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Let's Have a Party

Giving a birthday party for a young child can be a daunting task, but with some insider tips, it can be a memorable occasion for guest, birthday child and parent.

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Through the eyes of children, birthday parties are the next best thing to Christmas. For one day of the year, the world revolves around the birthday boy or girl. For days, anticipation builds: excitement for the child and increasing dread for the mother. Although Mom wants everything to be perfect, the thought of entertaining a gaggle of three-year-olds for a few hours can bring on a migraine.

How can you make a fun, age-appropriate party that suits your child’s personality and passion without sending yourself into a tailspin? First, involve your child in choosing a theme that reflects his interests at this particular time in his life. There are plenty of ideas to choose from, especially here in Greenwich.

Second, start with the basics, so you’re not overwhelmed by scoping out too much. For most youngsters, an hour and a half to play and eat is just right, especially if it’s at home. An hour for playing and entertainment, followed by singing and cake. Just remember, do as much as you can up front, enjoy the moment, and take plenty of photos. Unexpected things happen at every party. Just try to relax, enjoy yourself and go with the flow.

Third, choose a theme-related cake. Although cakes come in all varieties and prices in Greenwich from French, German or American bakeries, caterers, gourmet shops and grocery stores, most children love simple white cake. The fancier cakes with strawberries or mousse layers get left on the plates. Since many children have peanut allergies, play it safe and keep the cake nut-free. For older children, include the cake as one of the party activities — bake several box cakes ahead of time. Pillsbury’s Funfetti cake is the hands-down favorite. Divide the party guests into teams to decorate their own cake and provide each group with food coloring, icing and silly decorations like sprinkles, gummy worms, candy peach rings, licorice strings and M&Ms. Kids really get into it and have fun seeing and devouring each other’s creations at the end.

Party bags are fun souvenirs to take home. Moms always complain about the typical sack full of sugary candy being opened in the back of the SUV after cake and ice cream. So put some thought into an inexpensive party favor that reflects the theme of the party. The parents will certainly appreciate it, and the kids will have a lasting memory of the party.

Most moms choose not to have their children open presents in front of the others to avoid uncomfortable feelings for guests if they don’t feel that their gift is “as good” as the others. One solution to this, which is becoming increasingly popular, is to have guests bring gifts for the birthday child’s favorite charity. Kids in Crisis has been the happy recipient of many toys and games brought in by a birthday child. Kara Donahue, president of the Junior League of Greenwich, feels she is handing down her civic-minded values by training her children to be concerned about other people. The children ask their guests to bring books to donate to the Head Start program. It is a lovely way to teach generosity of spirit if you feel your children have so much already.

To get you going, here is a variety of party ideas, including a few that local families have done, to give you some inspiration and make a great time for everyone.

Baby’s First Birthday Party is about new experiences and friendships. Invite people you truly enjoy, however you choose to enjoy the occasion, whether it’s a backyard barbecue with family or a baby’s first friends party. Take lots of movies of your one-year-old wearing his birthday hat and mushing birthday cake all over his face and high chair. Film each guest offering baby a special birthday wish and e-mail an edited video to all the relatives who couldn’t be there for such a happy day.

For toddlers, parties at home are nice, especially because parents accompany the children. It gives you time to socialize and get to know some of the parents you will be spending time with as your children grow up. A Backyard Barn Party is perfect for toddlers, and farm-themed decorations are easy to find. Bales of hay make an instant farmyard. Use inexpensive blue-jean fabric for tablecloths. Centerpieces can be eggs in chicken- wire baskets or old cowboy boots filled with daisies and straw. Hand out straw hats and bandannas to the parents. Pied Piper can bring a pony to your house for rides. They have three different size ponies to choose from, depending on the age and size of the children. Pied Piper will also bring petting zoo animals: baby ducks, chickens, bunnies, sheep, goats and a potbellied pig. Children are fascinated with animals and love to walk them around the yard or sit and pet a furry bunny. If your party is for older children, line dancing with a square dance caller could be the way to go.

If you’d rather the festivity wasn’t in your backyard, check out the Stamford Museum and Nature Center’s Farm Tour Party for kids age three and up. Tour their barns and corrals full of cows, roosters and chickens, sheep and baby piglets. Only a few steps from the farm buildings is Nature’s Playground, a play area with slides and rope courses and nests to perch in. The museum also offers art-themed birthday parties. Choose from painting, collage, sculpture or tie-dye projects, or let the kids create Jackson Pollack–style “action” paintings to take home.

Moms, no doubt, are the most creative individuals when it comes to devising a party that will have everyone squealing with delight. Dana Caan organized a very creative Dora the Explorer Party for her three-year-old Olivia. The guests received explorer hats and a map that took them stepping on paper plate turtles into Alligator Alley to destroy a piñata alligator and onto Rainbow Road that was festooned with streamers cascading down the staircase. “Of course, they all bumped down on their bums all the way,” Dana says, laughing. “The jungle was made from helium balloons anchored on the ground. The kids loved walking through it.” They had to find the key to the Treasure Box and they all dug in for treasures. “Then I was Swiper, and I had to try to swipe the birthday cake. After three calls for ‘Swiper no swiping,’ the cake was returned. It was interesting to see that the three-year-olds all knew exactly what to say to get the cake from Swiper. It was very cute.”

Every Greenwich child’s favorite birthday hot spot is Abis Japanese Restaurant. Your party sits around a hibachi table, and the chef is your entertainment, creating smoking onion volcanos, catching whole eggs in his chef’s hat, tossing scrambled eggs into the guests’ open mouths and dramatically igniting the grill, which bursts into tall flames to the delight of everyone. For an extra charge, the lights will be dimmed at dessert time, all the waiters sing in Japanese to your birthday child, and a Polaroid group shot is taken as a special birthday dessert is presented. It’s loud and energetic, and the children are sure to love it.

When they are young enough to want to sleep over, but not really ready, Debby Southwick likes to have Pretend Sleepover Parties. “Bring all the stuff, have all the fun … but go home by ten for some sleep!” For a preschooler, it’s exciting to leave the house in pajamas, squeezing a teddy bear and then come home with your parent when it’s dark. As a souvenir, Debby likes to have the kids draw their own placemats, then laminate them to bring home as souvenirs. “I think these are what my kids would say they liked best, because they serve as reminders of the different parties we’ve had.”

A short but really fun surprise birthday party Debby enjoys doing is a Kidnap Birthday Party. With the other moms in on the secret, “We steal the guests from their homes in the early morning, when they’re still in jammies and go out for breakfast at the diner!” It’s a big surprise, and there’s nothing for birthday mom to clean up.

When uber-creative Mieke Knight’s twin boys turned four, she created an HMS Royal Nautical Party. Not fond of commercial themes and store-bought party goods, Mieke created this Patrick O’Brian–inspired party. The invitations, done in Dad’s best calligraphy on parchment paper with a wax seal, contained orders for all able-bodied seamen to come aboard and set sail on the HMS Surprise. For each little boy, Mieke made a feathered felt admiral hat with their name on it. Mieke and her little girl in French nautical jerseys greeted all the sailors. Sea-themed songs played while the revelers enjoyed games and ate a ship-shaped cake and fruit-skewered harpoons. “Just why I thought that kind of detail-intense effort was necessary for a room full of nursery schoolers eludes me now, but it was important at the time,” she says.