Educational Birthday Parties Without Tears

©Jan Andersen 2001

If most parents are honest, they look forward to their children's birthday parties with a certain amount of trepidation, not least because of the concern about how to keep upwards of 10 small people happily occupied for two or more hours.  Although there are many selected venues that organise package birthday parties, there is nothing more rewarding and fun than organising your own special custom birthday party for your child.

Forward planning is always a key phrase, but aside from the more obvious areas such as time, place, food and theme, the type of games that are played is often paramount to the success of a birthday party.

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received when I was planning one of my children's parties, was to take time to speak to the parents of each of the invitees in order to identify their child's strengths and weaknesses.  This means that through party play, each child could be given a chance to demonstrate their particular talent, whether it be memory, concentration, co-ordination, singing, counting etc.  It also means that the number of tears shed would be minimised, that no child would feel eliminated and that everyone would win a prize.

There are literally hundreds of superb party games, yet how often do you resort to the same old games such as pass the parcel, musical chairs and musical statues? 

Of course, a lot of children love the more well-known games, but how about playing these with an added twist?  With pass the parcel for example, a small prize can be wrapped into each layer.  Each time the music stops, the child who is holding the parcel should be asked to do something like sing the first two lines of a nursery rhyme, count to twelve, tell the time and so on before they can open the layer and claim the prize.   Alternatively, for very young children, you could place an educational toy, such as a shape sorter, in the centre and ask the child who is holding the parcel when the music stops, to put in a shape of their choice.  The possibilities are endless!

The adult in charge of the game can ensure that each child has the opportunity to unwrap a layer and that the 'task' they are asked to perform correlates with the area of aptitude of that child.  If you know, for example, that a child loves singing, they could be asked to sing a few lines of their favourite pop song, or a child who is especially numerate could be given a simple sum.  Obviously, a younger child could simply be asked to count to ten or touch the end of their nose with their eyes closed.

Some of the more creative games I have come across include variations of the Memory Game, Toy Walk, Through the Hole, Chain and Chinese Whispers.  

When selecting a theme or devising party games, it is important not only to take the child's age into account but, where possible, to identify the dominant interests of the invitees.

If you decide upon a set theme, then try and follow the theme through the party by adapting the games accordingly.  For example, if you have decided upon an animal or jungle theme, then you could play games such as Kangaroo, which involves the children jumping a certain distance with an object between their knees, such as a soft animal toy.

If you don't feel that you can cope with too many boisterous games, then why not choose a theme like a video/quiz party, where the children watch a short, interactive video, followed up by questions about the movie/story, with special prizes for the top scorers.  This will not only help to improve the children's observational and listening skills, but will encourage healthy competition, which most young children love.

You may decide to use an entertainer for the event, in which case it would be a good idea to ask for references, or even video footage if you have not seen the person perform before.  This would avoid the worst case scenario of the entertainer not living up to their classified ad, or using material that is inappropriate for very young children.

It is also important to remember that some children are scared by certain costumes.  To avoid this, you could request that the entertainer puts on his or her attire whilst the children watch.

So, at what point in the party do you play the games?  This is very much down to personal choice, but as a general rule, it is a good idea to begin playing games after the initial arrival and present-opening session.  This means that the children will have burnt off some energy before party food time, hopefully ensuring that there will not be too many fidgety bottoms and hyperactivity during the eating period!  

As the party draws to a close is the time to introduce some quieter games, or even a story time, when the party bags can be handed out and the children have time to calm down before their parents arrive to collect them. You can give out party favors to your guests - just for coming or as a reward for winning a party game!"

Finally, plan more games than you expect to use to avoid running out of activities before the party is over and always make sure that you purchase more prizes and party bags than you think you will need!

The Games

Memory Game:  Place a number of objects on a tray (usually higher than the number of children present) and cover with a cloth.  Once all the children are sat in a circle, remove the cloth for a period of time, say one minute, and ask the children to try and memorise all the objects on the tray.  Replace the cloth and then, in turn, ask each child to name an object on the tray within a time frame of about 10 seconds.  When a child fails to name an object, they are out of the game.  The game continues until either all the objects are named or until there is one child left in the game, if not all the objects have been named.  Obviously, any children remaining at the end of the game are winners.

