Parenting

How to Throw Your 2-Year-Old a Birthday Party Without Breaking the Bank

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I wasn’t even sure if I should throw my son a birthday party. Could we really host a bunch of toddlers and their parents in our tiny apartment? Our even tinier budget wouldn’t allow us to rent a space. Nor could we afford to hire someone to entertain them, or feed them, or clean up after them. Not to mention the fact that my son, while he enjoys play dates and toddler classes, definitely has a bit of an anti-social streak and isn’t such a fan of being the center of attention.

So, at first, it seemed like a quiet day at home, a few presents, a cupcake, and some balloons would be just fine. But I couldn’t quite commit. He was turning two. It was a big deal! I wanted to celebrate him. And a party felt like a rite of passage, a kind of gateway through which he could walk from the world of babyhood to toddlerhood and beyond. Kids have birthday parties. And he’s a kid!

When I laid this all out agonizingly to my husband one night over dinner, he shrugged and said, “It’s his birthday. Throw him a party. It’ll be fun. He’ll love it.” This is why I keep my husband around. So it was decided. We’d throw a party.

But I wasn’t going to do it unless I felt reasonably certain that my son would have a good time. And I wanted to make sure the other kids and their families had fun too. But a tiny space and no budget for entertainment didn’t leave much to work with. And the fact that we’d been to some pretty elaborate (read: expensive) children’s parties in the past left me worried his friends (and, let’s be honest, their parents) might think our party was lame. So I had my work cut out for me.

But, not to brag or anything, I think the party went pretty well. And, most importantly, my son had a really good time. So if you’re like me and really want to throw your two-year-old a birthday party but worry that budget and space won’t allow it, take a look at a few of the things that worked for us.

1. Pick a theme

Don’t panic. This doesn’t mean your whole home has to suddenly turn into a functional launch pad that will actually blast your child and his friends into outer space because you chose rocket ships as your theme. Nor does it mean that you have to spend hours carefully crafting each cupcake into the shape of an alien head. It’s just that if you pick something your kid is really into (and he’s a toddler so you know there’s something he’s really into) and incorporate it into the decorations and activities, then it boosts the chances that he’ll be excited about the party beforehand and enjoy it during.

2. Come up with some simple activities the kids can do on their own

And when I say simple I really mean simple. Pick some things you think your child would like doing and then make up some way they fit the theme. For example, my son’s party was NYC subway themed. We live in New York City and he loves riding the trains, looking at the maps, and talking about how to get to his favorite places. So one of the activities was something we call “the tube game.” It’s literally just some paper towel and toilet paper rolls taped to the wall with something he can drop through them. So, in this case, I crumpled some newspaper, covered it in duct tape and called it a train. The tube was the tunnel and voila! He loved it.

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Another activity was to throw some balls (I made balls out of duct tape and newspaper but you could use any kind of small ball) from a few feet away and try to get them to land in a cardboard box. I said the box was a subway door and the balls were people. But they could be anything. It was a big hit.

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There was also a collage area where the kids could decorate a “subway wall” with “graffiti” (I didn’t want to worry about someone drawing on my walls so I didn’t offer any crayons, markers, or other drawing implements. But the collage worked well). I also set out my son’s train tracks and trains. Those four activities, plus some of his other toys, were the extent of the “entertainment.” (Put away anything you think your child might feel possessive of, or that could break.)

3. Don’t try to micromanage

It might feel like you’re not offering enough entertainment if you don’t try to shepherd everyone through a variety of activities throughout the course of the party. But toddlers don’t do so well with being shepherded. If you’re trying to get everyone to do the same thing at the same time, there are bound to be tears. Just put out the activities, the toys, and some snacks and let the kids wander. I wrote some directions for each activity on (free) NYC subway maps and hung those next to each game so that parents could read them and help their kids figure out what to do. Then all I had to do was make sure no one ran off with the balls for the throwing game or tried to glue their hair to the wall.

4. Time the party so you don’t have to serve a meal

Our party went from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (That’s another thing, keep it short! Everyone will thank you.) So we only had to provide a snack. Which is great on a small budget, and even better in a small space since finding a way to get eight kids to sit down to a meal is pretty much impossible. Put out a few snacks (we had pretzels, cheese, crackers and apple slices) on a table or shelf that grown-ups can reach but kids can’t. Let each parent be in charge of deciding what, when, and how much their child eats. When it was time for cupcakes (for the love of God, do not do cake. An individual, compact cupcake for each kid is definitely the way to go), we set out a picnic blanket on the floor, got all the kids to sit down, sang happy birthday, ate some cupcakes and called it a day.

So, if you have the budget and the desire to throw your child a grand soiree, by all means be my guest. But, to be honest, I ended up feeling like our rinky-dink affair was just right. It helped, of course, that my son’s friends are sweet and kind, and that their parents are thoughtful and supportive. But, even so, I think a little party for a little guy is just right. So, as my husband would say, it’s his birthday. Throw him a party. It’ll be fun.