Party Planning Guide

Planning Guide

Use the step-by-step Planning Guide below to make planning your child’s birthday party fun & easy! Use our Planning Checklist to keep on schedule. Visit Helpful Hints for 10 great tips for a successful party.

When to Start?
Try to start planning 6 weeks prior to the party. This much time isn’t absolutely necessary, but it will enable you to pull the party together at a relaxed pace. Plus, planning this far ahead will allow you to purchase party supplies as part of your regular shopping trips, instead of running all over town at the last minute. The biggest risk of waiting until the last minute is that some of your child’s friends may not be able to attend due to other commitments.

Even if you like to have plenty of time, there are times when you won’t have control of this and will need to pull a party together in just a couple days. Like when your child’s soccer team decides one week before the last game to have an end-of-season party. Or when your child’s teacher doesn’t get enough volunteers to help with a school party and asks you to pick up the slack. Check out our Easy Party Tips for ideas on how to pull off a fun party without much time or effort.

Choosing a Theme
A good party theme unifies the party and provides a framework from which the rest of the planning process flows. Decisions about what kind of invitations, activities, decorations, and food become clearer once the theme is selected.

If you’re having a party to celebrate Halloween, Graduation, or a successful Little League Baseball season, the theme is determined by the occasion. If the occasion is your child’s birthday party, then you and your child can pick a theme that suits your child’s interests and personality.

Use our Theme Questionnaire and Party Themes page to help you choose a fun theme. Also visit our Favorite Birthday Parties and Ages & Stages pages to help you select a fun theme that’s right for your child’s age.

One of the biggest factors in selecting a party date and time is determining when your child’s good friends can attend. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to have weekday parties during the school year due to after school activities, homework, and busy parents’ work schedules. You’ll probably have better luck with a Saturday or Sunday party. A Saturday party gives you Sunday to relax and recover. While a Sunday party gives you all day Saturday to prepare. Sunday parties are less likely to conflict with sports activities, but should start after noon to reduce conflicts with church activities.

When planning a party, check the proposed date and time with key friends before committing to the party time – before preparing the invitations or making any reservations. It’s better to select another date than to have your child be disappointed because his best friend can’t attend.

Many younger children are pleasant in the morning and get fussy in the afternoon/evening, so a morning party may be good for young children. Just make sure to end the party well before the pre-nap-time-fussies begin.

When selecting a party time, consider the level of refreshments you want to provide. If you don’t want to provide a full meal, you should start the party at least an hour after standard meal times and end the party an hour before standard meal times. Basically, if you have a party anytime between 11 am-1 pm or 4-6 pm, you need to provide a meal. Outside these times you can provide snacks.

When the occasion is a child’s birthday, it’s nice to have some kind of celebration on the child’s actual birthday. This can be a simple family celebration with cake after dinner followed by the opening of family presents. If your child’s birthday is during the school year, ask the teacher if it’s OK to bring special treats to school for the class on your child’s birthday or the closest school day if your child’s birthday falls on a weekend or holiday.

Plan the birthday celebration with your child’s friends for the weekend closest to your child’s birthday, unless there is a major conflict. However, some families move their child’s birthday celebration by several weeks to avoid busy holiday times, such as Christmas. Other families wait until fall to celebrate their child’s summer birthdays, so new classmates can be included in the celebration.

Some advantages to having a party at home include having plenty of time to set-up, having all your supplies close at hand, and having the party in an environment where your child is comfortable, which is especially important for younger children. Some disadvantages to having a party at home include having to clean your house both before and after the party, possible damage to your house or furnishings, space limitations, and lack of built-in entertainment unless you have a big play structure or swimming pool.

Nearby parks are nice because they’re usually free or low cost and there’s often a play structure to entertain the children and open space for organized games. However, there are a couple downsides to park locations. One is that it’s a pain to haul all the party supplies to the park. Another is that the park can be crowded and you may have trouble finding a space for your party.

