Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it…children’s birthday parties without themed plastic matching plate, cup and party bag and without the hefty price tag either. One of the perils of having children in the modern day is the perceived need to compete, to keep up with the Jones’ cliché. Having been invited to a large number of children’s parties throughout my life I’ve noticed the tendency towards bigger, glitzier, more things in the party bag, costumed mystery guests…some children’s parties cost more than a wedding did a decade ago.

Motivated not only by the simple matter of cash flow but also by a wish that our children begin with simple lives we chose early on to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries differently. Not better just our way rather than one dictated by the trends of modern society. What follows is an offering of some of the things we do to celebrate our children’s birthdays.

Christmas has become, in our family, a time of handmade ornaments, singing, elemental advent journeys and a few choice gifts. We seem to focus mainly on the celebration rather than the getting and we are learning to create a space for the Birthday to be a time to rejoice in the child’s life. Right now we are choosing to send our children to a Steiner school and the way each child’s birthday is celebrated has taught us a few lessons. Our son still differentiates between his 4th birthday party– the one in the park with his friends, and his birthday celebration which was at school. A description of that might provide a few bits of inspiration as it did us – when the parents enter the classroom, their child is sitting wearing a silver or gold cardboard crown and wearing a special rainbow coloured silk cape. We sit on either side of the child and then the teacher lights a candle on the table in the centre of the circle. There are special stones and a posy of flowers gathered. The teacher tells the special rainbow bridge story. Then the parents bring out photos, one for each year of the child’s life or tell a story from each year. The cake is produced, candles blown out and the cake is eaten. The child leaves that afternoon still wearing their crown and carrying a special birthday basket with cards drawn by each of their classmates, wax decorated candles and posies of flowers. Led by this we now decorate a special place at the table before the birthday child comes downstairs. We’ve scattered glitter, made their favourite breakfast, arranged gifts and light a candle when they arrive. If we keep it quiet and reverential so too do they. The time for noise is the party! If you have the time to sit and plan with your partner/significant other/helper all the better. I am a list maker by training (thanks mum!) and that makes things much simpler.

Firstly, WHO do you invite? One suggestion is to invite the number of children corresponding to the age of the child. I have one friend who found that her own daughter had more fun at her birthday party when there were just a few close friends rather than hordes of people. Our family on the other hand has never managed to decide who not to invite so our parties end up being “casts of thousands”. You know your own child best, if they don’t do well in crowds, or you don’t, then keep the party small. Never invite people you feel you “have to”. Your kids won’t have a good time. This is a good negotiating step – discussing who to invite with your child if they’re old enough, why it’s not okay to exclude people but why it’s okay to just invite a couple of good friends if that’s what they’d prefer.

Next HOW do you invite? Party invitations set the tone of what to expect and if you’re purchasing them can cost more money than you think. You can make your own – trying putting leaves under the paper and crayoning over them; or using your children’s paintings that are gathering dust in the bookshelf. You can hand deliver or delight the children by posting them – I have never yet met a person who snail mail doesn’t work for. Or you don’t have to write out invitations at all – just phone people or email them.

WHEN and WHERE? How long do you want your party to go for? I’ve tended, through trial and error to hold my kids’ parties between 10 and 12 – after breakfast and before lunch and usually not clashing with toddlers’ naptime. This seems to be long enough for children to feel they’ve had a party but not so long that there are tears and over excitement to deal with. Again, it’s a case of knowing what your children are capable of, when their best time is, what suits your family. “Where” is tricky and can cost you heaps – parties at fun factories, fast food places, even some BBQ nature reserves all require you to prepay an amount according to how many children or people you’re inviting and some guests may assume because you’re holding the party you’ll be paying the entire amount. Parks on the other hand are free and we’re especially lucky because we have our Community Housing Commonhouse to use as well. We’ve a tiny house and a small yard so parties here would be wearing on everyone. In recent years both our big children have chosen the park down the road in front of the Cascade Brewery – big trees meant the slight shower of rain we had was no problem and using a tent annexe over a picnic table might soothe fears of a rainy party.

