Birthday Party Ideas That Can Adapt to Meet Your Theme

Birthday parties are out of control! To visit the “back in my day” territory, I remember having one formal birthday party when I was a kid- a slumber party when I was in fifth grade.  The other seventeen years of my childhood, a birthday party was my mom cooking my favorite dinner, my family singing happy birthday and eating cake, and opening a few presents.

As you know, times have changed.  Each birthday is a precious milestone, to be celebrated with its own theme, activities, and designer goodie bag.  You might think this post is going to be a plea for a return to simplicity.  Nope.  I’m right there on the crazy train.  I just put together a “Pandas, Dinosaurs, and Squirt Guns” themed party for my youngest son’s fourth birthday.  I have no room to judge.

Each year, my sons pick a birthday theme, and I scour the internet to find appropriate activities.  A lot of those activities are easily translatable to other themes, but you might not find them unless you are scouring every birthday board on Pinterest.  Here are a few of our favs to make your next birthday theme-tastic.

1.  Banners made with your child’s artwork- I am notoriously cheap.  I will not pay for something I can make.  I also love the idea of getting your child involved in the party preparation.  A great way to do this is to make banners with your child’s artwork.  If your child is not old enough to write or to draw a specific “thing” you can have them paint, and then cut the paintings into the letters of his or her name.

2.  Free visits- My husband’s all time favorite birthday party was from when he turned four years old.  His mother called a Caterpillar dealership, and asked if she could bring the children by to climb on the tractors.  She did a similar idea for her daughter, where they went to a bakery and watched them make bread.  Birthday parties are expensive!  I love the idea of free visits.  For my son’s third birthday, he wanted a fire fighter party.  I called the local fire station and arranged a free tour.  He got to climb in a fire truck, try on the equipment, and squirt the hose.  Doesn’t get much better than that! Use your imagination and make a few phone calls.

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3.  Punch prize boxes- I made these for a Lego theme party, but you could adjust for any theme.  Here is a blog that shows the step by step process.  The kids LOVED punching through the box to retrieve their prize.  For the Lego party, I made them look like Legos, and the prize was a Lego mini figure.  But I’ve seen rainbow boxes, boxes that looked like trucks- anything you can think of.  The important part is getting to PUNCH!

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4.  Homemade crayons- This is such a cute idea for goody bags, and is super cheap.  I used broken crayons and melted them in a cheap metal bowl over another pan of water, in the style of a double boiler.  I don’t recommend using your actual double boiler- cleaning the pan is a bit of a pain.  I simply threw away the cheap bowl after I was done.  I poured the melted wax into plastic dino molds I found at the dollar store- I believe they were actually supposed to be sand or playdoh toys.  I have seen these done with heart and butterfly molds.  You could use any mold.  Let the wax cool and pop out of the mold.  I do advise thinking through your set up and planning your molding area before getting started.  I just went for it and had a pretty big mess in my kitchen.


5.  Scavenger Hunt-  I like the idea of working for your goody bag.  For my son’s second birthday, we did an alphabet scavenger hunt.  You had to find the letters of the alphabet, and each letter had a prize starting with that letter.  You can see B was for beads in the photo below.  Another easy one to adapt for any theme, and takes care of creating a party game as well.

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6.  Seek and Find Game- I made these bottles to look like Lego mini figures, but I have also done this game with cut out pumpkins, and animals.  Simply make a lot of one item, hide them around your party area, and have the kids find them.  Easy, cheap game that the kids really enjoy.

7.  Theme cupcakes- Making a big beautiful fondant cupcake is a very daunting task.  Cupcakes are much easier to adjust to your theme.  I’ve done drum cupcakes, pandas, zombies.  A few simple tricks like pretzel drumsticks and Oreo ears makes for a simple, cute cake that any kid will love.


Hope you can use these ideas to make your next party a themed success!


Beg, Borrow, and Swap

Remember the 1970’s special Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town?  Sometimes, I could take on the role of Burgermeister Meisterburger.  After tripping over and cleaning up piles of toys that are not being played with, I want to gather them all up, torch them, and put a permanent ban on cars, blocks, and train sets.

