Party Like It’s 2021

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After a year of car parades and Zoom parties, kids are looking forward to the return of in-person birthday celebrations with family and friends. If your party-planning skills are a little rusty, don’t panic. We’re sharing tips and ideas to make your child’s big day fun for everyone.

One of the hardest parts of the pandemic for parents was making birthdays feel just as special as they did in the Before Times. We invited friends to honk car horns down our streets and hired magicians to perform over Zoom. We decorated cupcakes virtually and hosted outdoor laser tag parties in the dead of winter. And we mostly succeeded in making our kids’ celebrations seem normal, despite the extraordinary circumstances in which we were living.

Today, vaccines are bringing us closer to our pre-pandemic lives, including the return of in-person birthday parties. Until children can be vaccinated, health experts still advise against crowded, indoor gatherings, especially without masks. Bounce houses and escape rooms may be out, but outdoor parties are, well, in.

If you’re trying to remember how to plan an in-person gathering, we present some ideas to help you get your next party started.

Outdoor Party Themes

Spring is the perfect time for an outdoor birthday party, whether in your backyard or a local park. These party themes work well for a variety of ages and party sizes. They can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them, and many require only minimal purchases.


A mystery-solving party is like a classic scavenger hunt, but with a twist. Maybe a stuffed animal has gone missing? Or a hidden treasure box of candy has been reported?
Plant clues around your backyard, neighborhood or local park that lead the group to the solution. You could get your neighbors involved to deliver hints. Offer magnifying glasses and small notebooks with pencils as party favors for the young detectives to claim their rewards.


All you need for a successful carnival-themed party are the right activities and snacks. Pin the tail on the donkey and a ring or bean bag toss are simple and fun games perfect for this type of party. As for the treats, cotton candy, corn dogs, circus peanuts, animal crackers and popcorn (extra points if you snag some classic red- and white-striped boxes to serve it in) will immediately make your backyard feel like a carnival.

Movie Night

This one is simple: As long as you have a white sheet, a projector and plenty of popcorn, you can’t go wrong with an outdoor movie party. If you want to get a little more elaborate, rent or buy an old-fashioned popcorn machine and purchase some movie theater candy boxes to hand out to the guests. Send tickets with the party invitations to make the kids feel like they’re going to a real theater.

Beach Party

It might not be quite warm enough yet to swim in the ocean, but you can still bring the beach to your backyard! Kids can play in a sandbox, toss beach balls, hang out on towels and fish for plastic toys in a kiddie pool if you have one. Fill your goody bags with sunglasses, small sand shovels and flip-flop keychains. Watermelon, ice cream and lemonade are all perfect treats to make it seem like summer has arrived a little early.

Field Day

For an active group of kids, set up a variety of field day games to keep everyone moving. Some ideas include relay races, jump rope, tug-of-war, sack races and kickball. Medals and whistles would work great as party favors. Just make sure you have ice pops on hand to close out the party!— Eleanor Linafelt

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Stress-free Party Planning

For busy parents, just anticipating the prep involved in hosting a kid’s birthday party can cause anxiety. How will you set up the food and drinks, keep the kids entertained and clean up without a hitch?

Pro party planner Ashia Watson, owner of Party Sticklers, has organized plenty of children’s birthday parties and has time-tested tips for planning a carefree celebration, whether you’re hosting a Batman-themed jamboree or a party fit for a princess.

Make a list

As you’ll remember from the days of college term papers, doing things at the last minute causes so much unnecessary stress. Watson recommends starting to plan two or more months in advance — the earlier, the better.

Search online for free checklists that tell you how much time to allow for buying decorations, booking entertainment and other scheduling needs. Then, make yourself a to-do list. Watson suggests putting pen to paper, typing in a spreadsheet or, if you can, enlisting a party planner like her to help.

Send follow-ups

If you’re waiting on people to RSVP, send follow-up emails a week or so before your event. That way, Watson says, invitees will be thinking about the party and can let you know if they’re coming. A few days before the party, draft a text that says, “Can’t wait to see you all at Justin’s fifth birthday!” as another reminder for your child’s friends and family.

Busy parents might have forgotten to tell you if they and their kids can make the birthday festivities. Although you can’t always control when (or if) people RSVP, Watson says simple yet friendly reminders may avoid no-shows and other guest mishaps.

Recruit family and friends

As a host, you balance a lot at once: serving food and drinks, facilitating games and crafts and simply trying to connect with your guests. But you can’t do all of this yourself, Watson says — call in some help!

“It’s very important to have a good support system when you are planning an event,” she says. “You just don’t want to do it solo.”

Grandma and grandpa can help clear off plates while you guide the kids into a game of tag, or you can grab a family friend to entertain the kids when you need a moment to breathe. Just ask in advance, Watson says, and you’ll have all the assistance you need for before, during and after the party.

Have a plan B … or C

Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. You might have car troubles. Your magician could get sick or a friend who was supposed to help out can’t make it. To prevent a few extra gray hairs from popping up during the party, Watson recommends you plan ahead.

Think about possibilities of what could go wrong, she says, and write down what you’d do or talk it out with your spouse or a friend. For example, maybe you’ll have the local bakery on speed dial in case the cake you’re planning to bake doesn’t work out.

You never want your guests to be bored, so Watson suggests having some easy games on hand like bingo for kids to play if a craft or activity falls through. Having a back-up plan or two will ensure that you’re ready for whatever the universe throws your way on the big day.

Clean as you go

Cleanup doesn’t have to cause major stress. Instead of waiting for everything to pile up at the end of the party, Watson tells parents to start cleaning during the event. While kids dig into their cake, you can start packing up the food and clearing the table. That way, it’ll be a less overwhelming job after your guests go home.

Even better, enlist your kids for cleanup, Watson says. Yes, it’s their day, but this is still a good opportunity to have them help and work as a team.

Your party doesn’t have to be perfect or extravagant, or better than anyone else’s, Watson says. It’s all about making sure the kids enjoy themselves. And with a little bit of planning, you’re sure to have as much fun as they do.— Jenn Attanasio