Your son or daughter is having a birthday. What an exciting time!
If you’re a parent, you may find that your child’s birthday doesn’t present a whole lot of opportunity to reflect on the past year and all of the great experiences you’ve shared.
Instead, you will most likely find that you’re entering birthday party planning mode, and nothing can stop you from planning the perfect party for your excited child.
Most children’s interests and friendships seem to change and evolve daily. What was cool yesterday may not be cool tomorrow, and there are so many options for activities and themes out there!
Combine that with the stress of forming a guest list, sending invitations, choosing the menu, cake, and entertainment; and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a nervous breakdown!
We’ve put together the ultimate kids birthday party planning guide, complete with ideas for themes, advice on etiquette, organization and a detailed checklist. Once you’ve read through this guide, you’ll be on your way to hosting the birthday party of the year!
Without further ado, here’s the checklist!
Some of the items on the checklist are pretty quick and simple, but we wanted to list every single task so nothing slips through the cracks.
If you follow this checklist in order, the process will be stress-free and the party will be fantastic.
Let’s get started!
Whether you’re initially thinking about hosting your child’s birthday party at your own home or at a different venue, it’s important to start by figuring out the party’s theme.
Because the theme your child wants their party to follow is likely to define its location. If laser tag or go karts are the desired activity, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to pull that one off at home. The same thing goes for a pool party (unless you have a pool) or an arcade.
Based on how often the taste and interests of a small child tend to change, planning a birthday party theme 1-2 months early may seem like a risk.
We hear you.
But really, 1-2 months is a pretty safe timeline, and your kid’s excitement will build along the way as they see your plan unfold.
It's always smart to pick out a theme before finalizing a venue. The theme doesn't have to be elaborate and can range from simply "play" to a more elaborate superhero costume party.
Often, the choice of a venue is strongly influenced by the theme of the party. Knowing the theme early also allows you to form the most comprehensive vision of what is necessary to make the party successful, from the location to the amount of guests, and type of food and decorations.
If your child is 1 or 2 years old, you may not want to go overboard on a fancy themed party. It’s pretty much a guarantee that they can’t tell the difference. At the age of 3 or 4, kids start to notice and care more.
Of course, it’s common for parents of baby’s to have birthday parties that also serve as an excuse for the adults to get together. Just be mindful of who the theme is catered to and how elaborate it should be based on the age of your child.
Got your theme?
Let’s move on.
Whether your daughter wants a princess-themed birthday party or your son wants to bash bumper cars for 2 hours before eating cake and opening presents, your location will play a role.
This often depends on personal preference. Hosting a birthday party at home can be an excellent solution for parents who want to have a hand in everything from decorating and cooking to turning the backyard into a magical fantasy-land for tea parties or nerf battles.
Obviously, hosting a party at home can be daunting, as there’s quite a bit of cleanup involved before and after the fact, and food has to be cooked in house or catered.
Some parents prefer to host at community centers, public pools or churches, which offer recreational spaces and keep the mess out of the house.
Depending on a party’s theme, a great solution to decrease the planning burden is an amusement park or family entertainment center, which often has dedicated party planners and a full menu in house.
Either way, be sure your child is comfortable with and excited about the location, and that it can accommodate the party’s theme.
As we discussed above, you don’t necessarily have to invite the whole class to your child’s party. In fact, it’s likely that your son or daughter has close friendships and would rather spend more time with those friends.
Not only that, but smaller parties can promote a calmer (but still fun and exciting!) atmosphere and help you cut costs.
Before you even think about finalizing a guest list, figure out the capacity of your location.
Can your back yard accommodate 27 wild kids? Would a group that big have to wait in line too long at a go kart track? Conversely, are 5 or 6 guests enough to play capture the flag or pickup soccer?
Once you’ve nailed down a number you think makes sense, cross-check it with your budget.
What’s the overall total cost per guest of food, decorations, gift bags, activities and cake?
