Tip No. 1: Structure

          Most children’s birthday parties last for two hours, an interval that can zip past in the blink of an eye or tick past in excruciatingly slow one-minute intervals — 120 of them. 

           The single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone planning a child’s party is to fully structure every single one of those 120 minutes to your advantage. For a seamless party, plan your activities, block off appropriate periods of time for each activity and follow that schedule as near to the minute as possible.

              What’s that? Did I hear someone say parties are supposed to be fun and relaxed social gatherings, and not rigid, scheduled affairs driven by the clock?  Hmmmm. You have a point. And I don’t think yours contradicts mine at all.  The more rigid and detailed your party structure, the more relaxed you can be at the party and the more fun your guests will have. 

              First, give some thought to the length of your party. Two hours really can be a long time for young children if you are not naturally gifted at supervising the age group you are inviting — especially in a group situation.  It is perfectly acceptable to shave 30 minutes from the standard party time frame for preschoolers.  In fact,  I would not recommend staging a party longer than 90 minutes for a 3-year-old. 

            But if you are planning to host a standard two-hour party, here is a basic outline which will work well for you no matter what theme or what age group you will be dealing with. You will need an Arrival Activity and at least 3 other crafts, games or activities. This outline is designed for a group of 12 children.  

             5 minutes prior to the party:  Begin your Arrival Activity.  As children arrive, usher them to the Arrival Activity. Continue this activity for another 10 minutes after your start time, or until the majority of guests have arrived. If 12 children are coming to the party, try to wait until at least 10 have arrived before moving on to the next activity. Suggestions for Arrival Activity and a detailed explanation can be accessed by clicking on the menu at right. 

              10 minutes into the party:  Take control of the party at this point. End the Arrival Activity, welcome your guests and discuss with the children exactly what will happen during the party. To avoid problems, outline the time frame and reassure children that they will get to do all the fun things they see. “We’re so happy you’re here and we’re going to have so much fun as Astronauts for Sally’s Space Party! We’ll be making Moon Rock Necklaces in the kitchen and  building our own Rubber Band Launching Rockets out on the back deck. We’ll have a big race out in the back yard and then it’s SplashDown Time — with the sprinkler and the plastic pool! ” Your little guests will love hearing the party plans outlined, but don’t be surprised when one of them immediately asks, “But are we going to get to build rockets?” This is why you must tell children over and over what you are going to do and the order in which you are going to do it. 

           This is the time to  Divide and Conquer. If you have 8 or fewer guests at your party, everyone can remain together. However, more guests than this will require smaller groups for the best crowd control. If you have 12 guests, divide your guests into two groups of six each. Explain to the children that they will need to remain with their group and that they will get to do everything as  groups rotate from station to station.  Young children are often concerned at this point that they will miss out on something fun.  Reassure them and you will automatically reduce the potential for chaos. 

            15 minutes into your party: Now it’s time to get started with the activities. Structure your activities in 15-20 minute blocks of time and rotate the groups so that everyone gets a chance to visit each station. Be vigilant about keeping children with their groups. This is a concept children recognize from the classroom, so they will follow the program if you gently and firmly send them back to their groups.

             At Sally’s Space Party, for example, one group would make Moon Rock Necklaces in the kitchen while the other group headed to the back deck to build rockets.  The groups would switch 20 minutes later.

              Continue the rotations from activity to activity until you are 90 minutes into the party. The number of rotations depends on the length of each activity. Generally speaking, you will need to allow between 10 minutes and 20 minutes for each activity. Make sure you balance activities so that they take about the same length of time. If one group finishes long before another, crowd control problems will quickly occur. Be sure not to overestimate the length of time an activity will take. Some children zip through crafts and activities. As a general rule, 10-15 minutes is a good length of time to allocate for an activity.

                 When you are 30 minutes from the end of the party,   it is time to head to the table.  If someone is helping you serve the refreshments (and I highly recommend that you have help!), it should take no longer than 15 minutes to sing happy birthday, serve cake and drinks to 12 or fewer children. Most young children do not like cake; they only eat the icing. Even if all 12 of your guests happen to love cake, food service will not take long.  If you are serving food items in addition to a cake, you will need to add only about 10 minutes to the time needed at the table.  The extra time is primarily needed for serving; young children eat very little and most groups eat very quickly in a party setting. 

                 This recommended schedule gives you 15 minutes at the end of the party to open gifts and hand out party favors. It is a very basic outline, designed to provide a general guideline for you in structuring your party, but you will find that it works very well in most circumstances.    

                  Good luck!       

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