Ok, I’m not really that much of a cold-hearted cat.  But it can be frustrating to be in a house full of amazing toys, and have kids who seemed to be bored with all of them.  The worst is when I relent, buy some new gizmo that I’m sure will spark their imaginations, only to have it discarded after a couple of minutes- you know, just long enough so that it is out of the packaging, played with, and can’t be returned.  In true infomercial style, I want to shake my fist and shout “there has to be a better way!”

There is- borrow and swap!

At a play date a year or so ago, my son became fascinated with a toy car that transformed into a dinosaur.  When it came time to leave, he was reluctant to let the car go.  I removed it from his hands and attempted to distract him with putting on his shoes.  To my surprise, the hostess asked him “would you like to borrow the car?”

Such a simple idea, too simple.  Why had I never thought of it?  I guess I assumed loaning and borrowing toys was a bad idea.  The child loaning would not want to give up the toy.  The child borrowing would not want to return it.  The toy could get broken.  We might forget to return it.  It turns out, none of those things were really an issue.

The mother advised that she tries to teach her kids to share (like we all do), and that includes borrowing toys.  Early on in the loaning process, her son had a bit of trepidation with lending toys, but as he saw the items come back to him, the reluctance went away.  It also helped when other mothers began to reciprocate the process, and let him borrow toys from their children.

This past week, a girlfriend and I swapped train sets- both high dollar items.  Their family had Chuggington.  We had Geotrax.  Both families had new toys to play with for the week.  When we swapped the sets back, it was like getting a new toy.  My boys who hadn’t played with the Geotrax in a month, were once assembling trax and making towns.  New toy, not a dollar spent.

It’s also a great way to try out a toy, to see if it worth buying.  I love building toys because they can be played with in multiple ways.  I’ve been looking for a new system to try, and came across a set of geometric shapes that could hook together.  My friend had a set and let us give them a go for a few days.  I saved myself $40 because it turns out my son had zero interest in playing with them.

Another great idea is to have a toy swap.  If you have been to a clothing swap, this is the exact same idea.  You and your friends get together with all the toys your kids have outgrown or don’t play with anymore.  You swap your items.  Everyone leaves with new toys.  Anything not claimed gets donated.

The first swap, the other mothers and I were so worried that the kids would not want to give away their old toys, even though they didn’t play with them.  We needn’t have stressed about it.  As everyone puts out their items, the room filled with toys.  The kids did not care about that old block set they haven’t looked at in ages- they were be too busy laying claim to some new item of fascination.  Of course the more families you have participating, the better the haul.

If you are fortunate, your city might have a formal toy library that loans toys, or a swap and play facility.  A quick google search will have the answer.

Yes, you’re still going to be cursing when you step on some toy or doll that should have been put away- but at least you won’t have to pay for the privilege.

Get Over Your Pinterest Complex- It Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to be Fun!

I remember the first time I went on Pinterest.  I was putting together an alphabet-themed birthday party for my son.  A friend said “I saw the cutest alphabet cake on Pinterest.  I’ll send you a link.”

The cake as indeed adorable- a cake replica of a wooden letter block.  But it was also well, and I mean well, out of my range of skill.  The alphabet party it was grouped with was insane!  Hand sewn goody bags made from alphabet material.  Nameplates for each child crafted out of wooden letters.  Giant letter pinatas that looked nothing like the newspaper/paste monstrosities I was used to crafting.

Pinterest is an awesome place for ideas.  It is also the website moms go to when they want to feel really terrible about the job they are doing.

So often I hear from moms “I’d love to do that, but I’m not really crafty.”  No one was born crafty (well, maybe those gals in the Austin Craft Mafia).  We all learn from someone.  I did not know how to sew until a few years ago.  The woman who taught me was a punk rock pioneer who I imagined had been sewing her own clothes for decades.  In reality, she learned to sew when her daughter needed a costume for school- not so different from other moms I know.

