Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 22, 2024


It’s inevitable! Not every birthday party will be picture perfect. But before you send out those invitations, read on for tips on avoiding major mishaps and keeping the birthday kid happy.

Everything was ready for my daughter’s sixth birthday, so I thought. I invited friends and family, cake was done, pizza ordered and a big smile on my girl’s face. Two games, gift opening and a happy birthday song later, a kid shows up with a dairy allergy, a girl who was third in line for the pinata destroyed it before the other kids had a turn and another kid was crying. Although the party wasn’t a complete disaster and in the end my birthday girl was happy, I know there are ways to prevent some of these disasters in the future.

Many problems begin to arise during the planning of the birthday party, and at the party. You can only do so much, but there are ways to prevent a party fail before it’s too late with some careful planning, party hacks and prepping. Ready? Let’s troubleshoot!

Invitation Dilemma

Do you invite both friends and family or have a separate party for each? Do you send out the invites digitally or by mail? What about school friends?

TROUBLESHOOT! Party planning and digital invitations go hand-in-hand. However, no matter how high-tech this world gets, we sometimes like to stick with the old- fashioned way of doing things. It’s always tough deciding if you should send out physical party invitations by mail, e-mail, Facebook or evite. It’s not rude to send out a quick evite, but there are benefits to both. Start here: if you have a kiddo who is old enough to write or care about their invitations, ask him how he would like to do it. Yes, evites — or creating events on Facebook — is a time and money saver, but your kid may want to help write out, choose and put stamps on invitations which will save some time and make them feel part of the planning process. Whichever way you go, all options are good and appropriate.

Separating a family party and friend party at your home can avoid an overwhelming and overcrowded house. However, again, it’s up to you and renting out a venue is always an option if you can’t accommodate everyone. Having friend-only parties let’s you just focus on the kids. When it comes to inviting school friends, know you are not obligated to invite the entire classroom; some schools won’t allow that anyway. For a general guideline, try following the “age plus one” rule. For example, a party for a 4-year-old should have five attendees.

Game Planning Dilemma

Which games should you have, if any at all? You didn’t plan out enough games and you can’t decide whether you should include competitive prizes or not. The last thing you want are kids fighting over the pinata or a child crying over prizes.

TROUBLESHOOT! First, keep the age of the birthday kid in mind when planning games. You don’t want too many, which can be overwhelming for everyone; and too little may cause boredom if there isn’t a main attraction at the party to keep their attention. One way to plan your games is to keep them simple and quick. Another way is to have some extra games, crafts or activities tucked away in case the kids go through the first two or three games quickly. Next, don’t get wrapped up in making sure every single game is played; the party will naturally pan out and a lot of times, kids wind up having a good time simply by playing with each other.

Here are some game examples for all ages. When in doubt, ask the birthday kid which games they want to play, and explain that the winner receives prizes. Second, choose through these age-appropriate games. Most importantly, keep it simple! 

  • Games for Toddlers: It is generally accepted to let the kids play freely most of the time, so if you like, one or two games are all you will need. Think: Musical Statues – Play some music and get the kids to dance around. When the music stops they need to freeze. The ones who stop the quickest get a prize and then sit down as the game then continues; Follow the Leader – All kids love to follow the leader. Get the kids to line up behind an adult and with music playing go on a little snake trail of the yard. It’s more fun if there are some obstacles to go over, under or around! Kids can take turns being the leader, too; or Duck Duck Goose – We all know how this game goes.
  • Games for Ages 5 – 10: Plan out three to five crafts or games if your party will last one-and-a-half hours. For a two-hour party, try four to six activities: Scavenger Hunt, Pin the Tail on the Donkey (or something that fits the party theme; Sack Race; Egg and Spoon Race; and Pinata are some most-loved classical games kids appreciate, to name a few.
  • Games for Tweens and Teens – Yes, older kiddos still find enjoyment out of some fun party games with their closest friends. Try: Egg Toss; Limbo; Wink Assassin (have the kids sit in a circle. One kid is the “assassin” or the winker. Each person must make eye contact with each other and the wink murderer must try to wink at other people. If a person receives a wink from the murderer, that person must “die” by falling to the ground dramatically (in a funny way, such as clutching one’s heart or gasping with loud noises); Name that Tune; and Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt. 