EATING, DRINKING AND MAKING MERRY – A combination of activities, some quiet and some vigorous seem to work well. Incorporating a seasonal theme is also a fun way to guide a party’s progress. For spring making garlands of flowers – real ones, paper ones, cut out ones. For autumn gathering leaves (we live in Tasmania so this isn’t a problem) and making jack o’lanterns. For summer having the party at the beach. For winter making snowflakes and toasting marshmallows. For our most recent party we raided the old manila folders at my husband’s work and gathered all the glitter glue, crayons, textas, stickers and coloured pencils we could find along with a bunch of pipe cleaners and set children to work making their own party crowns when they arrived. One friend got a bolt of velveteen cloth and helped the children make their own capes with stickers and glue and brocade, before leading them out to a bonfire to dance round it. Somewhere to put gifts that is obvious – maybe a special tablecloth or starry blanket – and is up high enough that wandering toddlers don’t start the birthday child’s favourite task, is important. A treasure hunt then to get the legs running – this is when you hand out the party bags, which don’t have to be plastic either – try brown paper ones (which they could decorate on arrival in lieu of party hats), the cast off little jewellery bags you find in op shops (these places are your best friends when raising children) or, if you’d like to intimidate all the mothers you know – how about knitting them which is what one mother of a nine year old did (with her son’s help – he’s loving knitting at present). Make sure you name them before you hand them out and keep spares of anything you’re putting out (for the odd child who will lose theirs). What sorts of treasures could there be –wrapped dried fruit, walnuts in their shells (or if you’re at a beach then how about planting some giant cockle or scallop shells each with a child’s name written on it?)…whatever takes your fancy but make sure there are enough adults to ensure each child does not go without. Or you can bury a treasure chest and leave clues and make sure there is at least one responsible adult to take charge of doling out of the treasures.

If you have an adult with a particular skill – like face painting, music or story telling then barter with them to share this at your party. Guiding the children with music and a song seems to keep cohesion among the group. This can help the children stay grounded and less hyped up. Border collies would probably work just as well. From here you could guide the children into a circle for a story, face painting or pass the parcel which is a source of great debate among parents I know – do you put a present in every layer or just one at the end? Do you make that last one BIG and the others small? Do you cheat and ensure the birthday child gets the BIG present? How many things do kids need to “get” at a party anyway!?!

You’re probably going to need to feed them at this point – keep it simple – fresh fruits cut in interesting shapes (cookie cutters come into their own here), rice crackers & vegies and dips, tiny muffins, nuts if they’re old enough and plenty of water for everyone. If you’re feeling particularly creative then freeze fruit in ice cube trays and add them to glasses to make it fancy. Serve it on your own plates – plastic or otherwise and use mugs for drinking. This year we’ve also asked all the parents to bring a thermos of hot water and provided tea, coffee, sugar and milk. Wet washcloths are a great help too! After they’ve refueled another game: “bobs and statues”, “pin the *** on the ****” (this year it was pin the crown on the princess and today we played pin the parrot on the pirate) or “what’s the time Mr Wolf?” or “follow the leader” which would give you ample time to get the next stage set up and ready. Then time for the serious business of gift opening and candle blowing. Make sure that the birthday child knows who each gift comes from so that they can thank them as they open it. Storing the presents till then seems to alleviate the rush to present the gifts and fight over whose present gets opened first. For some reason my husband and I have made the cake a serious part of the whole celebration – we consult with the birthday child in the weeks leading up to the party and then Gordon draws up a template and “orders” a series of cakes from me – round ones, square ones, rectangles – he’s yet to ask for a triangle. Then we sit up into the night assembling the creation, painting the cake with icing and flowers or designs – our triumph was a train with even smoke coming out (cupcakes so that the special diet kids could have their own cupcake each and not miss out). Candles lit, that song sung and big breaths and maybe a second lighting so other kids can have a go then it’s time to trust your little one with a BIG knife and let them cut and wish. A bunch of parents have kindly cleaned the plates from before and have them at the ready to hand round the cake. Then give each child a magic stone or a bottle of bubbles to add to their bag and say farewell.

COMING DOWN – Even though getting home and collapsing is usually high on the agenda, what’s worked for us is to clean up slowly so that the transition from party to real life is eased. We try to make sure that there is a special lunch waiting at home and some quiet activity or a family rest time. Leave yourself enough space to lie down with your child and examine each gift. If you’ve had a costume party then taking off the costume and climbing into a warm bath with some chamomile oil added (and bubbles) with a few candles lit and up out of harm’s way can help to bring the mood down.

I hope this has provided you with a few inspirations for your own children’s special days, the most important thing we’ve learned is to let go of our expectations and to just make sure that the child feels nurtured, celebrated and special.