She taught me to sew, but I use the skill VERY infrequently.  I am the type of person who has to read the manual every time I break out my machine.  I have to do a LOT of test strips to adjust the tension before I ever touch an actual project.

Right now, my boys are very into the Wild Kratts computer game on  I have a tough time with this.  I like that they are learning about animals, and spending time together as brothers, but I don’t like the screen time. (Yes, I sort of want to punch myself when I say things like ‘screen time’.)

One day, my son said “can you make me a bat suit like the Kratt brothers?”  I didn’t want to say no because this was a chance to break away from the computer by capitalizing on his interest.  But I was prepping for an egg-dying party, and really didn’t have time to make a costume.  We compromised on a bat cape.

I had some black material on hand that I had purchased on clearance.  I cut the edges to look bat-ish.  All I had to do was sew some straps on.

I lugged out the machine.  It was already loaded with white thread.  Ok, it won’t match the black but no biggie.  I considered doing a test piece, but just decided to go for it due to the time crunch.  The straps were successful in that they were attached to the fabric.  However, I don’t think you are supposed to have half the spool knotted on the underside.


You know what?  He did not throw up his arms over the shotty quality of his cape.  He put it on.  He felt like a bat.  Ten minutes later, he decided he’d rather be a cheetah.


We didn’t pack the bat cape away lovingly, to one day be worn by his little Wild Kratts.  He might not even remember that I made him a bat cape.  But, hopefully I am instilling something in him that says whatever he can dream up, we can figure out a way to make it happen.

You too can be a Pinterest failure- and your kids will love you for it.

Oil and Water Can Mix- At Least When It Comes to Painting (With a Dash of Salt)

My kids have been painting since before they could walk (I have the photos to prove it.)  So when I say “let’s paint,” the expressions on their faces can read not again!!

Sometimes I run across a new technique that changes their minds.  This week I read a post for oil and watercolor paintings.

Kellen will engage in any activity that I call “an experiment.”  Rather than telling him we were going to paint (again), I advised that we were going to do an experiment.  I set up a  few small containers of color, vegetable oil, and rock salt, and gave him an eye dropper, so it certainly looked a bit more scientific than our standard paint sessions.


I ended up doing this activity twice- once with each child.  For the session with my younger son, I mixed food coloring with water to create paint.  For my older son, I gave liquid watercolors a try.  From what I could tell, the food coloring worked as well as the liquid watercolors, but the liquid watercolors do not stain your skin.

I placed a sheet of watercolor paper into a plastic container.  The boys used the eye dropper to squirt paint on the paper, and then oil on top of the paint.  The oil allowed some of the color to move, other colors to stayed put.  Some colors diluted, others remained bright.

We used the rock salt as a second form of resist.  The rock salt soaked up some of the paint, creating spots on the paper.  It also dissolved a little in the paint, giving our creations a shimmery look.


The finished projects turned out so beautiful!  My older son, Liam, was thrilled because the rock salt was dyed by the paint.  When we shook it off the pages, the salt transformed into magical crystals.


This project really captured their attention, kept them entertained for an extended period, cleaned up well, and left a great finished project- that’s a clear winner in my book!

Tattoo Your Eggs (and Yourself) with Printable Tattoo Paper

I am so behind on blog posts!  My camera is loaded up with pictures of all the activities we have been doing, but I have no time to create blog posts with them.  I guess that means we have been having a lot of fun.  But I did want to get this one out before Easter because I think it is such a fun idea!

My friend bought me some temporary tattoo paper.  The manufacturer wrote the instructions so it sounds like you need their specific printer and software to use it, but you don’t.  I formatted my pictures in regular old Microsoft Word, and printed on my Canon color printer.


The really cool thing is that because you are selecting your own pictures, you can choose anything you want.  I am hosting an egg dying party tonight, and the kids attending have a wide array of interests- Pokemon, Wild Kratts, Super Why, basketball, mermaids, dump trucks, Skylander, and My Little Pony.  With the paper, I am able to create tattoos to suit all of their wants.  This would be especially great when your child picks a random party theme that you will never be able to find at the store (like our upcoming Panda, Triceratops, and Water Gun birthday party).

