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Low-Key, Low-Budget Birthday Parties



Many parents are looking for ways to err on the simpler side and still give their birthday boys and girls a day to remember. Here are some ideas suggested by several local parents who have figured out how to keep things low-budget and low-key without under-doing it.   

Go Halvsies

Why foot the bill solo when you can split it? If your child has a friend or relative with a birthday close to his or hers, combine the two parties into one, and you can divvy up the cost of whatever party supplies you get. Your families and mutual friends will thank you for making it easier to celebrate both birthdays without having to carve out time for two bashes. Another bonus: Pooling your funds might lower the overhead enough to book an entertainer or rent a party place you couldn't otherwise afford.

Toy or Book Swap

If you dread the long, drawn-out spectacle of a child tearing through dozens of presents but don't want to set a hard-line no-gift policy, invite all your kids' friends to bring one of their toys – a gently used one that won't break their hearts to let go – and leave it at the door as they come in. You can give everyone, your child included, a chance to pick out a present and open it during the party. Or skip the gift-opening entirely and just have everyone pick up a present as they head home.

A book swap also works well. For kids who are old enough to make a fuss about what they're giving away, it can be easier to choose a book than a toy. Whatever the theme of your swap, ask that your guests wrap their giveaways or put them in gift bags so that everyone gets a chance to open a present.

The Perfect Party Prop? A Piñata

You can buy one of these colorful papier maché party props for $12 or $13 at stores like Target, then fill it up with Cheerios. That's what Seattle's Child contributor Megan Snyder-Camp Lehman did for her son's first birthday. It took five to 10 minutes to prepare, and it was a huge hit. She just laid down a table cloth on the floor, plopped all of Henry's buddies on it and tore open the piñata over their heads. The Cheerios rained down and they all sat there, quietly and intently snacking for about 15 minutes.

And that was just one slice of the party fun. The invitations (postcards Lehman had cut out from the Cheerios box) asked everyone to bring a noisemaker, which the kids used to their great delight during a red wagon parade around the block at the beginning of the party. After the parade and piñata, the kids chilled for a while – you know how much fun they can have when you just let them do their own thing. Then the party wrapped up with some cake, which the grown-ups enjoyed, while most of the kids, who had only recently started eating solid food, showed no interest and kept on playing.

Turn Recycling into an Art Form

Everyone gets tired of what's hanging in their closets – especially tweens and teens, who always like to head to school sporting a new outfit. For a recent birthday party, Seattle's Child contributor Cheryl Murfin's 14-year-old daughter had her friends bring clothes and accessories to share with each other. They also brought a random assortment of recyclables – medicine containers, lids, tabs from soda cans, yarn and string pulled from raggedy old sweaters, old forks and spoons (great for bracelets and necklaces) – then threw everything on the table and made cool jewelry, cards and keepsake boxes. The only cost: about $50 for a glue gun, jewelry clasps, earring hooks and jewelry wire from Jo-Ann Fabrics.

The Mock Sleepover

Have guests show up in their PJs with sleeping bags, pillows and stuffed animals. After a few games, cake and ice cream, have them settle into their bags for a movie and popcorn. Time it so the movie ends around their bedtime, and they'll be ready to hit the sack when their parents pick them up.

Mix CDs: A Hit Party Favor

Seattle's Child writer and editor Julie Deutscher's daughter gave out CDs of her favorite music as party favors on her ninth birthday. She decorated each one with permanent markers. Her friends have loved them, and have made the same favors for their own birthday parties.


Some Easy Theme Parties:

Woof Woof! – Cut out some cardboard dog bones and hide them around your house for a pooch-themed scavenger hunt. Paint the kids' faces like puppies – for girls, put their hair in pig tails. Get some cheap dog bowls and fill them with party snacks. Back when her 15-year-old daughter was little, Bellevue mom Donna Blankinship took Polaroids of Perry's friends. The pictures and dog dishes were the party favors. Digital photos don't have the same tangible appeal as those good old Polaroids, but they're still fun keepsakes. An idea for a fun dog-themed outing: Work in a tour of your local animal shelter.

Fairytale Fun – Seattle mom and dad Hilary and John Halttunen teamed up to make fairy wings for all the little guests at their 3-year-old daughters' birthday party to wear. It took about two hours to make nine sets of wings using wire hangers, duct tape and nylons purchased at a dollar store. The party invitations advised guests to show up in tutus. The kids got name tags when they arrived and picked out fairy names like Meadowbrook, Sweetshine and Happyberry. They got to decorate their wings with washable glitter glue pens and colored markers, and picked out colored ribbons they used to tie the wings onto their backs. It was a mid-morning party (a good way to keep the food budget low), so the Halttunens went with a toast bar (their daughter's favorite food) with jams, cream cheese, whipped cream, cinnamon and sugar, plus fruit salad served in fairy-decorated muffin liners.

Pirate Scavenger Hunt – Lake Forest Park mom Mary Kay Parsek got rave reviews after throwing her 5-year-old son a pirate-themed party. The kids got pirate hats at the beginning of the party that cost $3 each (a cheaper alternative: bandanas, which cost about $1 apiece). They earned clues as they did various activities – from throwing ping pong balls through the holes of a pirate ship (made from a big cardboard box) and walking the plank (an old board) to finding gold coins hidden in the garden, and doing a pirate dance. The treasure: sand buckets with pirate foam stickers on them ($1.50 each at Michael's craft store), pirate tattoos, pirate pencils and fruit roll-ups. The tab for the whole party: about $100. Tip: Go to www.birthdaypartyideas.com for a party planning Web site Parsek highly recommends.

Hire a Preschool Teacher  If your child and all her preschool pals love their teachers as much as my daughter does, you might ask if they do parties. One memorable year, Seattle's Child's calendar editor Chris Stay hired one of her children's preschool teachers. She didn't charge much, brought a homemade piñata that kids stuffed with treats. They had fun taking turns swinging at it. Being an expert at maintaining order when in charge of a gaggle of youngsters, the teacher did a great job of keeping the party atmosphere under control at all times – a gift any parent would appreciate.

Make It a Day at the Park – Throw your party at a local park so you can easily and inexpensively accommodate a big group. Many parks in the Seattle area have great playgrounds – always a big hit with little ones, who can rarely get enough of swings, slides and sandboxes. Plenty have fire pits, too, so make it a potluck and have everyone bring something to grill.

From April 1 to Sept. 30, Seattle Parks and Recreation's picnic tables at more than two dozen city parks can be reserved for $10; covered picnic shelter rentals cost anywhere from $35 to $160. Make your reservation early if you can't be flexible about the date or location. To make a reservation by phone, call 206-684-4081, or to do it in person go to Parks and Rec's event scheduling office at Lake Union Park in the former Naval Reserve Building, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle. For more information or for a reservation application you can mail in, download a picnic scheduling brochure.

Here are some links to other area parks departments' picnic reservation policies:

King County
Snohomish County
Pierce County
Thurston County

For more creative birthday ideas check out:

5 Stellar Ideas for the Perfect At-Home Birthday Party

Great Places to Throw a Birthday Party 

How to have a  Green Birthday Party


Elizabeth M. Gillespie is the former managing editor of Seattle's Child and mother of two. Thanks to Melanthia M. Peterman, Taryn Zier, Amy Hatch and all the parents mentioned in this story for sharing their great ideas.

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