baby proof: simple birthday parties.

May 23, 2019
simple kids birthday party | reading my tea leaves

At the time of writing my fingernails are yellowed from the turmeric I used to dye cotton ribbons for my very-nearly-five-year-old’s birthday party. If it sounds like the stuff of an over-achieving do-gooder on a mission to prove a point, well, believe me I’ve thought that about myself too. But I love dyeing things. And I love to delight kids with simple projects that celebrate nature. For me the project wasn’t very much more complicated than setting some pots to simmer on the stove while I answered emails.

Faye turns five this weekend. Up until now, her birthday parties have been very small family affairs. We’ve had tiny gatherings of whatever family could join us, plus cake for celebrating. Last year we walked her five play-school classmates down to an ice cream shop during school hours and called that a party. This year there’s a far larger class of adorable pre-k students to invite and gather. And, no surprise, there are expectations and opinions to navigate, too. Faye’s been to more birthday parties in the past year than in the entirety of her young life before it and she hasn’t missed a beat.

In case it’s helpful for anyone else throwing a kid’s birthday party for a whole class of kids, here are a few things we’re doing to host a simple party. They check the boxes of being festive without compromising too much on our general efforts to do things with little waste and low-impact. (Forays into natural dyeing very much not required, but so fun!) No surprise, we’re taking a tack that’s a bit more on the side of letting our freak flag fly, than it is on the side of falling in line with expectations. But we’re not flouting every birthday party convention either.

simple kids birthday party | reading my tea leaves

Where:

We live in a small one-bedroom apartment in New York City. Hosting twenty-plus children would be a considerable feat (though I’ll never say impossible). We’re headed to a nearby park with a big field and a few picnic tables instead.

When:

One and half hours feels like it will hit the sweet spot of not too short and not too long. (Time will tell!) We’ve scheduled our party to fall after lunch and before dinner. We’re hoping it provides ample opportunity for small kids to have lots of fun, but we’re glad it cuts out the need for serving lots of food and contending with the attending supplies that would require.

What:

Giant bubbles, a fairy march with beribboned hand-kites (birthday girl’s request), and a small catalogue of old-fashioned party games to break out should the need or mood arise. A rousing game of Fairy Says? A relay race with silk scarves? A game of fairy, fairy, gnome (to the tune of duck, duck, goose)? We’re not planning to keep a firm schedule, but we’re heading in with enough tricks up our sleeves to keep kids occupied.

+ Decorations: With any luck, we’ll have blue sky and green grass and the shimmering backdrop of New York City. A dropcloth will cover the table and if we get around to it, a handful of farmer’s market flowers will mark the spot.

+ Food: There seems to be an unwritten rule that children’s birthday parties need to have pizza, but we’re going rogue. We’ll have a bowl or two of popcorn for anyone who needs a nibble and berry-decorated cupcakes for a birthday treat. We’ve asked kids to bring along their own water bottles but we’ll bring a small stack of recycled paper cups and a large jug of water just in case. Cupcakes will be served sans plates on small recycled paper napkins.

+ Goodie bags and party favors: Faye had strong feelings about giving her friends goodie bags and so we chatted about what that might include that’s exciting but not wasteful. We landed on giving each child a colored pencil fit for a fairy and a small paper bag of gummies, which we found locally in bulk. I’m hopeful the tiny handful of candy won’t be too imposing in terms of sugar and that the pencil will be put to work. We’ll be making hand-kites from wooden rings and all of those dyed ribbons—stay tuned for a tutorial, if that strikes your fancy—so each child will get sent home with that small toy, too.

+ Gifts: None, please! We understand that giving is a love language, but we neither wanted to make people feel like a gift is the price of admission, nor do we want Faye (or our apartment) to be overwhelmed with gifts. We decided to draw a firm line. Instead, we asked that each child bring along a drawing to give to Faye. Faye is excited about making a small book of drawings given by her friends (and excited to open presents from her family).

That’s it. I make these efforts knowing that they might not shift a whole birthday party culture (and some of them fall right in line with it). They might be seen as somewhat strange to folks on one end of the spectrum and as not going far enough to folks on the other. Simplicity looks different for different families. (And I can very much appreciate the relative simplicity of opting for a party hosted at a local business built to do the job, or opting out of a birthday party all together.) For now, this is where we’ve landed. Wish us luck.

For the curious:

+ Tiny paper bags!

+ Fairy pencils!

