Five popular themes adapted for toddlers through preteens
Arts and Crafts
Collage, beading, woodworking; projects with fun materials like gooey clay, puffy paints. Find ideas in arts-and-crafts books.
Where: Table at home or party space (some have instructors); check "Party Planning" in Yellow Pages.
How much: $50 to $100 for supplies alone; $150 to $400 total at party place.
Pros: Low-key activity. Party-goers get to take home something they've made.
Cons: Mess. Provide big T-shirts or plastic smocks and expect a cleanup. For kids who get antsy or who finish early, have an extra project or coloring books ready.
2 to 3: Use easy-to-handle materials: big chalk for driveway art, finger paints.
4 to 5: Go for instant gratification: cereal-loop necklaces, decorated visors.
6 to 8: Try more involved step-by-step projects, like painting birdhouses.
9 to 12: Cool stuff is a must: tie-dyed T-shirts, beaded key rings.
Bowling, skating, swimming, karate; games like basketball and soccer. Have referee, coach or lifeguard on hand.
Where: Public courts, local YMCA or school, clubs and rinks.
How much: School or town field: free, plus $50 fee for coach or ref; $120 to $350 to rent gym with basketball hoops.
Pros: Kids burn energy, have fun; it's often a chance to try something new.
Cons: Slight risk of injury. As a rule, sports facilities and schools carry insurance, but ask beforehand. Sports-shy kids can feel left out, so focus on teamwork, such as triples tennis and relay races.
2 to 3: Too many rules, too complicated.
4 to 5: Keep activity free-form and silly, like tumbling or sack races.
6 to 8: Kids are more adept and can maneuver around a soccer field or ice rink; emphasize spirit, not scores.
9 to 12: Rules are easier to follow; try team sports, like basketball and soccer.
Zoo, aquarium, circus, puppet show or, for older kids, a minor-league baseball game. Offbeat tours: farm, firehouse, candy factory (call your Chamber of Commerce).
Where: You may need to book a few months ahead; ask about a guide and a room to serve cake.
How much: Free (firehouse); $15 to $100 to get 10 tots into the zoo.
Pros: For the birthday boy or girl with a passion for, say, sharks, a field trip is a thrill. Other kids may not have same interests as your child, so try to keep groups small.
Cons: Children can wander off; bring a few extra pairs of eyes. Transportation can be tricky, since parents have to drop off and pick up at the location.
2 to 3: Limited appeal, except for a puppet show or a storytelling event.
4 to 5: It's more manageable to stick with a nearby attraction and a small group.
6 to 8: The perfect age to soak up new information and ask questions; allow time to play and stretch muscles.
9 to 12: Ideal for performances: musical theater, modern dance, bluegrass band.
Clowns, magicians, costumed characters. Also animal trainers, fortune-tellers, scientists. Or try local talent: a ballerina or an ace skateboarder with tricks.
Where: Home, party space, community room.
How much: $35 for a teenage magician; up to $300 for a top-notch clown. Averages $175 to $200.
Pros: Occupies the kids for at least for 45 to 60 minutes, the average performance time. Good for groups of 25 and up, when other amusements can be unwieldy.
Cons: Performers can get lost and show up late or not at all. Be prepared to step in with some kind of activity.
2 to 3: Musical performers are perfect; costumed characters may be too scary.
4 to 5: Cartoon characters and small animals to pet are popular.
6 to 8: Book a magician who teaches tricks, a scientist with a laser light show.
9 to 12: Try fortune-tellers and detectives who need kids' crime-solving help.
Eateries with tours or make-your-own action are a treat.
Where: Besides pizza or burger joints, ethnic restaurants, especially loud ones, can be good. See if there's a private room; Japanese restaurants often have tatami rooms, where kids can sit on the floor and use chopsticks. Prearrange menu; ask about cake.
How much: $10 to $15 per child.
Pros: No cooking or cleaning up. Restaurants know how to handle a crowd and please customers, even little ones.
Cons: Limited running-around room. If food is too esoteric, finicky eaters can feel left out (and hungry), so order the most universally likable foods, like quesadillas or Indian poori bread.
2 to 3: Limited appeal; can work if spot is kid-oriented and spacious.
4 to 5: Staying seated is hard; best with distractions, like jukeboxes.
6 to 8: Make-your-own-meal places will be a hit; kids can follow recipes, handle ingredients and enjoy the novelty.
9 to 12: Go for action—a slice-and-dice Japanese steak house—or a hip setting.
Have a charitable child on your hands? Why not host a birthday party that gives back?