For babies ages 1 or 2
The number of guests doesn’t really matter to the child, as they are too young to fully grasp what is going on. Many of these parties will be attended by the parents of each guest and will be more family oriented.
A guest list of 4-8 will often suffice. Toddlers and preschool aged children don’t need to be surrounded by large groups to have fun. On the contrary, It’s likely they will get distracted if you invite more than 10 kids to the party. Try to keep it small.
Kids between 6 and 10 like to run around and start forming an affinity for large group and team activities. 8-12 guests is ideal and still manageable.
Let your kid have more of a say as long as his or her choices don’t exceed your budget or the location’s capacity. Older kids know what they enjoy and what they don’t. Most kids will probably ask for a bigger party.
Combining all of these considerations will help you land on the perfect number of guests.
This may not be the case if your kid is under 4, but around that age and older, children start to develop stronger friendships and can begin to differentiate their closest friends from their acquaintances.
Make sure that your son or daughter’s best friend(s) will be in town and available for the time and date of your party.
This little detail always gets forgotten, and your birthday girl or boy may feel a bit sad if their best buddy can’t be there.
Now that you’ve checked the availability of key attendees, picked a venue and decided on a theme, it’s time to formally pick the date.
This one is pretty simple--weekends close to your kid’s birthday tend to work best.
Let’s keep going.
This may be the single most stressful aspect of birthday party planning.
Creating a birthday party guest list needs to take into account both financial considerations and etiquette.
Should you invite the whole class or just a select group of your child’s friends?
So far, you’ve estimated the ideal number of guests and the key friends that your son or daughter would love to have at the party.
That’s a great start.
The next step is to figure out who you actually want to have in attendance.
Inviting the whole class is often unnecessary.
As a rule of thumb, try to invite children who have previously invited your child to a birthday party. This isn't always possible, but it's a good goal nevertheless.
Ask your child who they have the most fun with, and look for red flags about kids who may make your child uncomfortable.
With a little help from your son or daughter, creating a final guest list should be a piece of cake.
Depending on the party’s theme, there may be a need to bring in outside entertainment, or to decide on entertainment within an existing venue.
Make sure you get started on this early, as some bands, musicians and clowns can be booked for weeks at a time.
If you are not hosting at home, it’s best to have a venue that features party planners. These planners can reduce some of the burden of planning and get activities set up and planned more quickly and efficiently.
It’s becoming more and more common for parents to send out evites for their children’s birthday parties. That’s great, but the old fashioned alternative can also serve as an educational opportunity.
If they’re old enough, have your birthday boy or girl participate in the invitation design and writing process. It will be fun and educational, all while building excitement about the upcoming event.
If the birthday party isn’t set for an obvious meal time, such as 11:00-1:00, it’s helpful to specify whether you will be providing a full meal for the children attending the party. This allows parents to plan their child’s meals accordingly.
This one is pretty self-explanatory.
Just make sure your invites are mailed at least 3-4 weeks in advance of your party’s date. Extracurricular activities can take over the schedule of many children and their parents, so it’s important to get invites out before something else can creep onto the calendar of your desired guests.
If your child is older than 5; consider using the process of preparing a letter for the mail as a fun educational activity.
This is where many people tend to go wrong by planning long, drawn out parties.
Parties don’t have to be an all day affair to be fun and exciting. In fact, most kids—especially younger ones—tire quickly, so it doesn’t make much sense to have overtired kids running around for 5 hours. In fact, it sounds like a nightmare for parents.
Instead, keep your parties short and action-packed.
Let’s be honest, these parties are more for parents than they are for the kids. Babies will not have much of an idea what’s going on during their birthday party, but for kids that are just entering the toddler stage, themes, foods and time for gifts becomes more important.
Either way, it's important not to overstimulate a baby, as it's likely they won't be excited after 3 hours of activity.
Keep these parties short. 1 hour is perfect, 1 and a half the maximum—otherwise, you’ll have a grouchy baby on your hands.