If you’re worried competitive games will result in a fight, set your worries aside! Having winners and losers is good for kids to learn how to play fairly with good sportsmanship. The key is to make the prizes fairly small, so kids aren’t tempted to feel jealous. Consider giving small packets of candy, or stickers as prizes. Be sure to include non-competitive activities in your party, too, such as a craft or a group game where kids work together in teams.

Drop-off and Pick-up Dilemma

Should you stay or should you go? This is always the question when your kids reach the comfortable and acceptable drop-off age, or over 5 or 6 years old.

TROUBLESHOOT! Your troubleshooter begins simply with parent-to-parent communication. If you are the one throwing the party and you would rather have the adults stick around, mention this in the invitation right from the get-go. Otherwise, you may be disappointed when a handful of parents drop off their littles and run out. This will save you lots of time, money and worry. If you are the one unsure whether to drop-off, the solution is ask! No one would be offended by you double checking. You can say, “Is it OK if I stick around for the party? I would love to help out!” or “Is this a drop-off kind of party? Unfortunately, I won’t be able to stay!” Easy as that to avoid any awkward misunderstandings.

Cake-and-Ice Cream Trouble

Choosing flavors to please the crowd can be challenging, especially when you don’t know if the majority likes chocolate or vanilla. Chocolate cake and vanilla cupcakes? Or vanilla cake and small chocolate cake on top? Decisions, decisions. What do you do?

TROUBLESHOOT! Kids can be picky eaters, especially toddlers. So, opt for the simple chocolate cake with vanilla frosting versus the strawberry filled, strong-tasting cakes. For ages 4 and younger, a simple vanilla or funfetti cake recipe is quite the winner; and for older kids, ask them what they like! Does your kid care if you make the cake or have it made? No. They don’t. Even though the “guilt” lies on your shoulders, know that no matter where the cake comes from, it came from the heart. Sure the cake is important, but if it causes you stress spending hours slaving over a hot stove the day before the party, let someone else take that off your plate so you can spend those extra hours doing what you’re meant to do: celebrating your kids’ birthday. They will only be that age one time – remember that.

Presents: To OPEN OR NOT?

Everything seems to be going smoothly and the kids are playing great. Should you interrupt and announce the present opening or wait until everyone leaves?

TROUBLESHOOT! Opening gifts at the party is a good chance for your child to practice being a gracious host. However, some kids (and parents) don’t enjoy being in the spotlight. So if this is the case, check with what they want to do. Either way, it is totally appropriate to open presents at the party or later when everyone leaves. Although guest love watching their friend’s face glow when they open their gift, they are always a phone call, text or even a “Thank You” card away. Discuss with your little ones beforehand about saying, “Thank you,” if they do open their gifts in front of friends and family. Worried about kids getting angry or breaking your kids’ brand-new, opened toys? Set some structure; ask the kids to all sit around your kid, giving them plenty of space to open gifts. Be sure to explain to your birthday kid before the party about playing with their gifts after everyone leaves. This will avoid birthday cries and an angry you.

The Party Favor Dilemma

Party favors may be tiny and harmless, but they can add up to a BIG expense to an already pricy day. Someone shows up to the party with extra siblings, do you or don’t you have extra party favors when this happens? When do you hand them out?

TROUBLESHOOT! Kids are easy to please — remember this when choosing your party favor items. But should you have extra party favors for the guests who bring along extra little family members? This is entirely up to you and your budget, but to avoid this, check in with guests and ask if they plan on bringing extra guests so you can get a complete head count. You are not being pushy, only trying to plan for food, party favors and games. If you are the family wondering if you can bring along the baby or other siblings, politely ask the host if you can bring them along. If not, then arrange for a sitter for the extra kiddos.

