Pure birthday joy.

A recipe for the best-ever birthday bash for your kiddo, with the help of our two party experts.

For a kid, there’s nothing better than a birthday. (For us grown-ups, it’s a different story, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?) It’s like Christmas, Halloween and the tooth fairy, all wrapped up in a sparkly bow.

At a Wacky Science party, glasses and fake mustaches are a must.
At a Wacky Science party, glasses and fake mustaches are a must.

We sat down with two local birthday fairy godmothers over pistachio layer cake with buttercream frosting at Southeast Portland’s adorable Oui Presse cafe and picked their brains on how to plan the perfect PDX party for your kiddos.

Our experts: Elizabeth Sprague, the genius stylist, graphic designer and Etsy entrepreneur behind the Lemonberry Moon site; the Tigard resident is also a mom of five boys and a professional photographer.

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Lori Darnell is a baker at Hillsboro’s sweet South Store Cafe and a self-professed birthday cake junkie; she is also a professional photographer and mom to a 2-year-old daughter.

Location, location

First things first: When planning a party for your kids, you’ve got to decide where it will be — at home, or out and about. As a general rule of thumb, most families tend to stick to home-based parties when kids are 3 and younger, Sprague says. It’s a budget-friendly option, you’ve got everything you need right at hand and you can get the decorating done ahead of time, freeing up time to attend to over-excited birthday kiddos.

Mixing up a mud mask at a spa-themed birthday bash.
Mixing up a mud mask at a spa-themed birthday bash.

If you’ve got a kid with a birthday from (roughly) May through September, you’re pretty safe to plan an outdoors party at your favorite local park — Darnell threw her daughter’s first birthday shindig at Hagg Lake Park in Gaston, complete with barbecues and canoes — all in all, just as much fun for the grown-ups in attendance as the kids. If you’re looking at a winter birthday, consider bringing in some age-appropriate entertainment, such as longtime PDX favorite Penny Walter of Penny’s Puppets, who puts on a fun show and sticks around for a puppet meet-and-greet post performance.

As kids get older, though, you may not want the little devils rampaging through the house — in that case, tailor to their interests. Sprague’s thrown parties at Wunderland Arcades (locations in Beaverton, Gresham, Southeast Portland and Milwaukie) and has a soft spot for art-themed locales like Art a la Carte; Darnell has a shoutout for Jenni and Tommy’s Kids Unplugged, an indoor playspace, art studio and woodworking studio in Tigard.

Go with a theme

At a Minecraft party, Sprague suggests a color-your-own sword activity table.
At a Minecraft party, Sprague suggests a color-your-own sword activity table.

Next, do some thinking about what your kid is into right now. (Again, more of an issue as kids get a little older and more vocal about their preferences.) Got a Minecraft lover? Sprague suggests cutting out Minecraft-themed swords from posterboard and letting kids decorate them, and going on a “precious gems” (read: backyard stones) hunt for Minecraft blocks. Have a girlie-girl? Perhaps a spa party, where kiddos decorate their own post-pedicure flip-flops and make homemade sugar scrubs. Or maybe your budding Einstein might like a scientist party, complete with homemade slime and test tube beakers full of Nerds candies as party favors. The point is: Pick a theme and plan some corresponding activities to help give the party a better flow.

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Make a List, Check it Twice

Worms that kids won't mind touching…
Worms that kids won’t mind touching…

Guests lists are easy in the beginning, both Sprague and Darnell say. Your kid’s first birthday is as much for you as it is for them — as Darnell puts it, you and the baby have made it through the first year and you’ve still got all your hair — party time! Invite all your friends, and raise a glass. By preschool and kindergarten, Sprague says, it’s more common to invite the whole class, to get to know everyone. By first grade, her boys got to suggest their own lists, keeping the overall number of invitees to 10 or less. And prepare yourself to hound folks for RSVPs, whether you’ve sent an evite or a throwback snail mail invite (Darnell likes Shutterfly and other photo-sharing services for personalized invites; Sprague’s a fan of tying your invites to a party’s theme.)

A pro tip from Darnell: If it’s not a drop-off party, try to make sure that all the invited grown-ups know at least one other adult present besides you. It will make everyone more
comfortable.

DIY Food

DIY trail mix bar to fuel up little hikers.
DIY trail mix bar to fuel up little hikers.

Next, figure that you’re going to have to feed the guests, and preferably offer something beyond just cake, unless you have something against all the parents of the kids you’ve invited, and want to send home their offspring all hopped up on sugar.

