A friend recently posted about her daughter's birthday party, leading me to reminisce over the many birthday parties of my childhood.
My mother threw some awesome birthday parties. Apparently her mother had started the trend--hosting themed parties throughout the years for her children. But my mother has always known how to take a good idea and run with it.
I am the oldest of 9 children, so there were a lot of birthdays. In order to keep things sane, we alternated friends-parties with family-only parties. We had friends parties when we turned 5, 7, 9. 11, and 13. If we wanted them older than that we were welcome to co-ordinate/pay for them ourselves. My sister and I each held a slumber party or two in our teens, but otherwise we were old enough that we were ok with not having parties anymore.
The big secret is to start with a theme, and then connect everything back to that theme: the invitations, the cake, the decorations, the games, the party favors... and it's not as hard as it might seem! We always had homemade parties, so when I say there was a theme I don't mean that we went out and bought Tinkerbell plates, napkins, and banners. Far from it. Rather we made invitations from construction paper, made our own cakes, used regular plates/cups/napkins, and decorated with regular old balloons. We didn't do large or elaborate favor bags either--just something small like a pencil, some stickers, or a tiny toy (think $1 maximum per kid). If there was a pinata then they'd have some candy too, but that was it. Birthday parties were about fun, not about stuff.
Here are a few themes we had over the years: dinosaurs, outer space, cars (the brother who is now in mechanical engineering), ponies, hidden treasure (pirates), The Hobbit (that's my little Wolf!), wild animals/jungle, medieval times (yes, that one was me), dolls, Lord of the Rings (my 13yo brother right after the movies came out) and Water Play.
We had a variety of standard games that we would just adapt to each theme. The most popular was the treasure hunt--with the treasure either being the cake or a little selection of inexpensive favors. We did pinatas sometimes. Sometimes we had themed cakes ("Family Fun" magazine is full of great ideas) or often we'd just make cupcakes and then set out 3-4 colors of frosting along with a variety of sprinkles, chocolate chips, red hots, etc for decorating...left to their own devices, children will do some remarkable things with frosting! ☺ We also did the game 'going on a lion hunt' but adapted it to whatever the theme was... I'll list more about specific games (directions, etc) in the comments...
Here are a few classic examples of adaptations:
For the dinosaur party, we used little 'candy rocks' on the cake, along with a few small toy dinos. The favors were more little dinosaur toys (just the tiny plastic ones).
At the cars party, the favors were (what else?!) hotwheels cars. The cake was a racetrack.
At the doll party we each brought a favorite doll, and one of the activities involved using moms fabric scraps to design gowns for the dolls, and then holding a fashion show.
For Wolf's Hobbit party (age 5), I titled each invitation with "A long expected party," and Hubby dressed up as Gandalf to meet each child at the door. We gave each child a dwarf hat to wear. I made a spider pinata (since in the book the dwarves/hobbit fight spiders). On our "Lion Hunt" we hunted Smaug, the dragon!
For the LOTR treasure hunt, mom played Galadriel and gave each party goer a gift--a code key, a pencil, paper, etc--and then each of the clues required one or more of them to utilize their gift. At the time we had an exchange student, and he was told that he already had his gift and would know it when the time came...sure enough one clue was in Spanish, and he was the only one who could interpret it for the group!
Wolf has a summer birthday, and when he turned 7 he wanted a Water-Play party, but we couldn't afford a waterpark or renting a pool. So we told everyone to wear sunscreen and plan to get wet, and held the party at the park. I bought cheap waterguns and a package of water balloons. First we let everyone play on the playground for a while, and then we played waterballoon volleyball (tossing the balloons back and forth on beach towels). Then I sent them on a treasure hunt (which ranged all over the park) and once they opened the treasure (a watergun for each child) then they had a watergun war. The watergun war lasted at least 20 minutes, and then we had cake and opened presents. Seriously, it was one of the easiest parties I've ever hosted!