If you’re having an outdoor party, have a back-up plan in case of poor weather. Try to reserve or stakeout a picnic area with a shelter. When you accept RSVPs be sure to get the guests’ phone numbers in case you need to call with a last minute location change. It’s difficult and disappointing to reschedule a party at the last minute, so plan on having the party rain-or-shine unless it just won’t work.

When deciding where to have a party, consider potential safety issues. Put yourself in baby protection mode and think about ways to make the environment safer. Take special precautions if the party environment includes stairs, a balcony, high windows, glass doors, chemicals, a pool, or busy streets. Other children can be unpredictable in a new environment, particularly with the excitement of a party. Although your child may know not to lean against a 2nd story window, his guests may not.

How Long?
Some people advocate short parties of 1-2 hours to make things easier for the parents and reduce the likelihood that the children will get bored or misbehave. Short parties are fine for some occasions. An end-of-soccer-season party can be finished in an hour, because the kids already have their activity and time to socialize during the game. School parties also tend to be very short, sometimes only 30 minutes!

However, when you’re hosting a party for a holiday, birthday or other occasion, you’ll probably need more than an hour. Short parties are fine for young children (3 or under), but even two hour parties feel too rushed for older children’s parties. By the time you allow guests to straggle in, do some art projects, play games, have refreshments, open presents, and allow time for free play and socializing you’ll exceed 2 hours unless you run the party like a drill sergeant. Three hours is usually ideal. Not too rushed with some free time at the end, but not so long that you run out of things to do and the guests become bored or unruly.

Who & How Many?
In some cases the guest list is determined by the occasion – the entire class is invited to a school party and the entire team is invited to a sports party. For parties where you and your child determine the guest list start with the “must invites”, your child’s best friends. If you want to invite additional children add the friends your child sometimes plays with. You do not have to invite everyone who has invited your child to their parties. Children’s friendships can change pretty quickly and someone who was your child’s friend last year may not be an important guest for your child anymore. The present you gave to the child is adequate payback for the party your child attended, so you do not necessarily owe the child a party invitation.

It’s generally a good idea to invite a few more children than you’d ideally like to attend, in case a couple children have conflicts or are sick the day of the party. This is particularly important if you’re planning a small party. If you want to have 4 children at the party, you probably need to invite 6 or you risk having a party that is too small. If you’re inviting 20 kids, it’s less important to invite extras, because you’ll probably end up with enough children to make it feel like a party.

At some point you may see gender issues when developing the guest list. The typical pattern is that young children’s parties are a mix of girls and boys. As children get older their party guests are mostly, if not all, the same gender. Then as children become teenagers they may again have a balance of girl and boy guests. If the party isn’t going to be all boys or all girls, try to ensure that there are at least two girl or boy guests. It can be awkward to be the only girl or only boy at a party. Your party theme may be influenced by the gender mix of the guest list. A Princess Party isn’t likely to appeal to many boys, but a Princess & Knight Party will.

In some cases when you invite a child, you may also be implicitly inviting their parents and siblings. Some parents are happy to drop their child off at a party, while others want to stay the entire time. Some parents view any weekend activity, including a party, as a family outing and bring all their children. It’s not easy to control this, but you do need to consider it when planning for the party because it determines how many favors and how much food you’ll need.

Generally, parents of children under 3-4 years of age will plan on staying and you’ll be glad they did. Parents of older children may make the decision to stay or leave once they get to the party and check out the environment, the level of supervision, and see how their child is fitting in. The upside to parents staying is that they’ll usually help out if you ask. 

The downside to siblings staying is that it can really change the dynamics of the party when the siblings are more than a few years younger or older than the party guests. Younger kids slow things down and can get in the way. Older kids can win all the games and dominate the younger children. If you really don’t want extra guests (parents or siblings) at the party, you’ll need to find a tactful way to mention this when you send the invitation or accept the RSVPs.

What to Do?
Use the Planning Checklist to help you identify party planning and preparation tasks and schedule. The key things that need to be done, preferably at least 2-3 weeks before the party, are setting the date & time and the party location. Then get the invitations out at least one week and preferably two weeks prior to the party. Almost everything else can wait until the last minute, if it really needs to.

