children's birthday party tips, fun

How To Not Suck At Throwing A Kids Party

04 May 2015

Shortly after my wife and I were married, we went to stay with an old university friend of hers and her boyfriend. I knew this university friend reasonably well - we had all hung out together on a few occasions - but I knew very little of her boyfriend, and what I did know of him was that he was quite shy. At some point during our stay, my wife and her friend were going to be going off to do some shopping and have a good old one-to-one catch-up, leaving me and this virtual stranger to our own amusements for an indeterminate number of hours. I don't know whether he knew how nervous I was about this, but I sensed that he felt the same. What would we do together, I in an unfamiliar town and he with an unfamiliar guest, for such a stretch? In the end, it turned out that he had at least had some foresight into the situation: "You ever played 'Guitar Hero'?" I hadn't, so we gave it a go, and for those hours we had a truly terrific time. And it was then, whilst I was clowning my way through a Matt Belamy solo, that I realised this universal truth:

Guys don't need to get along - in fact, they don't even need to necessarily know each other - in order to have a good time. They just need something to do.

It was with this thought in mind that I set about designing my son's fourth birthday party (because, let's face it, four-year-old children and grown men really aren't that different, right?). With two hours to fill in a community hall down the road, I vaguely planned a handful of old favourite party games, convinced that my ward of 21 young starlings would be rapturously hanging off my every instruction, enthusiasm pouring out of me like some charismatic fountain of cool Dad-ness.

I miscalculated.

For sure, we had a fantastic party, and the kids really did have a great time, but not without a perilously steep learning curve, and - as it turned out - almost completely in spite of me. It started strongly: face painting, a natural crowd-pleaser, was quickly devoured by my son (now a ferocious, green dinosaur) which was the green-light for the creation of a plethora of zombies, princesses, vampires and big-cats. But you have probably noticed that this didn't really have much to do with me. My moment was next - party games! Let me share what I learned:

1) I should plan a LOT more activities than I think I will need.

This was really my first mistake, and it was a biggie. Nearly derailed the whole show. I had loosely planned in my mind to fill the first 15 minutes with face-painting, running around and shouting as all the kids arrived, followed by 45 minutes of games, spanning pass-the-parcel (because, if we're honest, it's really not a party until you've had this staple of all party institutions), musical bumps, musical statues and dead lions. Let's say 10 minutes per game, plus a couple of minutes play time in between each game: that ought to cover it, right? Oh, so very wrong. It turns out that children en masse have the attention span of an ADHD outing in a tartrazine factory. Within 20 minutes, all of my games had been exhausted and I was left floundering. What happened to my magnetic enthusiasm? Where was the rapturous devotion? Turns out the kids didn't get the memo. A (blissfully child-free) mate of mine who had come along by special invitation (he and my boy get on really well, and he's always terrific help) observed that it was, indeed, a tough crowd, and that it looked like hard work. With almost no-where to go, a church-friend (who had very successfully set a very high bar with his daughter's party just 6 months earlier) stepped in to help. It turns out that his wife had spent seven years working for a Kids Club, and was more than familiar with my apparent situation. With the resourcefulness of MacGyver and the fervour of a cbeebies presenter, the two of them devised, manufactured and engineered a multitude of age-appropriate activities, completely off the cuff - team space-hopper races, catch the tail, duck-duck-goose, it went on and on. And the kids loved it! In no time at all, they were running around, squealing at volumes that set my child-free mate off in search of a hip-flask of whisky and a vasectomy. Great!

2) I should get help!

We had my mum making tea for the other parents, friends helping to set up the hall and the food, the other parents roped in to help clear up after the food, we had my in-laws looking after our younger children (the twins are still only 11 months, a little young for a big party). We certainly couldn't have done it without them! And play to my strengths: it's easy to think that I can do this - on the face of it, it looks easy. And maybe you can - certainly if you have any experience of working with children, you will probably be at an advantage. But there are no prizes for being a great kid’s party MC - it turns out that I'm not at all! But that's ok. I was lucky enough to have friends on immediate hand to help, but I migt not have been so lucky. It wasn't just about the imagination to get games going (which my friends had in spades) but about having a certain way with the kids, getting them to want to be involved, keeping their attention - this, I feel, can't be taught. When I was chatting with the caretaker of the hall afterwards, his observation was that a lot of people hire a kid’s entertainer for this exact reason. I will definitely be considering this next time!

3) I will have more kids attending than I think...

From the ones who never replied confirming their attendance, to the ones who show up with a sibling as well, nothing screws up a carefully planned, one-prize-per-child game of pass the parcel than having more kids than you were anticipating... Luckily, my wife had made up more goody bags before the end of the party...!

4) ...but I will have fewer kids participating than I think.

Some kids will be a bit overwhelmed, some will be a bit too shy, and some simply won't be able to follow instruction for running around. That's ok - I'm actually even worse a dictator than I am a MC - but I should make sure that my games work for this eventuality.

5) I must make sure that the food is epic…

...which it was. Interestingly, this was the bit organised by my wife... I'm sure the two aren't connected. There was enough healthy food (carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, healthy dips etc.) to keep us riding high in the opinions of the health-conscious parents in attendance, with enough junk food (pizza, cocktail sausages, crisps, etc.) to make sure the kids actually ate something... plus a gorge of cakes from my mother-in-law, and a dinosaur birthday cakes from my mum. We were set!

6) I must bring my own noise

Trying to get the attention of a load of kids in the middle of a screamathon is difficult. I wish I had bought a referees whistle, or an airhorn, or something (I draw the line at a shotgun, but I won't say the thought didn't cross my mind). And make sure that my sound system has the juice to be heard over the din when I'm playing the games. Musical statues looses a certain je ne sais quoi when no one can hear if the music has stopped.

birthday boySo, my lessons have been learned! All in all, it was a terrific day. By the time food came out, my ferocious green dinosaur had sweated himself into what looked like a cross between Kermit The Frog and Heath Ledger's Joker. By the end of the party, it was starting to look like any other grown-up's party you would go to - some were singing incoherently, some were starting to cry for no reason, some were tired and emotional, some were starting fights, and some were inches away from crashing completely. And by the next morning, most of them had forgotten that they had even been to a party. I call that a success. Now, what do we do for a first birthday for twins?

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