Keep Kids’ Birthday Parties Simple

Children’s birthday parties can be fun and memorable without costing a fortune.


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Try the Adventure Playground in Berkeley as the setting for a kid’s birthday party. Kids love it, and it’s not expensive.

Photo CC Teddy Cross

A friend of mine recently plunked down $350 for a birthday at Children’s Fairyland, which included an hour at the theme park and 30 minutes of petting a single bunny to celebrate her daughter turning 2.

The day was a fiasco.

There was a huge barbecue at Lake Merritt that day and parking was a mess. Her daughter had the runs. The toddlers had to wait in several lines, which seemed especially long on this particular Sunday. And the bunny was a bust: $50 just to stroke one furry creature shared among two dozen tiny hands.

The best part of the day? “Afterward, when my daughter was just rolling around on the grass,” my friend said. “I’m not doing that again.”

She should heed her own words: Throwing a birthday party fit for Meghan Markle is not wise for anyone, let alone for the parents of a 1-year-old who will be just as thrilled playing in a cardboard box.

I have to say that I’ve never been the party-planning type, and I’ve always refused to do “extras,” like party favor bags. (Yes, I know my children will need therapy one day.)

So, unlike one of my colleagues, who was Googling “how much does a petting zoo cost?” ahead of her son’s first birthday, I have always tried to keep birthday parties simple and cheap.

But that’s not to say they’re not fun.

When my daughter was 8, we invited her class to Lake Temescal (we showed up early in the morning and didn’t even pay to reserve the spot) and turned a grassy area into summer camp. I ran games, like a potato sack race, water balloon toss, egg carry and dive-for-the-penny-in-a-plate-of-flour for about an hour, and then we all hopped in the lake for a swim. She still remembers that party and declared it her favorite. I brought pizza and cupcakes to the park and the whole event cost less than $100.

Some of her other favorite parties include a movie and sleepover at our house with six or so girlfriends and crafting pillows at her best friend’s house when she celebrated her 10th birthday.

For my son? Our annual adventure is taking him and a bunch of his friends to Stinson Beach with boogie boards, Frisbees, and footballs. Again, I pack a homemade lunch and will treat the boys to an ice cream at the shack on the beach.

Another great party was when he turned 6 and we headed to Adventure Playground in Berkeley, voted among the top 10 playgrounds in the country by National Geographic. It’s full of discarded tools and structures, where kids can hammer and paint on makeshift boats, forts, and tire swings. It’s free for individuals and groups of five pay between $75 to $180 depending on size.

It’s not like there aren’t great places to celebrate birthdays at in the East Bay. There are tons: the Oakland Zoo, Pump it Up, Bladium, Albany Bowl, Oakland Ice, Chabot Space & Science Center, Habitot, and MOCHA, just to name few.

But check out the prices (usually hovering around $300) and you’ll probably want to do what my friend, Rebecca, did.

One year, she invited about five boys over and gave them duct tape and a dozen or so empty refrigerator boxes. The boys spent the evening and the next day, cutting, taping, and creating a cardboard labyrinth in her backyard that was both creative and pretty much free.

As for my Fairyland friend, she’s still reeling from the trauma of her 2-year-old’s party. She swears she’s going to go more DIY next year. No roller coasters. No llamas to pet. Just a cake, and a low-key picnic party at the park.

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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