To an adult, one and a half hours goes by like a lightning bolt. To kids, it can feel like days. For toddlers and preschool aged kids, one and a half to two hours is the perfect length for a nice, exciting party.
Avoid overtired kids by keeping it short.
Kids aged 6-8 are often little balls of energy. This is the age where a parent picking up their kid from a party starts hearing “Already!? But I just got here!”
Even so, There’s no need for a party at this age to exceed three and a half hours. That’s plenty of time for multiple activities, food, cake and presents, without overdoing it.
After the age of 9 or 10, kids start to gain a more nuanced perception of time. They can handle larger blocks of time away from their parents without acting out, and their drive for adventure overrides their tendency to get overtired.
The length of a birthday party at this age really depends on the location and activities planned. Sticking between two and four hours will provide plenty of time for older kids to have a blast.
Deciding the party’s length is only part of the equation. The party’s actual timeline is what keeps everything together and organized.
This timeline doesn't necessarily have to be communicated to parents and guests, but it's vital for you to know the details inside an out. Adhering to a predetermined timeline will leave enough for every activity, ensuring the party goes smoothly.
11:00: Parents drop off kids, leave all gifts on side table (be sure gifts are stored in a secure area)
11:00-11:30: Open play
11:30-12:15: Pizza, Birthday Cake and Gift Opening
12:15-1:30: Organized Group Activities — Laser Tag, Bowling, Bumper Cars, etc.
The birthday party activities will depend mostly on your venue and your party’s theme. For example, hosting a party at an arcade or a family entertainment center takes the responsibility of activity planning and setup off of your shoulders.
If you’re hosting your party in an environment without party planners, like your home or a park, you may have to come up with some games and activities to keep the kids occupied and having fun.
Struggling to think of something fun?
Relay races are simple to set up and easy to explain. They are also extremely inclusive activities that help children learn team-building skills.
Every kid loves capture the flag. It also happens to be one of the easiest games to set up. If you’re hosting the party in your back yard or a park, create the boundaries of the playing field and make them clear to all of the kids, set up the flags, create teams, and let the games begin!
It’s pretty easy to build an obstacle course out of objects you may have laying around your house or in the garage. An obstacle doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult to physically get through. Your obstacles can be riddles, athletic challenges or, more traditionally, hoops to crawl or jump through. With a little creativity, your options are endless. You can also combine an obstacle course with a relay race to make things extra fun.
This activity doesn’t even have to be organized. Kids love running through sprinklers on a hot Summer day. Just make sure they take turns!
For slightly older kids, croquet is an easy game to set up, learn, and play. It also accommodates multiple players so everyone will feel included.
Bocce is a fun game that will feel like outdoor bowling to the kids at the party. It can be played one on one or with teams, including a larger group of guests. You can get bocce sets at most big box stores and online.
Baking is great for birthday parties because kids have fun creating the baked goods, and then they get to eat them! Pick out a recipe before the party and make sure you have all of the ingredients on hand. Once the party starts, make sure everyone gets roles that they enjoy in the baking process. For a fun touch, buy some colored icing and toppings like sprinkles and chocolate chips so that your guests can decorate their creations.
No matter the theme, kids love working with clay, and it stimulates their creativity (giving you a break from running around). Have them create clay figures representative of the party’s theme. The best part? Polymer clay like Sculpey can be fired right in your home oven, so kids can see their final creation and take it home with them!
For an animal themed party, you can purchase craft supplies for party guests to create their own masks. Cut out mask templates with card-stock paper ahead of time and glue on a popsicle stick so that the mask can be held up. The rest is up to the kids to customize, design and embellish.
Kids love creating jewelry. At your local arts and crafts store, you should be able to find a wide variety of string and beads that party guests can use to create their own necklaces and bracelets. For a fun touch, try finding beads with letters on them so that jewelry can be customized with names.
