Raising Richmond: Ain’t no party like a preschool party…

How to throw an awesome party for your four-year-old without ending up in the corner, crying into a slice of birthday cake.

Our son JR turned four on Saturday.


I’m sorry. I need a minute.

Ok, whew.

Anyway, yes! He turned four, an occasion so auspicious that my husband and I bit the bullet and hosted a birthday party for our child—his first “real” birthday party.

In previous years, we shamelessly took advantage of JR’s lack of cognizance and long-term memory; we knew he’d never remember whether he had birthday parties or not, so why make a big to-do about it? His first birthday was a very quiet, intimate affair spent at my in-laws’ house. For his second and third, we emailed immediate family members to let them know when and where cake would be served should they be able to join us.2

Easy peasy lemon squeezy, as they say.

But four? Four is when things start to stick with you. Four is also a pretty magical window in time when your kid is old enough to appreciate your enthusiasm yet still young enough to not be embarrassed by it. With that in mind, we decided JR’s fourth birthday warranted a little fuss. Not a ton—but enough for him to hopefully look back on fondly some day.

So this past Saturday we welcomed our family and about 20 children (and their parents) into our home for some superhero-themed revelry.

When I see that typed out it seems crazier than it felt. Sure, when you do the math you’ll figure out that we had about 45 people (give or take) in our house at one time—the very picture of “a ton of fuss” for some–but it wasn’t significantly less “easy peasy lemon squeezy” than our prior birthday efforts. And, if I do say so myself,3 it was a lot more fun.

I’d love to chalk up the success of JR’s fuss-without-much-fuss party to my stellar creativity and organizational skills, but that wouldn’t be totally accurate. As we worked through the party preparation process,4 I managed to sort out a handful of notions that helped rein things in and keep us all from going bonkers. Hopefully they’ll do the same for you, should you soon find yourself in the position of planning a fete for the preschool set.5

The Internet is your friend (except when it’s not)

When it comes to anything lifestyle-related, the Internet is equal parts magical and terrible. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and that wonderful monster-of-monsters, Pinterest, somehow manage to inspire and intimidate us AT THE SAME TIME. Dear friends, don’t fall prey to this. Let those ones and zeros be your guide NOT your gospel. You don’t have to pass out hand-etched mason jars filled with homemade M&Ms to your wee partygoers just because you saw it on a blog one time. You know your kid (who, let’s be honest, would probably prefer store-bought M&Ms anyway), you know your talents, and you know your limits. Go from there. This also brings me to my next point…

You don’t have to do everything

I’m a big believer in finding what you’re good at and running with it…and then unapologetically outsourcing absolutely everything else. For example, over these last four years of parenthood I’ve discovered that I am definitely awesome at creating costumes and decorations with minimal materials (I attribute this to my stint as an 5th grade teacher in a low income school). However, I’ve also discovered that I am definitely not awesome at things involving food—planning it, preparing it, or just caring about it in general. So when it came time to sort out the particulars of JR’s party, I chose to focus the majority of my energy on creating superhero-themed signs and party favors. Meanwhile, I let my friends at Little Caesars6 and the Kroger Bakery Department handle the spread.

Maybe the opposite is true for you. Perhaps the thought of spending an evening crafting with foam board and fishing line gives you the sweats, and you’d much rather be up to your elbows in cake batter. Whatever your “thing” is, own it—just don’t hesitate to punt your less-desirable tasks to a more ready-and-willing helper. (And don’t you dare feel guilty about it.)

Shorter is better

Two hours. That’s all the partying kids this age need. Anything longer than that and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a throng of over-stimulated, overtired preschoolers on the verge of a mass meltdown. Get the kids in the door, let them play, feed them cake and ice cream, and send them on their respective ways.

Plans, shlans (also: save your receipts)

To be honest, I had no idea what we were going to do with JR’s friends once they arrived at our house. Would they want to play games? Were the parents expecting some sort entertainment? What if we spend a ton of time and money setting up special activities and the kids just want to run around the backyard like a band of tiny maniacs for the entire two hours?

After much fretting (because it’s what I do), I decided to operate under the assumption that the party was basically going to be a preschooler free-for-all. However, I did make sure to have a few activities on hand in case someone got bored or we found ourselves with a guest with an attention span longer than three minutes—specifically a superhero photo booth, a craft table where kids could decorate their own masks, and a stockpile of bubbles. The key here, though, was rationing. Supplies for each activity were replenished v-e-r-y gradually and only if and when we could see that they were going to be put to good use. Otherwise they stayed tucked away in their original packaging, along with their receipts, waiting for us to take them back for a full refund should they go unused. After all, dolla-dolla bills don’t grow on trees, y’all.

Chaos is to be expected (and embraced)

Once that last cupcake is besprinkled7 and once the final streamer is strung, eventually you’re going to have to open the front door to your gaggle of guests and see what happens. It will be loud. It will be hot. Something will probably get broken. Someone will certainly cry and/or pee in his/her pants. In fact, it’s likely that very little will go according to “plan.” You can’t sweat it; it’s just how it goes. So soak it up and try to enjoy yourself. Besides, your kid is much more likely to remember what happened during the party, not everything that went into getting ready for it. Let those memories include you getting in on the action–ridiculousness and all.

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Obviously with just one birthday party under my belt, I can’t exactly be considered an expert on the matter. I’d love to hear whatever additional tips you parenting veterans have for making the most of birthday celebrations—for preschoolers and beyond. Leave them in the comments!

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  1. Would you like to weep with me? Watch this
  2. We held these gatherings at around 6pm on JR’s actual birthday which, up until this year, always fell on a weekday. Looking back I’m sure it appeared that we were trying to make it as hard as possible for everyone to attend, but I promise we weren’t. Besides, all of them always did. #family 
  3. And I do. 
  4. I will, however, own up to some FANTASTIC alliteration skills. 
  5. Also: rhyming. 
  6. Six Hot-N-Readys will let you feed 45 people for 30 bucks. In your face, Pinterest! 
  7. A legit word. I’m as surprise as you are. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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