+ Gummy candies!

+ Recycled paper napkins + cups

+ Canvas drop cloth (also available at every hardware store under the sun).

This post includes affiliate links. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links.

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48 Comments

  • Reply Cynthia May 23, 2019 at 2:46 pm

    Reading how you simplify the always over-done is a breath of air. Your party will be lovely and I think the parents will truly appreciate the lack of stuff. Have a wonderful day celebrating your big five-year-old!

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    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 23, 2019 at 2:50 pm

      Thanks! I think these five-year-olds will be okay!

      2
    • Reply Rachel May 23, 2019 at 3:25 pm

      I really appreciated this post! My little one will turn 2 this summer and we are starting to think about a birthday party. Thank you for living your values courageously even if, as you say, some may find some of the details of the party a little strange. I’m trying to find ways for our little family to better live out our values and continue to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle, so this post and your blog in general are helpful to me in that journey! Enjoy the birthday party!

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      • Reply Lauren May 23, 2019 at 9:37 pm

        Fantastic post! I re-read your book constantly + think simplicity parenting should be book #2!

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        • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 24, 2019 at 3:08 pm

          Thank you! That’s very sweet!

  • Reply Isa May 23, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    That sounds so great, I don’t know what I’d like more: hosting this party for my own daughter or being your guest 🙂 gummies! Pencils! So lovely and thoughtful. Have a nice party and happy birthday to Faye 🙂

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  • Reply Anna May 23, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    My son’s 6th is in a couple weeks and this is hitting home. We said no gifts and are planning a treasure hunt for the main activity (digging for the treasure will be a favorite part for him). I’m planning to put marigold seeds and something else gold but not overly packaged in the paper bags each kid will get when the treasure box is opened. When you do things your way and it can often give others a better option that they didn’t know was possible. Happy Birthday!

  • Reply Kate May 23, 2019 at 3:41 pm

    Happy birthday Faye! Hope you have plans for after-party recovery too 😉 leftover cupcakes and – a hefty rosé. Have fun, good luck!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 24, 2019 at 3:09 pm

      Ha! Yes!

  • Reply Judith A Ross May 23, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    I do wish you luck and know that you will treasure this time. This post makes me very sentimental — I definitely went overboard with all the party flare when my children were Faye’s age — trying to make up, I think, for the absence of my own mother. But now that I’m a granny-to-be (safely into my 2nd trimester, thank you very much) I can enjoy these posts even more than I already do. Happy Birthday Faye and to your mama and papa. Enjoy your turn at the wheel, it goes by in a blink.

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  • Reply Deana May 23, 2019 at 3:49 pm

    Hi Erin! It sounds like a lovely party, thank you for sharing these details. I wish we lived closer so I could invite you for coffee. If you are ever in Jasper National Park Canada, let me know
    Our kiddos are the same age, and I wonder if you would share more about your conversation with Faye about the – no gifts, please bring a picture-request.
    My daughter is over due for her fifth birthday party( by 3 weeks) , and I’m stalling because I can’t figure this part out.
    Happy Birthday Faye!

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    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 23, 2019 at 4:54 pm

      Sure! Once it was clear that Faye was starting to voice ideas of gifts that she wanted her friends to bring to her (no bones about this kid)…as well as the gifts that she *didn’t* want children to bring (anything Pokémon, for instance, had been decided not suitable), I suggested that while it’s not really possible to request that friends buy or don’t buy specific presents, it might be really nice if we ask every kid to bring something that they made themselves and to save the special present requests/giving for family. She was really receptive to the idea and she’s excited about the drawings! We’ll see how it goes, of course, but for right this minute we’re hopeful!

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    • Reply MissEm May 23, 2019 at 6:37 pm

      Hi Deanna! We did this with my 8 year old’s birthday party last year. I told her that while I get that gifts are fun, we didn’t want so much stuff filling our small home (esp as she’d get plenty of lovely gifts from family). We asked everyone to bring a handmade card and two twonies (Canada). The kids LOVED gathering around to see everyone’s cards, she felt so cared for, the gifts didn’t become the party focus (and no one felt left out or silly for bringing something “less than”) and she had money to buy one big toy. It was delightful. I wish every family would do a no gift party

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  • Reply Kelly May 23, 2019 at 4:21 pm