Creating floral arrangements is a fun way to stimulate creativity and have fun. Not to mention, kids can take their arrangements home! Try to purchase wholesale flowers of multiple varieties for the party, avoid flowers with thorns, and cut stems ahead of time to avoid safety hazards.
Laser tag is exhilarating and strategic. Most importantly, it’s extremely fun, and kids never tire of playing. Any birthday party involving laser tag is a guaranteed good time.
Does your child love baseball or softball? Batting cages are an active and competitive activity for kids of all ages.
The hunt for tickets is just as fun for children as playing the games themselves. Arcades are great because of the variety of games and the possibility to win awesome prizes!
Bowling is an absolute blast and never gets old. Watch your child hone their skills while enjoying some great food and music.
Jumping on trampolines is an absolute blast and most kids would do it all day long if they could. Try wipeout trampolines for an even more fun and inclusive spin on the activity.
If your child is old enough and knows how to swim, why not have a fun tropical themed pool party? There are plenty of fun pool games that kids can play in a supervised environment.
Kids love being challenged, and a ropes course is a perfect combination of fun and challenging. Not to mention, it’s a great opportunity to learn about teamwork.
Depending on where you host the party, it may be necessary to purchase decorations and supplies. Confetti, candles, balloons and streamers are a mainstay, but the theme you choose for the party will have the biggest role in determining your needs.
Be sure to get started early, and make a list.
Decorating takes quite some time, and it’s extremely common to forget items or to decide you need more along the way.
This is also about the time you should start thinking about party favors, if the location of your party doesn’t provide them already.
As much as kids love candy and little toys, they probably don’t need any more. You also don’t need to be spending crazy amounts of time putting together intricate gift bags and thinking of ideas for what to include.
Why not try a small gift card instead? That way, your child’s friend has a built-in opportunity for a fun family activity. Movie theater or frozen yogurt gift cards are great options.
Depending on your party theme and venue, you may need to unleash your inner arts and crafts expert.
If you’re hosting at home and feeling crafty, the sky’s the limit for what you can create. Just make sure you get started early, because it can take quite a bit of time.
A styrofoam castle for a medieval themed party or paintings of whales for the background of a sea-life themed party?
The options are endless.
It's possible that the party theme will influence the menu, but your child's preferences and any food allergies among attendees will ultimately matter the most.
If your birthday boy or girl is a bit older, be sure to give them a choice on what they would enjoy to eat for the party. What they say may surprise you.
If you ask most kids between the age of 4-10 what their favorite food is, it’s likely that many of your responses will be something sweet. The need for a fancy elaborate meal may be more of a reflection of what you like versus what your child prefers.
That’s not to say that birthday party food should be unhealthy. It’s merely a reminder that kids like it simple.
At a certain point, you have to know who will--and won't--be attending so that you can prepare activities and forecast food needs.
Most parents are good about sending RSVPs prior to the due date, but inevitably a few will wait until the last minute.
You may need to give these people a call or shoot them an email to be sure there are no surprise guests on party day.
If the party is gearing up to be big, wholesale stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are your best friend.
Make sure you make a list of quantities and have storage space allocated before you go shopping.
Try to wait as long as possible to purchase perishable items. It’s a good idea to put together two grocery lists: one that can be purchased ahead of time and one of perishables, so that you can spread out your shopping and make sure everything stays fresh.
If you’re hosting at home, be sure to perform a deep clean of your house in advance of the party. This will not only make your home look great when parents drop off their kids, but will also help you stay organized throughout the setup process.
This is crucial and it’s often overlooked by many parents who host parties in their own homes.
Your kid may know what’s off limits in your house and be well-trained to stay away from certain objects or areas of the house. Your party guests do not.
Make sure that anything potentially dangerous is removed or hidden away to ensure that kids stay safe during the party in your home.
Ask your kid what kind of music he or she likes and put together a playlist of appropriate songs that will work (or delegate this task to another family member or friend).
Make sure you have a compatible speaker system for indoor parties or a portable wireless speaker for outdoor parties.
