Hands up if you’re ready for a long and rambling post, where I go off at various tangents before casually winding back round to the point and offering an insightful and entertaining conclusion. If you’ve just propelled your arm skywards, then boy do I have a treat for you. Namely: this article about the fun, games, stresses and strains of putting together a toddler’s birthday party.
That’s right, folks. My son has officially completed his transition from baby to boy by turning the ripe old age of two. Which bring me to my first tangent. He’s only two! The incredible little man, who is speaking in full sentences, knows his colours, can dribble a football, makes up his own nursery rhymes, tells us when he is going to go to the toilet and can count to 30 (excluding 16, he often misses 16 for some reason) is only two. That’s amazing. It’s sensational. It’s something I need to begin appreciating, because right now I’ve fallen into that classic parent trap of fretting about the things he can’t do because “he’s only two” rather than proudly screaming from the rooftops about the astounding things he can do despite the fact “he’s only two”.
But back to my son’s big day. It was a happy occasion that he marked with 12.05am, 3.30am and 5.15am wake-ups, an ill-timed nap, an hour of clinging to mummy for dear life and some of the cutest smiles I have seen in my 37-and-a-bit years on this planet.
So pretty much a standard 24 hours, then? Kind of, but also no, as instead of going to work, swimming, the park or Boogie Babies, my wife and I spent the morning cutting up fruit and chicken (more about that later), and our son spent the morning watching Fireman Sam and tugging at our legs and pleading “play”. Stop! Tangent two!
Two games my son currently enjoys are catch/throw and hide and seek. The former is a game of two parts. Part one sees him stand on his throwing spot and either bouncing a tennis ball to mummy or daddy or hurling it “in the sky” to mummy and daddy (note: we quickly discovered that giving him a pre-assigned throwing spot was a crucial part of keeping order/ensuring he didn’t just chuck the tennis ball at the window or cooker).
Part two sees him stand on his catching spot, hold out his hands and attempt to collect a football that daddy lobs in his direction at a very slow speed. Sometimes he catches it, sometimes he doesn’t and other times it hits him in the head. Whatever happens, everyone laughs and he does that little shake your body, lean over and bend in half thing toddlers do when they’re happy.
Hide and seek is slightly more self-explanatory, but we try to ensure that our son seeks as well as hides, as this gives him an opportunity to both practice his counting and develop his imagination (we’ve now got to the stage where he prolongs the game by pretending to look for us in different spots, even though he knows where we are. Again, “He’s only two!”). Tangent over. Repeat: tangent over. Now, back to our toddler’s birthday party
Once the food was prepped, we packed the car, wrestled the bubster into his finest outfit and hit the road to the RAF Museum for an afternoon of fun, stress, laughs, tears and everything in between. Here are the main things I learned.
The guest list
Invite the neighbours? Ask every kid and their dog from the nursery to come? We ummed. We aahed. I gesticulated and then did that facial expression where you screw up your face to portray angst. And then we decided to make our toddler’s birthday party an event for close friends and family.
The main negatives of us going down this route were:
- We missed an opportunity to get to know the parents we might spend a lot of time with in the future.
- The party didn’t feature many kids that were around our son’s age.
- Some of our good friends lived further away and weren’t able to make it.
But, on the plus side, the positives were:
- We didn’t have to spend a significant proportion of the afternoon making small talk to people we barely knew.
- Leaving our son’s nursery peers off the list dramatically reduced the number of times guests uttered phrase “come on, you need to learn to share”.
- We managed to keep the numbers relatively tight, which helped us to limit costs and fit in to the venue we’d chosen. Talking of which…
After holding the bubster’s last couple of shindigs at his grandparents’ house, we went a bit renegade with this year’s choice. And by this I mean, we held our toddler’s birthday party at the RAF Museum in London. Oh, cool, so you got a room? No, that would have been far too costly and easy.
We actually decided to bring our own food and host the party on the picnic tables in the museum’s Aeronauts Gallery (read: kid’s play area). Our reasoning for this was simple:
- We have been at the Museum a couple of times and our son loves it.