    Love this! We just hosted our daughter’s 3rd birthday party. I would say it was a mix of my desire to do something like you describe here and my husband’s to make it a more typical toddler birthday party with all that entails. One discussion we always have is the difference in price (and color/style) of the recyclable cups/napkins/plates versus regular. Our party was large – family and friends – so it was hard to justify spending almost triple the price on the compostable plates I wanted versus the rainbow plates at Target that were $3 for 50 plates.
    I did talk him out of gift bags (our daughter is still young enough to not have an opinion on that), but we did have a craft for the kids that became their gift. We had them paint small ceramic flower pots (we used washable paint and it worked fine. Not sure for long term, but they loved it and parents loved that it didn’t ruin clothes) and then I bought brown coin envelopes and put in some sunflower seeds for each child to take home with their flower pot. Was a big hit!
    I’ve also been to a party where the parents used their Polaroid instax camera to take pictures of the kids and put them on top of magnets that they could take home. Will be interesting to see how we manage it when my daughter has more and more opinions/desires. Thanks, as always, for sharing your own strategies and ideas.

  • Reply Alexandra May 23, 2019 at 4:35 pm

    I love this. Thank you so much. My older son turns 5 this July and has become very aware of birthday parties in the last year, as well. We’ve always just had small family celebrations in the past, and I very much want to throw him a party now that he wants one, but I feel so overwhelmed just thinking about it! I have always disliked the loud and crazy “venue parties” but I absolutely understand why people choose them, now that I’m the planner! Making a single phone call and ordering a cake, and letting some teenagers carry out whatever else happens, seems pretty welcome right about now.
    .
    I keep worrying that if I go a simpler route, people will be underwhelmed. I don’t know why I get so nervous about this – two of the birthday parties we’ve gone to so far have just been get-togethers at local playgrounds, with some cut fruit and popcorn and cake, and everyone had a blast. I really think that it’s much harder to buck general trends in parenting than almost any other realm of life – the stakes feel so high somehow, when it comes to your children. And I’ve always been fine with people thinking I’m a bit odd, but it hurts to imagine other kids thinking my child is odd. (I’m not saying they would, or do – just, that’s a far greater emotional deterrent, I think, to imagine it happening to your kid than to you.) Thanks for giving me a boost of confidence – that I’m enough, and some yummy snacks and cake and games at the playground with friends is enough, and that we don’t need “too much” just to be enough.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 23, 2019 at 4:49 pm

      Yes! You are enough and so much fun will be had!

  • Reply maria May 23, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    ..good luck and buon compleanno!
    this is the kind of party i love for children, only i am really curious if the “gift chapter” will work as planned.. of all the things, this one is the one i havent figured out yet: always someone insisting or thnking is rude and the birthday child later complaining (first couple of years is ok! the idea of just having a party is ok, but later..)
    wish you sun as well!

  • Reply maria May 23, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    ..good luck and buon compleanno!
    this is the kind of party i love for children, only i am really curious if the “gift chapter” will work as planned.. of all the things, this one is the one i havent figured out yet: always someone insisting or thnking is rude and the birthday child later complaining (first couple of years is ok! the idea of just having a party is ok, but later..)
    wish you sun as well!

    • Reply MissEm May 23, 2019 at 6:40 pm

      This is what we do for parties and it’s been wonderful. I love a good, simple party, and I actually think kids do too.

      We now and then get those glass yogurt cups, send the yogurt to school as a snack, and save the cup for our kids’ drinking glasses, small vases, small leftover storage, and reusable party cups.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 23, 2019 at 7:01 pm

        We’d probably attempt more reusables if storage/schlepping on foot wasn’t a concern, but I love the yogurt cup idea!

        2
  • Reply Sam May 23, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    Love this so much. My only babe is turning 1 (!) in two weeks and we are in the midst of learning what works for us! Right now it’s just family and friends, but soon it will be his friends so this helps to give some strength behind my conviction of lowering the waste of a birthday party!

  • Reply Marlena May 23, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    I love this idea of drawings in lieu of gifts! Cards from family and friends have always been one of my favorite things to receive on a celebratory moment of any sort, and collecting them in a book like this is a beautiful idea that’ll I’ll definitely keep in mind!

    2
  • Reply Carmella May 23, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Love this! Your plans remind me of a similar party we had for our eldest when he turned 12. In the park, with two families besides our own. Served popcorn in cones I’d made by rolling cardstock, scooped the popcorn right out of a giant lidded picnic basket I have.

