We had Ava’s 4th birthday party yesterday, at a place that turns the guest of honor and his or her guests into “chefs” for the duration of the event. Like any other kids’ birthday party, it was basically the equivalent of a play-date on steroids. In just 90 minutes, the group of more than 20 children:
Arrived, took their coats off and formed in a line, (this was no small accomplishment, we’re talking 3 and 4 year olds here), and;
Decorated their own cardboard cookie boxes with markers and stickers and;
Rolled out real dough to make sugar cookies in assorted shapes and sizes and;
Stopped to eat a little breakfast while the cookies were in the oven and;
Burned off breakfast with a little crazy dancing to music and;
Decorated the fresh-baked cookies with icing and other treats and;
Sang happy birthday to Ava – who was wheeled into the room on a metal kitchen cart, sitting next to her cake and wearing a chef’s hat along with her party dress and;
Ate cake and;
Pulled apart a piñata and scrambled around the floor to retrieve its contents and;
Picked up individual gift bags with miniature baking supplies and cookie cutters (and the boxes of cookies they made) on their way out the door.
[Ava, a.k.a. "The Birthday Girl," stamps out a cookie...]
[Madison decorating one of her creations, that's Namie (Great-Grandma) helping out there behind her...]
[Back at home, opening presents. Play-Doh was huge this year. One of the large sets she received, which included an extensive array of molds and tools, featured the following disclaimer: "Molded results vary depending on child's age and level of skill." How'd you like to meet the Hasbro lawyer who insisted on this essential protection? Guy actually came over from Nabisco, where he went down in corporate risk abatement history by writing the line, "The taste of the food depends on the specific ingredients used and manner of preparation."]
The theme of this year's party was Hello Kitty, chosen by Ava, and her preferred gifts were anything having to do with Play-Doh or the Littlest Pet Shop. We could tell she liked these particular presents because every time she tore the wrapping off anything that fell into either category she immediately stopped the proceedings, carried the individual item up the stairs to her room and carefully placed it inside the princess tent that sits in the center of her floor. The resulting delays in the gift-opening portion of the afternoon got me thinking about all the birthday formats and venues we’ve already experienced with the girls in just a few years.
Both Madison and Ava celebrated their first birthdays with “family” parties at home, vaguely aware of the event or the relatives surrounding them – an episode of Barney or trip to Elmo’s World could reasonably have been expected to generate as much excitement. The focal point of these early gatherings, for us, was providing good food and wine to the adults in attendance and ultimately securing photos and video of our 1-year-olds with cake and icing smeared all over their faces.
The first parties with friends/associates/classmates/hangers-on (freeloaders) were “gym” parties – generally characterized by a throng of toddlers bouncing around on mats and other apparatus in padded rooms, typically with an over-caffeinated and slightly off-putting staffer serving as an appointed guide through the frivolity. These parties (ours and those we were invited to) all seemed to feature an enormous multi-colored parachute, which the assembled guests were forced to fan up and down repeatedly over the children, just to make sure that any stray airborne viruses or streptococcus molecules stood a fighting chance of landing on every single person in the room.
Birthday party guest lists expanded exponentially once the girls were in school programs, since the protocol – conveyed to me by Gwen – was apparently inviting their entire class, even mean boys who had pushed or hit our girls while battling for temporary ownership of the fake plastic drumstick in the classroom’s fake plastic kitchen. Over the years we’ve had theme parties devoted to Elmo and Barney (Madison), Dora and Care Bears (Ava), and a few – believe it or not – that did not feature characters covered by established copyrights.
We found the chef place in time for Madison’s 4th birthday party and had a good experience there. Last year, Madison did her party at a “little ladies” dress-up place that was fun for the kids but terrifying for the adults in the group, at least for me, as my 5-year-old and her little friends put on “fancy” clothes, had their nails done, hair styled, make-up applied and then danced under a real disco ball before singing “Happy Birthday” and convening for cake. All we needed was a sketchy, pre-pubescent pusher or two hanging out in the area of the potties and we could have legitimately claimed a return of Studio 54.
Ava’s party yesterday was our 9th so far as parents, and we’re trying something a little different for our 10th (and Madison’s 6th) in March. We are going back to the “family” celebration idea, but instead of doing it at home we are planning to take the girls and a small group of relatives to the circus, which is rolling through our area around the same time. Madison has, mercifully, agreed to this, saving us from the need to invite the nearly 40 classmates in her two school programs to some off-site location at an expense approximating fees for room and board during her freshman year in college.
We are hoping that Ava – who has demonstrated a clear and consistent aversion to large characters and crowd noise (I'm convinced that early childhood trips to see Barney, Dora and The Wiggles live stand an excellent chance of turning up in therapy sessions two or three decades from now) – can make it through the afternoon unscathed. In any event it will be a good preview and indicator before a planned Disney vacation next year, many months before we need to book a breakfast with the Princesses, board a monorail or spend the better part of a week in a Florida hotel room, watching DVDs and seeking refuge from far more vivid and threatening branded characters that can actually walk and talk.