What Activities?
The key components of most parties are Games & Activities and Food. Children can inhale food in a matter of minutes so don’t plan much time for refreshments.

A typical two hour party agenda might look like this:

  • > 15-20 minutes – greet arrivals, free play and unstructured activities (art table, carnival games, etc.)
  • > 30-45 minutes – organized games and activities
  • > 15-20 minutes – refreshments
  • > 20-30 minutes – additional organized games & activities and present opening
  • > 15-20 minutes – free play and unstructured activities

A three hour party agenda would allow more time for games & activities, free play, or an entertainer.

Some people avoid having any unplanned time at the party for fear guests will get bored or unruly. However, allowing some free time at both the beginning and the end of the party gives guests time to interact with each other.

There seems to be some debate on whether or not to have a child open presents at the party. Some people are concerned that it seems too materialistic or that the birthday child may not show enthusiasm for each gift and a guest’s feelings might get hurt. On the other hand, many guests want to see their presents opened and it’s a logical closing activity for the party. However, if the party is running behind schedule, present opening is one of the activities you can skip.

Do some silly role playing prior to the party to remind your child to act gracious regardless of the present he receives. Give her a pair of socks, a box of raisins, or some other odd gift and have her come up with a good response, such as “These are nice socks and I really need some, thank you”. Also remind your child not to make a big deal out of duplicate presents.

Getting Help
Potential helpers include family, friends, neighbors, parents of guests, and paid professionals. Fortunately, most of us know someone who will do just about anything you need and do it well. Grandmothers and aunts often fall into this category and will help with food prep, arts & crafts, and clean-up. Then there are the people who are best suited for a specific task, such as the uncle who is a photography buff and can be trusted to get great pictures without dropping the camera in the swimming pool.

Compare your list of things that need to be done with your list of people who are willing and able to help looking for some obvious matches. An artistic relative may be a good candidate to do face painting. A friend with a mini-van can pick-up the balloons. A neighbor who loves to bake can make the cake or cookies. After you’ve made all the obvious matches on your list, look for additional tasks that just about anyone can do. This includes things like making a list of who gives what gift at a birthday party, so your child can write meaningful thank you notes.

Don’t forget to give the party child some responsibilities. She will appreciate the party more if she puts some effort into it. However, these responsibilities should be limited to preparation activities and not things that have to be done during the party. Don’t make your child clean-up after her birthday party. After all it is her special day.

You’ll have to gauge whether your other children can be good helpers. Some parents expect siblings to help a lot, some just include siblings as “guests” at the party, and others get siblings out of the way by sending them to a friend’s house to play.

Some people recommend paying teenagers to help. This can work well with the right teenager, but teens who are shy or distracted may not add much to the party. Put any parents who stay at the party to work running some of the games or serving refreshments. Most will be glad to have something to do.

Unless you throw a lot of parties and have ample storage space, you’ll probably just want to buy what you need prior to each party. However, there are some items that can be used for almost every party, such as carnival-style games, cupcake pans, and serving trays, so it may make sense to buy and store these. Tables, chairs, and ice chests can often be borrowed from friends. Use our Shopping List to help you determine what items you need and where to get them. If you end up with leftovers party supplies, such as favor bags, decorations, plates & napkins, pack them into a box and donate them to a local women’s shelter.

How Much?
A good rule of thumb is $20 per child. However, costs can vary widely depending on what type of party you have. If you pay to use a location, hire an entertainer, serve a full meal, and give elaborate prizes and favor bags, the costs can really add up. However, it’s possible to have a party for as little as $5 per child. Choose a free location and activity (play games in a park), limit refreshments to cake, ice cream & drinks, and keep decorations and favors low cost.

Some all-inclusive party destinations, such as play places and bowling centers, can also be relatively inexpensive. If you’re on a tight budget, check out our Inexpensive Party Tips for ideas on how to have a great party on a shoestring budget.