The Birthday Party Planning Guide
Your child’s birthday party should be a sweet time to honor their interests, gather with friends and celebrate another year around the sun! But let’s be real. So often, kids’ parties can disintegrate into a truly teeth-gnashing experience replete with last-minute theme changes, an ever-expanding guest list, and questionable “entertainment.” I’ve been there. As a parent, I’ve hosted ten birthday parties ranging from the toddlers-hang-in-the-park (where my husband and I brought leaky boxes of coffee for no real reason!) to the all-inclusive zoo bash to the Zoom Harry Potter-themed party in quarantine. We’ve now entered the era of let’s-take-a-few-friends-to-the-movies, and I’m okay with that!
The Origin of the Child’s Play NY Birthday Party
I actually started my journey with kids’ birthdays as an “entertainer” – although that word makes some cringe a bit now! Fifteen years ago, I decided to use my skill set as a theater teacher (and founder of Child’s Play NY) to bring a new spin to kid’s parties.
In the drama classes I taught, my students were such wild individuals with truly specific interests. I knew there were these standard “themes” that venues had on tap – like Frozen Birthdays, Pirate Birthdays, etc., but the kids I was teaching liked weird mash-ups, niche stories, and very specific songs and games even within a popular theme. So, when asked to do parties for my students, I started thinking of the party as an extension of their passions and a way to honor what made them unique. Finally, I hit upon (and honed) a flexible games-based structure that could stand up to the creative impulses of the birthday kid and their guests while being grounded in games with which the kids were already familiar.
I traveled from Bay Ridge to the Bronx, delivering a uniquely play-based and kid-centric experience, learning as I went! I wasn’t a clown, a magician, or a guy with snakes, I was an acting teacher and performer, interested in keeping kids in the spotlight and honoring what the birthday child loved.
Recipe for a successful birthday party
This form of entertainment relied on my background as an improviser, director, and educator. Here were the simple rules I followed for myself, that since have been carried on by the Child’s Play NY staff!
- Get to know the birthday kid by an in-depth call with the family.
- Envision and execute a party plan that follows the scaffolding of theater games with major customization built in.
- At the party, improvise with the party guests and honor their imaginative impulses, ensuring that play is at the center of the event.
As you can see, I was bringing dramatic play to the (literal) party and having a blast doing so. Over the years, I expanded my business, the reach of our classes, and trained scores of passionate theater artists in the work of play. Happily, birthday parties remain at the core of what Child’s Play NY does and loves. And based on the reviews, the love is mutual.
Why Theater Teachers Lead Excellent Parties
I believe theater teachers are uniquely gifted in flexible thinking, problem-solving, and story-generating, making them exceptional party leaders. Drama teachers can read a room, understand how to improvise with children, and have an incredible repertoire of games at their fingertips. Additionally, instructors know how to lesson-plan so that there’s a clear structure heading into the party, one that involves movement for wiggly bodies, emotive expression, and lots of imagination. This level of outside-the-box thinking and accommodating all the birthday kid’s requests can take all the different forms you can imagine. Here are just some examples of things that have gone down from a spate of recent parties:
- A journey around New York with the intent to rescue the Prospect Park Zoo animals involves an invasion of characters from Pokémon who help with the adventure.
- The quest to tame the kingdom’s dragons ends in the creation of a Flying Reptile School.
- A mission to outer space culminates in discovering a planet of unicorns and gemstones.
- Bruno (from Encanto) gets his own music video, and everyone opens their own magical door in the Madrigal household, revealing their superpowers.
- King George III from Hamilton turns into Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe…and you need to sing “My Shot” loudly to turn him back!
Drama teachers can read a room, understand how to improvise with children, and have an incredible repertoire of games at their fingertips.
What A Custom Party Looks Like
What makes kids light up is often really unique to who they are – it is some hybrid of what they’ve been exposed to in books and on screens, what’s going on on the playground, or what they’ve loved in school.
As you can imagine, I genuinely enjoy weaving together a kid’s specific passions into games, activities, and even quests. Typically, I connect with parents in a phone call before the planning gets underway. Sometimes this is straightforward – like the child loves unicorns, so we have a unicorn-themed party with games we typically play in our Fairy Tale camps and classes. Other times, it requires a little more nuance. For example, parents tell me that their child loves gemstones and scavenger hunts, so I build some specific clues and customize a scavenger hunt in the local park! Sometimes it is as simple as a creative movement game we love tailored to songs that make them happy!
Maybe your kid is obsessed with flying dinosaurs, making stuff out of pipe cleaners, and Harry Potter (I’m raising my hand, yes, that’s my kid). That might look like a “typical” HP party where kids get sorted into houses and visit different classes to learn additional skills from teachers pretending to be from Hogwart’s School. Additionally, they’d do a craft that involves designing both wands and creatures from pipe-cleaners. Finally, in a Spells class, the students conjure and transform into Pterosaurs to rescue the Sorcerer’s Stone. Mission Accomplished!
Birthday Theme Creativity: Yes…And!
I’ve seen it all, and I’m here for it. Once a child was obsessed with the song: “Fifty, Nifty United States” and wanted nothing more than a party centered around that. So, the guests learned the music, and a dance to go with it and had imaginative adventures in several of the birthday kid’s favorite states. Based on the kid’s passions, we’ve done wild combos like Scooby Doo and Disco, Cat and the Hat, and Magic School Bus. I’ll never forget, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Singing in the Rain. Mash-ups are delightful and a chance for pure self-expression.
Imagination Needed…Now More than Ever
Over the years, we’ve kept evolving exciting elements, like Treasure Hunts and even Fairies that come dressed up. We do encourage the party guests to come in their favorite dress-up outfit (if it fits the theme) while our teachers remain neutral. It is fun for them to see the adults going from an evil sea witch to a goofy crab, and the lack of costume changes needed can inspire their own transformations.
These days, it is so important to get kids playing together, riffing off what they love, and creating worlds through imagination. This is much more active, rather than asking them to sit back and watch a passive performance from a musician, magician or even a costumed character.
I often will recommend a craft to kick off the festivities and ground the kids in the theme. However, there’s great value in keeping this ultra simple as well (no glitter or glue!) and leaving it open-eneded. A great example of this is the tinfoil craft project.
Start the Birthday Conversation with your Kid
One of the most exciting things about a customized birthday party with Child’s Play NY is that your child takes an active part in the planning process.
A delightful part of the part-planning process can be information gathering. So, I’ve created a road map for you! The following is a questionnaire you can work on with your child as you plan the party. You can read the questions and fill them in together, or ask them to write the answers themselves! If nothing more, it is a neat opportunity to bond while brainstorming. That said, I think you’ll uncover outside-the-box party possibilities that will surely thrill them.
These questions can help encourage communication, thoughtful choices, and an exciting inquiry into what your kids love. So whether you are looking to play birthday games on your own (I can help with that from wherever you live, reach out) and want to get specific tidbits for the theme, or you are in NYC preparing for a birthday with us, your kid’s responses here will help set the party in motion.