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How to throw a fun kids’ birthday party

A guide to planning and decorating a festive, outdoor summer celebration for your little ones.
/ Source: TODAY

Are you gearing up to throw a birthday bash for your children this summer? Want to make sure it's not a snooze? TODAY contributor Stephanie Oppenheim shares tips and smart ideas to help plan and execute a fun party for the 5- to 10-year-old set:

What was your favorite birthday party? I can still remember my fourth birthday party as a really special day. Maybe because there are lots of pictures of it, but I remember how excited I was that we were all getting candy necklaces — you know, the kind where you can nibble off one “jewel” at a time. 

Party hats were also a big deal, the pointy ones with the uncomfortable elastic string under your chin that signaled it was going to be cake time. I remember playing games outside in my sailor jumpsuit and best of all, the Steiff ride-on pony that would remain one of my favorite toys of all time.

My parents always made wonderful parties. There was the full-fledged carnival, with my parents’ friends dressed up as carnival workers and clowns. My friends always remembered my origami party, where my father gave everyone lessons in making paper swans and, of course, we all ate on the floor. The worst party? The year that everyone got the chicken pox and no one could come. I can still remember standing in the kitchen crying while my mother took one “regret” phone call after the other.

As a parent you certainly want the day to be a fun, memorable event. Here are some basic tips:

1. Keep the party short  You need one or two activities that will take you to cake time!

2. Take a deep breathRemember what your child will pick up is your mood. Your child won’t remember if the party decorations aren’t exactly how you planned. What they will remember is your smile and good humor.

3. Have a welcoming project
For young party goers, it’s a good idea to have something for them to work on right from the start. Remember how you sometimes get nervous walking into a cocktail party? This is where it begins.

4. Make sure the activities are age-appropriate and of interest to your child
It’s your child’s big day, after all — pick something that ties into their interests. Competitive games for many kids are just too intense. Cooperative or team games are a better choice for a tear-free day.

5. For younger kids, save opening the presents for after the kids go homeYou can’t expect two and threes to handle opening presents without inevitable tears.

6. Party favors you make
Rather than the obligatory goodie bag, we’d recommend having a craft project for kids to do that they then take home. It gives you a little more room in your budget, and the kids go home with something they made, rather than a bag of things that end up in the junk drawer.

7. Get outside
Outdoor parties give your guests the freedom to be active, run around and do messier crafts that you wouldn’t dare do inside!!

One of the best aspects of having a summer birthday party is that you can usually have some part of the celebration outdoors, giving you the freedom to have activities that need lots of room and may be a bit messy. The idea is to pick a theme that appeals to your child's interests and combine it with age-appropriate activities that will keep everyone engaged until it's time for cake!

8. Surf's up! Beach theme
A surf party is just right for the summer. Have the kids come in their bathing suits and bring a big beach towel. You can have a picnic on the towels or use the Luau Table from Pottery Barn Kids.

Suggested Art Projects: Depending on the age of the kids, you can have some "beachy" craft projects for them to work on.

Tie- Dye Kit (Creativity for Kids, $16). One of the best breakthroughs in tie-dye, from our point of view. The dye is saturated into the included strings. Tie the strings on the item you want to dye, and get it wet. Much more fun and easier to do than traditional tie-dye.

Bead Kits. New World Necklace Kit (Fashion Angels Enterprises, $16). All of our testers loved that this kit comes with 12 mini necklace kits, each with their own "cool" pendants — perfect for a group.

Sand Art. You can buy colored sand at the craft store or buy a kit OR you can have the kids make their own colored sand. You'll need a bag of white sand and some food coloring. Put a portion of the sand into a container with some food coloring. Have the kids shake the container to spread the color throughout the sand. It's really fun to make and then the kids can use their own colored sand for layered sand creations. Craft stores are your best bet for plastic bottles. It's a perfect out-of-doors craft that kids never get tired of and that you wouldn't want in your playroom!

Shell Art. If you live by the ocean, you can collect seashells (or buy them at the craft store). Have a small box for each child to decorate with glue. You can also glue shells to frames and then send the child a picture from the party to put in their custom-made frame.

Activities. Ogo Sport Super Sports Disk (OgoSport, $39.98). This looks like a mini-trampoline with a mesh net in the center that produces a great bounce for balls, Kooshes or even water balloons. Comes in 20" and 12" disks (for younger players, the bigger size is easier to use). Play solo or buy the double set for great toss games. One of our favorite new products of the season (718-554-0777).

Wobble Deck (Diggin, $39.95). Great fun for active play with some mental calisthenics built in. This electronic balance board can be played at varying levels of difficulty. It calls out colors or numbers that are marked on the board. Players need to follow the commands, which get more complex and faster as the level of play is increased, so this is one that can be enjoyed by mixed age groups simply by changing the settings. 5 and up (888-388-8835).

On the grand scale, there is the Chesapeake Picnic Table Boat Bow and Cushion (Pottery Barn Kids). As a centerpiece to this table we've added Step 2's Woodland Adventures Pirate Ship ($49). You can fill the ship with candy for your band of pirates. There are also great pirate costumes for both boys and girls from Small Miracles ($29 and up). We also like the hats from Pottery Barn Kids ($36 for a set of 4).

Activities. Pirate Treasure Hunt (Creativity for Kids, $17.99). A kit that you will do with your child before the party. Comes with all the ingredients you'll need for a treasure hunt that you can map out with your child for their friends. This company also makes small Pirate Boat kits ($5.99 each). Your pirates may also enjoy the Pirate Dig (GeoCentral, $10); kids unearth pieces of a 7-inch skeleton of a pirate and put it together with string. Our testers loved the digging party, were less interested in the stringing aspect of the toy. In fact, you'll probably end up doing the stringing if they are still interested.

10. Princess and fairies
Princesses and fairies are equal to pirates in popularity this season. Here you channel your inner “pink!” We love these new Light Up Tutus ($24) from Small Miracles. Of course, at a certain stage in life, you can just ask your guests to come in their tutus!

Activities. Make Your Own Crown — you can buy a kit or you can do this yourself with poster board, stick-on gems and glitter glue.

Pin the Fairy on the Flower (eeboo, $10). Remember Pin the Tail on the Donkey? This is a new version with a pinker cast.

Scavenger Hunt for Princess Gear. Use whatever costume jewelry you have or buy plastic tiaras, wands, etc. and then send the party goers on a treasure hunt.

11. Carnival theme
For active kids (and their parents), you can also run a carnival with many active games.

This requires a lot of supervision! Our suggestion is to have many small prizes for everyone. Know your crowd; for some kids, head-to-head competition is too much. In that case, focus on cooperative games like treasure hunts that are done in teams or group activities like the Egg and Spoon Race below.

Here are some fun choices: Monster Clompers (Alex, $14.99). You can buy a couple of these big feet and have kids do races across the lawn with them.

Egg and Spoon Race (International Playthings). Blue-chip game that’s great for a crowd. Here the eggs are plastic. For older kids you could spice things up and use the real thing.

Par 3 Mini Golf Course (Step 2, $34). Here are three holes of mini-golf. The first one is fairly easy, but the second will take some work for five to sevens.

TODAY Show contributor Stephanie Oppenheim is the cofounder of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer organization that reviews children’s media. For specific toys and activities for an outdoor summer party, visit