- We figured that the mix of toys, educational features, space to run around and cool planes would excite everyone on the guest list (from a crawling baby to an elderly auntie) far more than a kiddy class-style entertainer singing songs and blowing bubbles.
- The Museum is free to get in to.
- We had spoken to the people on the front desk and they assured us that people were allowed to bring picnics into the Aeronauts Gallery (obviously we forgot to mention that our picnic would be for 40 people and include cakes, balloons and banners at this point).
- It was different and we like to be different.
But was it a success or not? If you’d asked me at 2.30pm, when the picnic area was packed with other families, not many of our friends had turned up, my in-laws were looking somewhat underwhelmed, my son was refusing to leave my wife’s side, and my stress levels were somewhere between sky high and through the roof, the answer would have been stop asking questions and start passing alcohol.
If you ask me now, when my abiding memories are my son spending the final 90 minutes running around in an excited, happy blur, our relatives praising the venue and all of all friends’ kids demanding to stay, the answer is a big, fat yes.
As ever, naps were the main consideration when trying to work out the party’s beginning and end times. Right now, our little man is the world’s most inconsistent napper, but if he does fall asleep he tends to do it about lunchtime. This, when allied with the Museum’s opening hours, left us with 10-12 and 2-5 as our two potential slots.
Due to the distances some of our friends were driving, we went for the afternoon option. On the down side, this meant…
- Guests with kids who napped in the afternoon arrived late.
- We had to think about providing a decent amount of food for the adults as well as the children.
- The children’s energy levels were slightly lower.
- Our bubster took a while to warm up, as he was still waking up.
Positively, it meant…
- We had enough time to prepare the food and decorate the picnic area.
- We had enough time to drive back to the house for all the stuff forgotten (and then back to the house for all the other stuff we’d forgotten).
- More of our friends were able to make it.
- We didn’t have to feed the kids lunch.
- By the end, we pretty much had the place to ourselves, so could take a bunch of awesome photos, like the one at the top of this article.
What do you value more – your time and blood pressure or your money? If the answer is your time and blood pressure, then don’t even think about shopping for fruit segments. Book a caterer and book them now. And if your answer is money, then put the phone down and start planning your menu, because doing the food yourself will save you ££s.
Obviously, the nibbles you serve will depend on what your venue allows you to take in or produce (e.g. we weren’t able to bring in hot drinks and couldn’t heat up food), but if you are looking for general lessons, here goes.
- Presentation and location is crucial. We put the roast chicken I’d taken around three hours slicing slightly away from the rest of the food and it barely got touched. Yes, I am bitter. And yes, I did end up eating it all myself.
- Sure fruit makes you look good to other parents, but in reality kids barely touch it.
- Hummus with sliced cucumbers, carrots and peppers is a massive winner.
- Adults love spring rolls and samosas more than cheese sandwiches.
- Kids love crisps more than Petit Filous.
- No-one eats quiche.
The insightful and entertaining conclusion
Wow, I really made a rod for my own back with all my big talk at the start of this article, didn’t I? Okay, I’m ready. Looking back at my toddler’s birthday party, the main thing we did extremely successfully was think about our son’s needs rather than our own.
This may sound like an incredibly bleeding obvious thing to do, but I’m not sure it is. After all, how many parents rule out a venue due it being “a little scruffy round the edges” or “not having a kitchen”? Kids don’t see these things. They see fun or no fun.
Does this imply that you need to focus solely on your child and completely ignore the needs of those on the guest list? No. It means that you need to begin with a plan for your kid (e.g. he or she loves going to this park, that soft play centre or this class) and then work out from there depending on your budget, variety of guests, potential venues and so on.
This might sound like a lot of effort, but I guarantee that your kid’s beaming smile will make the time, stress and hassle worth it in the end. And if it doesn’t? Then life sucks. But hey, it’s only 12 months until you get to re-run the fun and try again.