Whatever happened to the backyard birthday party?
Back when I was a kid -- you know, way back when we walked to school uphill both ways in the snow and liked it -- my parents used to invite my entire class to my summertime birthday parties -- plus my classmates' parents and siblings. We had a pool and a huge yard and kids would swarm around like cake-fueled bees while the parents would sip beer and eat grilled tandoori chicken and much fun would be had by all, no clowns, magicians, bounce houses, or petting zoos required. (I'm sure it took a while to clean everything up, but I don't remember hearing anyone complain.)
Sure, throwing the bash at an all-purpose party place means that you keep the clean-up and planning to a minimum, but the costs can skyrocket easily, and you're limited as to the number of guests you can invite. So let's revisit the backyard, and perhaps even some simpler times: Here are 10 ideas for birthday parties you can throw at home. While you will have to contend with clean-up duties, your kids and their guests will have a blast, and you won't be left with an achingly empty wallet.
Pirate party: This party theme comes together in a snap, and has plenty of possibilities for those who have more time to plan. Give each guest a black eye patch and a colorful bandanna when they arrive. A treasure hunt provides indoor (or outdoor) entertainment and party favors (they can tie their booty up in their bandannas). Serve hot dogs cut into squiggly sea creatures for lunch, and follow it up with cake decorated with a jolly roger flag and chocolate coins.
A sleepless sleepover. At most sleepovers, there's precious little sleep to be had; at this one, that's on purpose. Ask guests to arrive in their very best PJs. Pile all of your pillows on the floor, pop some popcorn, and settle in for a few hours of fun. Girls can decorate deluxe eye masks, indulge in a makeover, and watch a chick flick; boys can bring their Wii remotes and hold a gaming tournament, rent a gush-free superhero movie, or bring and trade their favorite collectables. Got a mixed crew? Pitch tents in the yard (or living room), roast marshmallows in the fireplace (or over tea light candles), tell ghost stories in the dark, and send each guest home with an inexpensive DVD (or a gift card to a rental place).
A costume parade: What little kid wouldn't want to wear their Halloween costume over and over again? Let the decorate miniature pumpkins from the supermarket with glittery foam stickers (a bargain at craft stores), jump in leaf piles (if the weather is nice), and get a head start on their Halloween candy collection. But you don't have to wait until late October to throw a costume party for your kid. Break out the dress-up clothes and let them parade through the house adorned in thrift-store finery; snap a digital photo of them to slip into the goodie bags.
A Teddy bear picnic: Preschoolers love this. Spread sheets out on the lawn and offer up tea (or juice), tiny sandwiches, and mini cupcakes. Sing songs, play Duck Duck Goose and I Spy, and fill small baskets with treats to take home.
Hail to the chef: If your child loves helping you in the kitchen, a chef party is the way to go. Colorful aprons ($9.99 for 12 at Oriental Trading Company) and inexpensive cookie cutters make great party favors; older kids can make their own pizzas and decorate their own cupcakes while younger kids hone their "cooking" skills on homemade play dough or goop.
Go car crazy: If your kid has a need for speed, give each guest a Matchbox car or two and stage a race down the driveway (you can find generic cars on sale practically for pennies at Walgreens). Plastic cars make great cake toppers (decorate a sheet cake to look like the open road), and let the kids relax with a little vintage "Speed Racer" before the party's over.
Princess perfect: Guests can wear their own dress-up clothes to make a picture-perfect grand entrance; snap a quick picture of each princess and let them decorate foam or wooden frames to put them in, or have each girl decorate her own tiara. A princess topper turns any supermarket cake into something worthy of royalty, and streamers easily transform your living room into a grand ballroom for some twirling and dancing before settling down to a princess movie and popcorn.
Make some magic: Kids can craft their very own magic wands using wooden dowels, ribbons, tinsel, and glitter; have them compete in a contest to see who can come up with the most creative magic spell. Hire a magician if you like, or enlist a relative to do some simple card tricks and a goofy act. Older kids may enjoy a Harry Potter flick, while littles may get a kick from the retro-fantastic wizard scene from Fantasia. Wizards and magicians don't eat cake; conjure up a stack of brownies instead and watch them disappear.
Beach in your backyard: Celebrate a summer birthday with a beach bash right in your own backyard. Playground sand and large, colorful towels make an easy setting; add a slip-and-slide or two, volleyball or badminton, and a cooler full of ice pops, and organize a water-balloon toss, a soaked-sponge relay race, or a squirt-gun battle. (Got a Spongebob SquarePants fan at home? Serve sliders and call them Krabby Patties, slide hotdogs onto skewers and say they're Chum-on-a-stick.) Have kids wear their bathing suits, and don't forget the sunscreen.
Shining star: Stock up on 4th-of-July decorations when they go on clearance, and throw your child a Shining Star party any time of year. Ask parents to bring their video cameras, split the kids into teams, and have them shoot their own movies. Give out small notebooks and let them collect one another's autographs. If the party runs late, a few sparklers will help you end the celebration on a fun and festive note.
You can stretch your birthday money farther by forgetting about themed plates, cups, and cutlery -- all that stuff ends up in the trash anyway, right? Instead, stick with easy-to-find paperware from the grocery store. Hold the party in the mid-afternoon, so you can serve snacks and cake instead of a complete meal. And other parents will adore you if you avoid filling the goodie bags with tons of candy or plastic junk; over at Work It, Mom! I've pulled together a slideshow of 10 great non-candy party favors.