You print the page and then stick another piece of adhesive over the top.  I had a little trouble getting the first one on straight, but had the hang of it by the second sheet.


Tested one on the hand, and it worked great!


The cool idea is that tonight at the party, we are going to not only tattoo ourselves, but tattoo our eggs with matching images!  It will work the same on the shell as it does on the skin!


Have a tat party with no needles required!

The Big Idea- HUGE Drawings

We do a LOT of drawing in our house.  It’s something I enjoy, so when my kids get bored, my solution is to draw.  It’s funny how simply changing the size of something reinvigorates interest- in this case, the size of the paper.  HUGE = AWESOME!

My son has a drawing desk in his room that houses a roll of paper underneath.  We took the paper out and rolled it across the floor.  I quickly wrote the alphabet down the line of the paper, and said to draw a picture next to the letter that begins with that same letter.  They quickly took to drawing vampires next to the V, and elephants next to the E.  We have since done another drawing of the solar system, and have started discussing ideas to recreate our vacation to San Diego.  It’s a great way to extend learning, reinforce ideas, and relive memories.

It’s not the most out of the box idea, but it’s amazing how literally thinking big can breathe new life into common pasttimes.

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Get Your Hippie Tie Dye Kid Style- Exploding Color T-shirts

My boys are big fans of experiments.  I have a whole shelf in the pantry dedicated to housing ingredients for experiments.  But I felt like we were doing the same old things.  I needed some new ideas, so I ordered a couple of kid-friendly science books.  One that I love is called Tinkerlab:  A Hands on Guide for Little Inventors by Rachelle Doorley.

We’ve tried a lot of the ideas in this book with good results on most.  But my new favorite is color exploding t-shirts.  It’s easy, inexpensive and yields very cool results.  You need a white t-shirt (I found ours online for less than $2 per shirt), permanent markers, a piece of cardboard large enough to fit inside the shirt, rubbing alcohol, and an eye dropper.

The first step is to draw a picture or pattern on the t-shirt.  I explained to my boys that the colors would burst, so to draw something that might look good upon expansion- stars, flowers, fireworks, etc.  My youngest son made a random pattern.  My oldest drew lava, which was perfect.  We used a variety of permanent markers- some from the $1, Sharpies, and Bic.  The Bic maintained the brightest color upon washing.  The dollar store variety retained the least.  But all the markers worked.

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Second step is to use the eyedropper to place the alcohol on the shirt.  This is where the color starts to expand.  The more dropper you put, the greater the expansion.  Play with where you drop the liquid- what happens if you do it on the side as opposed to the center of the line?

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Last, dry, wash and wear!

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I made an example shirt for a class I’m teaching thinking I would never wear it afterwards.  But it actually turned into a cool t-dye tank, perfect for working out or as a swimsuit coverup.


You can take it a step further and discuss the science behind the spreading ink.  Don’t worry- if you’re not sure how it works, Steve Spangler has you covered.

Big Worlds in Small Packages- Science Exploration with a Second Hand Microscope

I was searching for new science experiments to try with my boys, and I came across a suggestion to do a science exploration with microscopes.  The writer suggested taking magnified photos of every day items, showing them to your kids, and seeing if they could guess what they were.  The author didn’t go into detail about how to take these magnified photos.

We have a a second hand microscope I picked up from Goodwill.  Only the lowest magnification setting works, and you have to hold the light source in place, but I wondered if we could somehow take pictures on it.  We had used it a few days prior to look at sugar while we cooked up some solution for rock candy.  I thought it made the experience more meaningful to be able to show how the sugar was really a little block-like crystal, and that our candy would form into bigger sugar crystals.  I liked the idea of the guessing game, but wanted to be able to emphasize it with looking at things under the microscope.

Turns out you can use your digital camera to take photos on the microscope.  I’m not saying they are the world’s greatest pictures.  The detail looking through the actual microscope was much better.  But I was able to take the photos to play the game, and then show the actual items under the scope for further reference.

