Share Their Party-planning Advice

by Mary Beth Bishop

Lots of kids have special interests, things they talk about nonstop. So why not plan a birthday around the things your child loves the most? A party can be as magically unique as your one-of-a-kind kid. We got advice from moms whose résumés include places that focus on kids and fun.

Stacey Lucas, a mother of two, has combined Pokémon and the solar system into a single birthday bash tailored for her son. And while unicorns and mustaches aren’t a typical combo found in the aisles of party-supply goods, those were the themes when her daughter turned 8 on her last birthday.
“I just think everyone should be queen or king for a day and a birthday should be that time,” says Lucas, director of marketing at The Children’s Museum of Atlanta.
Tracy Lott advises parents not to “sweat the small stuff” like finding the perfect party favors. “Honestly, I think experiences are the best,” Lott says. Kids will long remember an afternoon watching planes at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, for instance.
For daughter Lela, the joyful experience turned out to be a simple thing. She had a blast running through a sprinkler that turned out to be her favorite gift for her 2nd birthday in June. “It didn’t even cross my mind how much she would love it,” Lott recalls.
And Lela might one day have her cake and ice cream at Zoo Atlanta where her mom works as vice president of marketing and membership. Lela is a big fan of having her mother work at the zoo. “She’ll be sorely disappointed when she realizes that I don’t wake the animals every morning and put them to bed in the evening,” Lott says.
Noreen Raines agrees that it’s more about the experience than the food or décor. The mom of four says that kids relish the chance “to hang out with their friends in a different environment.” Children love bringing school friends into their homes, for example, to show them their rooms and to interact in a way that’s less structured than the classrooms where they’re usually together. Raines, whose children range in age from 1 to 5, is the founder of Big Thinkers Science Exploration, which provides interactive science programs for parties, schools and more.
The moms also advise parents to think like a child in deciding what’s important in planning a birthday bash. You might find that your kid’s wish list is very different than your own. 
“The parents worry about having enough snacks and about what’s in the goody bags, but the kids are happy just to run around and have something to take home,” says Nikki Murphy, a former community program coordinator at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell. Now she stays home in Marietta with son Jaxon, almost 2.
In the age of Pinterest and endless possibilities for elaborate food and decor, “I think that parents, myself included, worry way too much about how the party will look,” Lucas says. “But kids just want their friends in one room and a candle on some sort of cake or cupcake. They just want to play with their friends and be the center of attention for a few hours.”
Most kids don’t care if the napkins are carefully coordinated with the plates, says Murphy who once held turtles, snakes and other creatures at nature center parties. “Think of it from a kid’s perspective. Will the kids care if I don’t dust? No, they won’t,” she says.
The best way to pick a theme or birthday activity is to involve the children themselves once they reach about the age of 4, says Amy Davis, a mother of two who is director of development at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts. Kids know best when it comes to knowing what their friends are likely to enjoy, she says.
And consider stretching the celebration throughout the entire day. At the Raines home, birthday kids wake up surrounded by balloons. Other family traditions include blowing bubbles every birthday and letting the birthday child wear a crown or a tiara. “They can wear it the entire day,” Raines says. “I like to make it their day.”

Tracy Lott, vice president for marketing at Zoo Atlanta

Plan for a Snag-Free Party

  • One thing that the moms have learned is to be ready for surprises and to stay alert for the kinds of complications that can crop up whenever groups of kids are gathered in one place. Murphy remembers a party when the most popular girl in the class beat the birthday child to the punch and blew out the candles first. Quickly redirect the kids’ attention to a new activity if trouble starts to brew.
  • Make sure you communicate clearly with the parents of your guests. Davis says that when guests are invited, the hosts should make it clear whether parents should stay and what time the party will end.
  • If your party is being held away from home, it’s important to confirm the date and time with someone at the site, Lucas says. Pay attention to how much space you’ll need for the number of guests and activities, Raines says. If your party is outdoors, you should have a plan B in case the weather is bad.
  • If you have your eye on a popular facility or activity, plan in advance. Raines’ business sometimes has parties booked six months in advance. And be aware of holidays, Murphy says. You don’t want friends away on spring break when your child’s party day arrives.
  • Limits are important when it comes to the number of guests and how long they will stay. “It can get crazy if you have twenty 4-year-olds,” says Murphy. She thinks that the old rule of thumb is good: add one to the age of your child and invite that many kids.
  • It’s a great idea to have a helper on hand, especially if the party is being held away from home. Davis notes that if someone else is there to focus on the details of the party, the parents are free to play host and deal with meltdowns or complications. Some facilities provide a host. Parents can assign a friend or family member to keep kids moving smoothly from one activity to the next.
  • Those on a budget have options. One idea, says Davis, is to limit bigger parties to every other year “so the kids understand that it’s not every single year that they’ll get a big bash.” With four children’s birthdays to plan each year, Raines says she includes some simpler celebrations in the schedule so the more elaborate events don’t come close together. Other money-saving tips include serving a home-baked cake or cupcakes and having the event at a time of day when kids can just eat snacks.
  • Their last bit of advice: Relax! Lucas is a self-described “die-hard birthday fan” who likes to go all out. But one year she played it low key with store-bought snacks and simpler plans. “It was so much less stressful for me after attempting to be that Pinterest mom,” she says. Best of all, the birthday girl was still pleased. Lucas says she’s made party games that looked nothing like the Pinterest pictures. “But the kids don’t care,” she says, when they’re aiming beanbags at a monster’s mouth or pinning the heart on a tin man.

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