  • Reply Floppo May 23, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    I have been celebrating birthday parties for a long time now, but each time (4 kids) I deliberately try to make it simple, I have been waiting this post for a long time, so I am happy that you have shared your overwhelming simplicity! I always make the cake and for past birthdays we have given vegetables seeds for them to grow (kids loved it) and wooden spinners.

  • Reply Kathryn May 23, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    Sounds lovely! Am always so interested to hear how you’re able to maintain the simplicity and minimalism especially when up against the onslaught of other kids/school stuff. I have a four year old and for the first couple years was successful in sticking to the minimalist vibe….then grandparents and outside influences started to creep in. :/

  • Reply Kim May 23, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, really appreciate your approach and ideas. We also opted for party at the park for a 4th birthday. The weather wasn’t great and we had no formal activities aside from a snack break and cupcakes, and honestly we had to drag the kids apart long after the planned 90 minutes. If there was any silent judgment for the lack of structure, favors, games or gift giving, I’m okay with it because the kids had fun! <3 I’m sure Faye’s party will turn out wonderful and become a fond memory.

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  • Reply Amanda May 23, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    Please please please lots of pictures! We need to see these cupcakes! And often when I’m hosting parties for my kids (who are just a few years older than yours) and I’m unwrapping plastic from this or that I wonder, “how would erin do this?”
    Thank you for sharing your experience, for being humble about your “simple” efforts, and kindly nudging us to make changes.
    But seriously, pictures!

  • Reply Nancy May 23, 2019 at 11:21 pm

    I had a feeling the candy was SockerBit! We love that place. They don’t have it here in NorCal or anything similar as far as I can tell.

    When our kids were little, we adopted the same local park-and-cupcakes strategy. Easy does it! Our recent party for our 9 year old was taking the birthday girl and three friends to a movie after school on discount day, then back to our house for ice cream sundaes, followed up by much running around outside before parents arrived.

    Happy birthday to your girl!

  • Reply A. B. Reese May 23, 2019 at 11:31 pm

    I really appreciate this fabulous guide. I have run our children’s birthday parties in similar ways, but I often seem to get sideways glances and critical comments about the lack of plastic and gifts and bags full of useless party favors. This reminds me that I’m not just being stingy. So lovely! Thank you!

  • Reply steph May 23, 2019 at 11:46 pm

    this is super sweet and i’m personally excited for the hand kites! i’m happy to be incorporating effortful ideas into my SIL’s baby shower – so excited to search for secondhand pieces for a “onesie station”! it’s a fun, big item on my spring list: https://tps-steph.blogspot.com/2019/05/0038-to-do-spring.html

  • Reply Alex May 24, 2019 at 5:13 am

    Oh, this sounds like such a lovely party! I remember when I was around 7-8, the parents in my class decided that the gifts at birthday parties were simply getting out of hand – both in terms of the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ and the economy of having to buy gifts for 20+ kids over a school year. My mom suggested the no-gift route, but it didn’t work for everyone, so they compromised on a gift giving system. We took turns giving gifts, so that once you’d had your birthday, you’d be the one to buy a gift for the next person. It meant that one gift was gifted pr birthday . To the best of my memory no one ever complained about. That being said, it probably worked so well due to the close collaboration between parents and fairly similar socioeconomic circumstances in our little community. But I do recommend this ‘scheme’ for folks who are struggling with changing gift giving habits. It feels like a nice compromise that can eventually develop into no gifts..

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  • Reply Mickey May 24, 2019 at 5:32 am

    Happy birthday to sweet Faye.

  • Reply Lisa May 24, 2019 at 5:49 am

    Hi,
    This sounds perfect! Can you explain the fairy hand kites? We may want to try those.
    Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 24, 2019 at 7:13 am

      Yes! Working on a post!

  • Reply Ana May 24, 2019 at 6:38 am

    This sounds lovely, they are going to have so much fun! Your ideas are always very inspiring.
    Love this idea of a drawing instead of gift; as a mother of two young children myself, I would love to do something similar for their birthdays. I was wondering how you’ve been approaching gift-giving for the parties Faye attended as a guest… Homemade? Books? Art material? I love the idea to offer something special, and for my kids to receive it on their day, but also don’t want them to be showered with toys and plastic, etc. I find this hard to navigate and specially to let others know that we think/prefer…

    • Reply CC May 24, 2019 at 9:40 am

      I love the drawing idea as well, since people do tend to ignore the “no gift” request. It seems like it could take away that anxiety about showing up at a celebration empty-handed. I’ll be taking that suggestion for my kids’ next birthdays!
      We tend to bring art materials as gifts to other kids’ parties but I’d love to hear other ideas.
      Random thought on the disposable/recycled party-ware topic: years ago when hosting a summer BBQ we realized that it was cheaper to just buy a bunch of actual stainless-steel silverware at Target than compostable versions of the same thing. So now we have a whole lot of forks 🙂 Not marketed as an eco-friendly choice, but surely the most sustainable in the long run since silverware basically never wears out.