Ok, mostly I’m just impressed with the photo hack :).  I simply set up my $8 scope, and held my digital camera where I would normally look through.  Had I taken the time to set up a tri-pod, I could have probably gotten some better photos, but I didn’t go that far.

Here is my cheap scope kit.  My camera is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5.


First up, white sugar.  I like how all the pictures look like I am photographing the moon.P1170947

Second, a strand of my hair.  Happy to see it appeared free of split ends.


Third, a spider web.  Not surprisingly, very goth.


Fourth, a swab of saliva from my mouth.  I think the coloring is due to coffee.


Next, a torn piece of a leaf.


A bit of my son’s booger from a bloody nose.  I know, gross.  But what kid doesn’t want to see his booger close up?


But our super-duper primo find was live microscopic animals in our frog’s water.  I believe they were euglena because they had flagella, though that might be difficult to make out.  I remember looking for amoebas in pond water during eighth grade earth science class, and being disappointed to not see anything.  Thirty years later and finally, I found life!! I can die a happy woman.

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So there you go.  Hurry over to Goodwill and grab yourself a scope.  There are whole worlds for waiting for your kids to discover them!

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Robot- Garbage Makes for Fun

My to my husband’s chagrin, I have a closet jammed with milk cartons, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and egg cartons.  I use them as sorters for art supplies, palettes for painting, scoopers for dirt, and just about anything else you can think of.  When my sons are bored, I grab a mixed pile of recyclables and ask them what we can make with them.  Just this past week, we made swords, a pirate ship, and small robots all from recycled materials.

Small robots are fun, but what about a giant robot!  My in-laws purchased a new microwave, and gave us the box and cushioning inserts.  The foam pieces were just screaming to be made into something sci-fi.

I’m not going to go into a full-blown tutorial.  You get the idea.   Grab your glue-gun, tape, spray paint, foil and a whole lot of garbage.  Let your imagination run wild!

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Drawing Journals- The Gift That Keeps on Giving

I never thought I would be the woman who became a blubbering mess when her kids went to school, but that’s exactly what happened.  I’m not talking the first day.  All parents cry on the first day.  But for weeks, I had a difficult time letting go.  It wasn’t that I had nothing to do.  On the contrary, I had plenty of projects to fill my time.  It was that I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing out on their day.  I wondered what experiences they were having that I would never know about.

One day, I picked up a Sharpie and started to doodle.  I didn’t plan to draw anything.  I just let my mind and my pen wander.  I found peace in the flow of the shapes and the act of creating them.  I started to leave a notebook open on the counter, and just doodle whenever I felt inclined.


My boys began to ask if they could draw with me, and I said sure.  I got them special notebooks we called drawing journals.  About once a day, I would say, “Do you want to draw in your journals?”  Most times, they happily responded yes and went to gather their markers.

I loved seeing how their drawings progressed.  Kellen’s journal can be especially profound because he literally started off scribbling, and I can track the day he drew his first “thing”- a picture of a tree.


Journals became our go-to gift for birthday parties.  A friend told me after I gave her daughter a drawing journal for her fifth birthday, she made an exceptionally sweet entry.  She had her dad write “Today is my birthday.  I had a party with all my friends.  I am happy,” or something equally adorable.

We now have guest journals at our house.  If you come over for dinner, you better expect to do some drawing before dessert.


But the journals keep giving.  When you need cool, unique gifts, you simply photograph or scan the pictures to create one of a kind items.  This year for Christmas, we made coaster sets featuring drawings created by the boys.  They became conversation pieces.  The boys titled each drawing, so when we sat down to dinner, one would ask “what coaster do you have?”

“Oh, I have ‘Two Pandas Swimming in the Ocean.'”

“I have ‘Pumpkin Man with Visor.'”

I had the coasters made at, but I have used to make t-shirts, and notecards, as well.  I’ve even started selling works in my redbubble shop.

Drawing journals have endless possibilities.  And are a heck of a lot easier to keep track of than all of the random drawings that come home in the back pack each day.