Toy Walk:  Place raffle tickets on several small toys or other prizes, but keep these hidden from the children.  On large pieces of card, or thick paper, write several numbers, including those corresponding to the raffle ticket numbers and lay them out in a random pattern on the floor.  Play some music and ask the children to walk or dance around the numbers, taking care not to step on them.  When the music stops, each child should stand on the number closest to them.  If the number they are standing on corresponds to one of the numbers on a prize, they win that prize.
Through the Hole:  This preparation for this game can be time consuming, but is well worth the effort.  Depending on the theme of the party, cut out a head shape eg. a Teletubby, colour it as required and then cut out a hole where its mouth is.  Using softballs, or homemade beanbags filled with pasta,  the children take turns to throw the balls/bags into the mouth. Obviously, the one who gets most objects through the mouth is the winner.  For older children, you can vary the shape and size of the objects thrown to make it a bit more difficult.

Chain:  This is a very simple game, but one that children love and which also develops dexterity and concentration skills.    Fill several containers (plastic food storage containers are ideal) with paper clips.  Put on some music and ask the children to start making a chain each from the paper clips.  When the music stops, the child who has made the longest chain wins.

Chinese Whispers:  This is a fabulous game for enhancing listening and verbal communication skills.  The children sit in a circle and an adult whispers a phrase or sentence into the ear of a child, so that none of the other children can hear.  That child then whispers the phrase into the ear of the next child and so on.  When the final child in the circle has heard the phrase, he or she repeats out loud what they have heard.  This game can have hilarious consequences.
Basic Party Planning Tips

Theme and Venue

Sit down with your child and let him or her choose a few themes for the party, after which your child can make a list of who will be invited.  You can then ring around the parents of the invited children to enquire about interests, talents etc.  When you have an idea of the dominant interests of the other children, you and your child can then choose a theme from the original list.

From a practical point of view, you need to decide well in advance whether you will be booking a venue for the party or hosting it yourself.


If you decide to use an entertainer for the event, it is wise to spend some time checking out the credentials of any entertainers whom you think may be suitable.  An entertainer may look good on paper, but you need to be sure that they live up to their advertisement.


Decide whether you want the invitations to reflect the theme of the party.  There are many ready-made, 'themed' invitations on the market, but you may prefer to design your own.  Alternatively, there are 'free' designs that you can print yourself from the internet.
As well as an RSVP note at the bottom of the invitation, it is wise to include directions to your party location for those parents who may not be familiar with the area in which you live.  You may wish to include a pre-paid reply card inside the invitation to encourage parents to reply and to avoid the embarrassment of catering for an incorrect number of children.

Send your invitations out approximately two to three weeks before the party date. 


Whether you decide to follow the theme of the party through to the games or simply choose more traditional games, you need to plan these well ahead.

Take time to ring round the parents of the invitees to find out who has an aptitude for what and then plan the games accordingly, allowing each child the chance to show-off their particular talent and perhaps win a prize.

Organise a couple of games where everyone wins a prize, to avoid exclusion and tears!

Food and Seating Arrangements

Whether you are hosting the party yourself or using a venue where food is provided, find out in advance whether any of the children who have been invited have any specific allergies.  The worst thing that could happen would be to have peanut butter sandwiches if one of the children had a severe nut allergy.

Find out in advance if any of the children have preferences as to who they would like to sit next to, or more particularly, if there is anyone whom they would not wish to be seated by.  This is a difficult one, since there will inevitably be conflict between a couple of the children.  However, if you can avoid this, it will make the party the happy occasion that it should be.  Most importantly, find out which friends your child would prefer to sit next to.

Helping Hands

Enlist the help of other family members, friends, neighbours, other parents or anyone else who could rally round on the day.  Not only will you need help decorating and organising, but trying to keep a dozen young children under control by yourself, would be impossible! 

Top Tip

Take a Polaroid photo of each child as they arrive.  You can then place the photos at each place setting and when it is time to eat, each child can sit at the place in front of their photo. They may then take their photo home as a memento of the party.       

Party Resources

A Big Dot of Happiness - Big Dot of Happiness is an "Event Party Company" specializing in baby showers, bridal showers, wedding showers, bachelorette parties and birthday parties, but we’re also the originator of various games, invitations and themed party supply products that we call "Big Dot Originals".

Birthday Party Ideas - Great links, ideas, books and party supplies.

Birthday Express - Themes, menu planning, party checklist, online invitations.

Boardman's Birthday Party Ideas - Free themes and ideas, gifts, books and links.
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