Over the past ten years or so I have attended hundreds and hundreds of kids parties, either as an entertainer, as a mum, or as the host. There are some things I've learnt along the way, some mistakes I see a lot and some helpful tips that I thought would be good to share here.
Pro tip #1 - The younger the child, the shorter the party should be.
As a parent you are probably pretty aware that your average three year old has a much shorter attention span than your average 6 year old. So that probably means they wouldn't last through a full-on three hour long birthday party without it ending in tears and tantrums. For most ages I would say two hours is a good time to go with, it will allow time for some activities and fun, time to sit and eat, plus time to do the standard party things like cake and gift opening. For under 5's I would say you could even make it shorter, and leave the gift opening for after the party as it is likely to be too overwhelming for the birthday child and difficult for the guests who don't get to play with all the fun gifts being opened in front of them.
Pro tip #2 - Structured activities can be great, but kids need free time too.
Even if your child has made a list of 20 party games they want to play during their party, in reality you can't have planned activities to fill every second of the party. For one thing, nothing always runs 100% to plan when you are dealing with children, so you will just end up running around frantically rushing through everything and no one will get to enjoy it. Also, kids need downtime between activities, even if that's just 10 minutes to go run around outside or a few minutes playtime in a designated free-play area. When I host a party the structure usually goes like this: one structured craft activity, take a break for food, another activity, take a break to do the cake, another activity, gift opening and free time at the end. Each of the breaks inbetween structured activities are more than enough time for them to chill out and chat with their friends, and feel like they are having a fun time and also getting to do some memorable party activities.
Pro tip #3 - Entertainment vs activities/games.
If you are planning to hire an entertainer for your party, such as a face painter or balloon twister, you need to be aware that while they are getting through all the kids attending the party as quickly as possible, they can not be entertaining everyone at the party. So there needs to be something else for the kids to be doing during this time, but not anything that the kids in the line or currently getting painted are going to feel like they are missing out on. It's good to pair these kind of services with some kind of free-play activities like a bouncy castle, playground/backyard play, indoor playroom or pretend play etc. If you are planning to hire an entertainer AND play party games, make sure you wait until the entertainer's booked time has ended before you start the games, otherwise the kids in line will miss out, or everyone will want to leave their place in the line to play the games. I have been face painting at so many parties where they have booked me to be there for an hour or two, but half an hour in they announce it's time to play pass the parcel or do the pinata, and all the kids disappear leaving me standing there doing nothing on paid time.
Pro tip #4 - Kids can only eat so much.
When it comes to party food, keep it simple. When there's lots of fun activities going on and all their friends to hang out with, kids don't want to be sitting down for a massive banquet meal. A few simple snacks are fine, kids are actually pretty easy to please and you can't go wrong with the good old party-food staples like cocktail sausages, popcorn, fruit and chips. When it comes to cake, keep in mind that very little of that cake is actually going to get eaten, so spending hundreds of dollars on a beautiful, two-tiered, professionally made cake for a party of twelve 4-year-olds is probably a huge waste of money. Kids will be just as happy with one of the custom printed, themed cakes from the supermarket. Also, if you want the cake to have any chance of being eaten, don't also serve cupcakes as part of the party snacks. I love cake just as much as the next person, but there's really only so much cake one person can eat in a short space of time. Another idea is to have some kind of box/container/bag available for kids to take a slice of cake home in, so they don't feel like they are missing out if they just can't stomach it after eating too much party food.
Pro tip #5 - You know your kids birthday is on the same date every year right?
There's a definite "busy season" when it comes to birthdays in general, and we all know it's because of all those babies conceived around Christmas/New Years. So if your child is born between the end of August and Christmas, you will need to plan well in advance if you are wanting to hire a venue or an entertainer or order a cake etc. The party industry gets absolutely hammered during those months, and you can pretty much guarantee that if you leave it until two weeks before the birthday to try to book anything at that time of year, you will be out of luck. Something else that I've learnt over the years is, it's never a good idea to plan a birthday party to fall in a long weekend or on a special day, like Mother's Day or Father's Day. So if your childs birthday falls around those times, just check that the date you have planned for the party isn't going to clash, otherwise you might only get 2 or 3 kids show up.
Hopefully these tips will be a little bit helpful for the next time you have to plan a birthday party for your child. The main thing to keep in mind is, while there's absolutely nothing wrong with going all out and having piles of food and a huge fancy cake etc, kids will be happy with just some simple snacks and a store-bought chocolate cake if that's all you have time for. Birthday parties are about making memories that the child will cherish forever, and the best memories are made just spending time with your favourite people doing the things you love.