Darnell is a big fan of a smorgasbord-style approach — think a sandwich bar, or dress-up-your-own tacos or carnitas. She’s says the finger food approach is also on the rise — quick, healthy bites that are easy to eat with one hand while you shepherd the birthday kid around with the other. The same goes for dessert. Classic cakes are awesome, but consider a yogurt parfait bar, a decorate-your-own sugar cookie station or an ice cream sundae bar with an array of toppings. Bonus: Adults who shake their heads at another sheet cake will line up for choose-your-own-adventure options like these, Darnell says.

One of Darnell's custom cake creations.
One of Darnell’s custom cake creations.

If you do want a cake, though, take her advice: “Save money on an overly decorated cake,” she says. “I mean, if you can afford it and splurge, Le Cookie Monkey (in Northwest Portland) is amazing, but if that is not in your budget, don’t worry about it. It’s so much more important to have high quality and flavor and freshness than a fondant.

If you’re set on buying a cake instead of making one yourself, ask the baker a few key questions, Darnell says: Do they use butter or shortening? And if you’ve asked for a buttercream frosting, do they follow the American method, heavy on the powdered sugar, or the silkier European style, heavier on butter, egg white and cooked sugar?

That’s entertainment

Okay, so you’ve got the food and the cake. Now, turn your mind to the entertainment. If you’re out of the house, this is probably a breeze: your party space likely has a cadre of eager 20-somethings happy to lead kids through a soccer match (Think Rose City Futsal) or up the climbing wall (The Circuit Bouldering Gym). At home, or at a more free-form locale like a park, it’s up to you. Sprague advises setting up projects and stations for the kids, rather than classic party games like Musical Chairs or Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

“Games can be controversial — it’s everybody wins versus one person wins,” Sprague says. “But you want everyone to win at a birthday party, so I always have little prizes for everyone.” For example, if you’re filling a giant jar of gumballs for a classic “guess how many game”, you might set out small Mason jars full of gumballs for consolation prizes, she says.

Goodie bag do’s and dont’s

Another surprisingly controversial birthday party agenda item: the goodie bag. Lots of people love to hate these — how many Silly Bandz does one kid need, anyway? (The correct answer: None.) But for Darnell and Sprague, goodie bags can be great, if you can set aside the time put a little thought into them.

“Goodie bags full of random stuff, or a bunch of candy can be quite annoying,” Sprague admits. “But for me, it’s one of the things I try to put the most thought into, since it says thanks for coming and thanks for celebrating with me.”

Beakers full of nerds — of course — make a great party favor at a science party.
Beakers full of nerds — of course — make a great party favor at a science party.

Darnell adds that she and her daughter both treasured a recent goodie bag item — a friend had found photos of her daughter with each of the party guests and made them into a magnetized puzzle collage. The favor tag read “You are a great piece of my life.”

If you do decide to buy, rather than create, goodie bag favors, Sprague and Darnell suggest hitting up a local toy store (though Darnell gives a shout-out to Target for a last minute, open-late-the-night-before-the-party destination.) Their picks include perennial PDX favorites Kids at Heart and Finnegan’s, plus the newer Let’s Play out in Hillsboro, a great choice for westside families.

If there’s one takeaway from Sprague and Darnell it’s this — hand over your camera to someone else for party day. Maybe it’s a relative or a friend who has a good eye — or if you can afford it, hiring a professional, especially for super-special birthdays like Year One, is gaining in popularity. You want to be able to relax and enjoy the party and remember it all later — not spend the whole time rushing around asking people to say cheese.

“(Goodie bags) are one of the things I try to put the most thought into, since it says thanks for coming and thanks for celebrating with me.” — Elizabeth Sprague, Lemonberry Moon

Theme Parks

Sprague's son hits the trail at a camping party.
Sprague’s son hits the trail at a camping party.

More great birthday party themes from Elizabeth Sprague and Lori Darnell. (And do visit lemonberrymoon.com, to download awesome DIY party tutorials and printables. Bonus: You can pull off these parties for about $100.)

1. A Camping We Will Go: Sprague and her family threw this party at laid-back Oxbow State Park in Troutdale. She included a “trail mix” bar for kids to wrap up their own snacks for a birthday tromp through the woods, and brought along small wooden paint-your-own birdhouse kits for guests. Another possible fun activity: A nature-themed scavenger hunt.

2. Arty Party: Sprague advises setting up a bunch of different stations and rotating kids — make “pet rocks” by painting backyard stones, grab a 6-pack of Hanes white T-shirts and some puffy fabric pens for some homemade fashion design, let kids use frosting tools to make self portraits on cookies and set up a free draw station that will probably be the biggest hit of all.

3. Water, Water Everywhere: For warmer weather birthday kids, try Darnell’s recipe for a splish-splash party: Add two parts water balloons, one part sprinkler system and one part slip-n-slide. Mix together and enjoy.

Julia Silverman
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