On the 'Rah', you push your hands upwards as high as they will do. There may be variants of these actions! Anyway, there are 5 verses: right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg, and whole self. The whole song should be sung fast, possibly getting faster through the verses!


Creeping up games

There are two 'creeping up' games which feel completely different.

Grandmother's Footsteps has the grandmother at one end of the room, with her/his back to the rest. Everyone else slowly creeps towards the grandmother. Every now and then, the grandmother quickly turns round, and tries to catch someone moving. Anyone who is moving gets sent back to the start. It obviously gets harder and harder to move without the grandmother catching you as you get close. The first one to touch the grandmother wins, and can become grandmother in turn.This is quite a quiet and dignified game.

What's the Time, Mr Wolf seems similar, but is a lot more riotous (and may need more room). Again, the Wolf is at one end of the room, with his/her back to the rest. Everyone takes a step forward and says "What's the Time, Mr Wolf?" The wold says a time, like "3 o'clock". So everyone takes another step, and asks again. Finally, the Wolf says "Dinner Time!", turns round and chases after people trying to catch them. The start point is Home, and so safe. Naturally, the closer you get to the wolf, the more likely you will be caught. The game ends if you grab the wolf, although you can play again with another wolf.


Tricks and Puzzles

Click here for some puzzles on the computer. Most date from my childhood, so you can also do them on paper or in your head. Some of them will be too abstract for children, but have a go youself and see if you think any would amuse them. They are all 'tricky', where the solution should tickle your fancy, rather than dull 'get it right' puzzles.

This is a simple puzzle which is good for a party and is quiet. You need a piece of string or, even better, a long silk scarf or something similar. You don't need one per child, as they can take turns, but have several. The challenge is: Pick up one end of the string (or scarf) in each hand. Now tie a knot in it without letting go of either end of the string at all. The knot must be a proper knot, not a slip-knot (which will pull out again). Let the children try this themselves. (They are standing up and doing things, but they are thinking, so this is quite a 'calming down' game.) They will almost certainly fail. The solution? Fold your arms first. Then pick up the ends of the string or scarf in each hand. Now unfold your arms, pulling the string or scarf through, and it will make a knot. I told you it was a trick! Let the children try it again when they know the trick. Something to fool their parents with, afterwards! (Not you, of course.)

Moebius Strips are good conjuring tricks, as they 'work' for anyone, and yet seem like magic. You need some preparation and equipment - several strips of paper, some sticky tape and some scissors. The paper must be thinnish and quite long. A sheet of A4, cut lengthwise into four, will work, or you could use newspaper. Now curve the strip round into a loop, but give it a half-twist. Imagine one side of the paper is blue and the other is red. You need to stick the red side of one end to the blue side of the other. Use sticky tape for the sticking. Any glue would work, but sticky tape is instant (and doesn't spill). Now stick the point of a pair of scissors into the strip and cut the strip into two, lengthwise. It's a bit tricky, as the twist gets in the way, but there's only one way really to cut it. What happens? You've cut the strip in two, so surely there's two loops? No. There's one twisted loop, half as thin and twice as long. (It's all very mathematical, but you don't need to understand. Treat it as magic!) What's more, you can cut this thinner twisted loop into two the same way, and now you get two equally thin loops which are linked. You can also try twisting the original loop twice.

Try this out before the party first, to see how to do it. In the party, you could do it as a conjuring trick. Ask the children what will happen while you're doing the cutting. But you could also supply lots of strips and tape and scissors and get the children to do it for themselves. It might be as well for an adult to hand out pieces of sticky tape and check the sticking. Also, an adult could start off the cutting. But the children get fascinated by what happens.

Another feature of Mobeius strips is that they only have one side. If you draw a line in the middle of one side of a normal loop, it stays on the same side, and you can't get to the other without crossing an edge. But if you do that to a Moebius strip, the line goes along one side and ends up on the other without crossing an edge. In fact, Mobeius strips only have one edge as well!

Mobeius Strip
Mobeius Strip
Mobeius Strip

Things to make

It may seem odd to make things at a party, but if you have a lot of felt tip pens, paper, sticky tape, and scissors (and not too many children), then you may find some ideas here: How to draw a Celtic knot, paper cuting ideas, ideas for Christmas decorations or presents.

Always try ideas out first, before the party. If you can't do them, it's unlikely the children will! Also imagine the children doing the activity. Are there enough scissors? Are they sharp enough? Or too sharp? An adult will need to be in charge of any sticky tape, unless the children are very responsible. Is there room for the children to do the activity? Is there a flat surface for any drawing? (You can use large thin books if you don't have enough table space.) Do you have enough pens? Etc.

At one party, I split the children into two groups, gave them piles of unwanted, brightly coloured magazines, two scissors, 2 reels of sticky tape, and told each group to chose someone as a model, then dress them in clothes made of paper. "That should keep them quiet for a few minutes" I thought. After a bit, I realised that they were intent on the task, and it seemed a shame to stop them. A lot later, I started to worry that we wouldn't get tea done before the parents arrived, unless they could be persuaded to stop! I think that was the only time that a game was TOO successful! Of course, with other children, or at another age, it wouldn't have worked at all. The children did stop, we admired their beautiful work. Then they tore the paper clothes off with great glee! (They were on top of their normal clothes, I must add.)