You can also delegate music duties during the party to another family member or parent.
Most parents hosting kid birthday parties get a couple photos here and there, but not enough to capture the entire event—and hiring a photographer is expensive!
Delegate photography duties to a family member or parent willing to take pictures throughout the event.
Later in life, your child will be happy they have pictures of their best friends to reminisce about and poke fun at.
Pro Tip: Include photos in thank you cards sent to attendees
Most parents can’t get enough pictures of their kids. Why not develop some of the pictures you took during the party and pop them in an envelope along with every thank you card? It’s a great personalized touch that parents will love.
Give yourself plenty of time to decorate.
If you’re hosting at home, start a couple days ahead of time. The setup may take longer than you think. Enlist the help of family members for difficult tasks.
If you choose to host at a venue that allows parents to bring decorations, you may not be allowed to decorate until hours before the party.
In these cases, make sure you have everything ready to go, scope out the event space, and have a plan for execution before you get there.
If you choose to cook rather than catering or hosting at an event space with a menu, all the power to you.
It’s going to take time, so be sure you get started on less perishable items at least a day in advance.
Create a list of foods to prepare and make sure you’ve allocated plenty of time to get all of it done.
If you’re hosting at home, you may have some items that need to be fresh out of the oven to ensure food safety. Taking care of food prep early in the day is wise, as you only have to remember to put the meal in the oven (and take it out!) as the party nears.
Make sure to block out some time on the day of the party for another cleaning and safety check of your house. Kids can turn a house upside down in a matter of hours, so it’s important to double check.
If you catered food or ordered a cake, chances are you will have to pick it up the day of the party.
Make sure you block out time to do this or assign a pick-up role to a friend or family member, as the day of a party can be jammed with last minute tasks.
This is a realistic conversation for every child older than 4.
Birthday parties are amazing educational opportunities for the children hosting, as they can learn how to be the center of attention in a respectful, kind way.
Make sure your child knows how special it is to have a birthday party and have the opportunity to receive gifts from friends and family.
You can also have a conversation with your child about what it means to be a host. Sure, their main priority should be to have fun, but whether the party is at home or at another venue, welcoming guests and saying thank you are important actions to emphasize.
Depending on the age of the children at your party, it’s possible that parents will stick around to watch their child and help out.
Be sure to have a list of small roles ready before the party begins and assign these roles as your guests arrive.
At parties for older children, where it’s uncommon for parents of guests to stay, assign these goals within your family, and make sure everyone knows what their responsibilities are.
This can be extremely important in order to make sure the party goes smoothly and everyone is safe.
Have you ever sat down to write thank you cards and realized you don’t know who the specific gifts you received are from?
It happens. A lot.
It’s nearly impossible to keep every gift-giver’s card near their gift without mixing something up.
Thankfully, the solution is easy:
Assign an adult note-taker while your child is opening presents. You only need two columns:
You’ll be thankful you put in a bit of extra effort when you sit down with your son or daughter to write thank you cards.
Try to do this as soon as possible, preferably 1 or 2 days after the party.
Once again, thank you cards are an opportunity for your son or daughter to practice their manners and show their gratitude to their friends.
At some ages, it’s a necessity for parents to write thank you cards for their kids, but once kids have the ability to write, they should be writing the cards on their own.
Here’s an easy template that you can work with your son or daughter to customize:
Dear _______ ,
Thank you for coming to my birthday party at ________, and for the awesome _______.
We had so much fun, and I can’t wait to (play with/use/try) it!
Party planning doesn’t have to be stressful.
In fact, it can be fun—and seeing the smile on our kids’ faces when they’re having fun at a thoughtfully planned party makes it all well worth it.
Whether you decide to host at home, at an event space, or at a family entertainment center specialized in birthday parties, organization is key.
Now that you’ve worked through our comprehensive checklist, you’re well on your way to hosting your child’s birthday party of a lifetime.