  • Put crayons and mini notepads in the party bags in colors related to the party theme.
  • Label and hand out individual Play-Doh containers.
  • Give out travel games for a travel-themed party.
  • For summer birthdays, hand out buckets with plastic pails and shovels (great for a beach-themed party, too!) A pack of towels on Amazon or cheap flip-flops work great.
  • Give mini-flashlights to the kids for an overnight slumber party (another great summer party theme). 
  • Stock up on mini bubbles and wrap the party theme color ribbon around. Then, watch them run outside and have a bubble party! 
  • Ice cream gift cards are great for summer parties – you can give gift cards as low as $2, just enough for a special scoop!
  • For toddler parties, little kids love books. Hand out Little Golden Books, for example, that start at $4.99 on Amazon. 
  • Outdoor windy birthdays call for kites! Get a pack of cheap kites at your local dollar store. 
  • Personalized water bottles make for a useful party favor that won’t get thrown in the trash. Order cute and simple personalized water bottles on Etsy for as low as $6 each. 

So should you have extra party favors for the guests who bring along extra little family members? This is entirely up to you and your budget, but to avoid this, check in with guests and ask if they plan on bringing extra guests so you can get a complete head count. You are not being pushy, only trying to plan for food, party favors and games. If you are the family wondering if you can bring along the baby or other siblings, politely ask the host if you can bring them along. If not, then arrange for a sitter for the extra kiddos. 

Knowing when to hand out the party favors is key, too. Handing them out at the end of the party is ideal, otherwise, tiny toys and candy may end up all over the living room (and elsewhere) or get mixed up with the other kids’ party bags. If they are necessary for the party, such as towels and flip-flops, have a permanent marker handy to mark all of the kids’ items or ask their parents to do it if they plan on sticking around.

Party at the Playground Troubleshooting 

How far in advance do you need to reserve a picnic shelter? Can you bring your own food? How about bringing inflatables? Here’s what you need to know.

If you’re in a pinch, some shelters offer first-come, first serve rentals without having to book in advance, however, know there are limitations. For example, many first-come, first serve shelters won’t allow bounce houses. Other things to know when renting a shelter: 

  • Choose one with a playground nearby for the kids to play.
  • Take advantage of catering services, if any.
  • Some shelters allow inflatables if you book in advance. 
  • If you’re bringing your own food, head to Party City or another major retailer for heating sources, food racks and containers.
  • Decorate away! As long as you throw away your trash and clean up after.
  • Shelters allow for a wide open space for kids to run and play, plus you don’t have to worry about fitting everyone in your home. 
  • If you call or book ahead of time online or by calling (some shelters allow you to book up to a year in advance).

Great Parks Picnic Shelters; 513-521-7275;
Choose from 58 open-sided picnic shelters, two non-sheltered picnic areas; available to reserve up to a year in advance; catering and special packages available at many parks, visit for the full list. Many parks are first-come, first-served for the picnic areas with tables and grills that do not require a reservation.

Cincinnati Parks;
Includes Alms Park, Mt. Echo and Area 22 Group Picnic Area in Mt. Airy Forest which all permit bounce houses; must be reserved two weeks prior; must fill out bounce house agreement prior to party; first-come, first serve shelters include Ault Picnic Shelter at Ault Park, Burnet Woods Picnic Shelter at Burnet Woods and Tom Jones Commons Picnic Shelter at Eden Park (no bounce houses allowed). 

Washington Park; 1230 Elm St., Cincinnati, Oh; 513-621-4400;
The Porch at Washington Park is available for rental, the perfect place to host get-togethers, private parties and more! Simply fill out the form online to reserve. 

Ziegler Park; 513-621-4400; 1322 Sycamore St., Cincinnati, Oh;
Areas of Ziegler Park are available for partial or full private rentals.

Florence Nature Park Facilities & Park Shelter; 859-647-5425;
Features a 15-acre getaway with a gazebo, walking path, picnic tables and small, reservable event venue. Includes Kentaboo Park Shelter, Lincoln Woods Park Shelter, Orleans Park Shelter, South Fork Park Shelter and Stringtown Park Shelter.

Devou Park; 859-292-2151; 1201 Park Drive, Covington, Ky;
Multiple shelters available to rent; features covered picnic shelters featuring a drinking fountain, picnic tables, playground and more. 


About the Author

Amanda Hayward

Amanda Hayward is editor of this publication. She is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and a mom of three with one on the way. If she's not writing for Cincinnati Family, you'll find her running, juggling kids, teaching group fitness classes and cooking up healthy recipes.