  • Reply Samantha May 24, 2019 at 9:41 am

    Thank you for this!! This is the umpteenth time I’ve been able to quell anxieties around the expectations of “stuff” and kids thanks to your perspective! It’s a relief to feel armed with another way of doing things than what so many people expect.

  • Reply Abby May 24, 2019 at 9:44 am

    This sounds lovely! My daughter’s turning three and we’re still firmly in the mode of family-only parties, but I’m saving this post for the eventual day when she requests some friends. I especially love your suggestion that guests bring drawings–what a wonderful idea! Can’t wait for the hand-kit post =)

  • Reply Annie May 24, 2019 at 10:18 am

    This sounds like a party I would love to have thrown for me and I’m a full-grown adult! Growing up I remember the best kids parties I went to were like this, simple but fun. Most kids just want to let their imaginations run wild and play. They will rarely notice elaborate decorations, overly-fussy food, and will be bored watching the birthday child open gift after gift. To this day I still prefer a simpler celebration. My birthday was earlier this week and all I really wanted was a really good piece of chocolate cake, which I had and enjoyed thoroughly. I hope Faye has a wonderfully fun birthday. Happy Fifth Birthday Faye!

  • Reply Hannah May 24, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    For my birthday growing up my dad would always create a treasure hunt for each guest (I always had small parties because of that), complete with compass directions (eg. Go 20 paces NNE until you see an oak tree. Stop, and turn 90 degrees to the right). It was so fun, and everyone got to learn how to use a compass, and learned something about the trees in our backyard. Then, the prize at the end of the treasure hunt was the “goody bag.” My friends still talk about this to this day. And honestly, that’s all I remember – nothing about the decor, cake, etc. Just the thrill of the search and finding your own treasure!

  • Reply jessie May 24, 2019 at 11:34 pm

    When my daughter was young we always had her birthday parties in the forest. One year,in the spirit of simplicity, I painted a bunch of stones gold. My husband and a friend hid the stones and the kids got to hunt for fairy gold and take it home. Parents told me that their kids kept their “fairy gold” for years in their treasure boxes and baskets of collected nature things! No packaging + inexpensive+ imagination= super fun party game/ favors!

  • Reply Cheryl May 26, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    There are so many wonderful ideas here (fairy gold!). But many are weather-dependent. Our little one is born in February, and while we’re not adverse to a winter walk, it’s pretty hard to ask folks to commit to an outdoor event other than ice skating. (We also live in Brooklyn.) Would love to hear how folks have hosted simple parties indoors or in wintertime.

    Also… to add one idea—-a friend had success with asking for donated items for a local animal shelter. Bonus: the birthday boy was featured in the shelter’s newsletter which he talked about for ages.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 28, 2019 at 10:53 am

      Silas is also a winter baby—January!—so while we probably will hold off on the big kid birthday parties until he’s 5, we know we’ll have to get creative. That said, I think a short and sweet hot cocoa party in a nearby park could be great!

  • Reply Jill May 30, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    What a beautiful party!
    I’m always curious, how do you write “please no gifts” ? I write it as simple as that and request 2 “twoonies” (Canada, as above) in lieu of, one for my son and one to give away to a charity and we still receive gifts!

    I will definitely be adding some of these ideas into my next birthday party.

    My nephew also has a January birthday and my sister did a lovely party in a park with chai and hot chocolate in rented thermoses, where the kids went on a scavenger hunt for wildlife that my nephew had drawn to check off. Rainy but lovely.

    Love your blog!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 30, 2019 at 1:22 pm

      I wrote “No gifts, please! But Faye would love a drawing from each of her friends!” and then I followed up with an email that included a link to the park location and a reiteration: “No gifts, please! (Truly!)”

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 30, 2019 at 1:22 pm

      Love that January park party idea!

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