Photo: Columbia Pictures
Even though restaurants, movie theaters, and museums are opening back up, outdoor spaces like city parks remain a wildly popular place to throw a party this summer, especially for kids. With most children not yet old enough to be vaccinated, outdoor parties are a safer option, and running around outside is a welcome contrast to a school year that’s been dominated by screen time. The challenge of planning a kids party in a public park, however, is that you have to be able to carry all of the necessary supplies — ideally in one trip.
To help you figure out what you need (and help you confidently leave behind what you don’t), we talked to five parents and educators with lots of party-throwing experience, focusing on parties for kids under 12 who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated. To avoid boring you, we left out the obvious stuff like some sort of table, folding chairs, or other seating options, and cake so we could concentrate on the special things you might not have thought of. All the experts we consulted told us that keeping it simple is best, and that includes the guest list. Remote school and smaller-than-usual class sizes mean kids haven’t had a lot of practice socializing in big groups, so “they are all really behind when it comes to learning how to play with other kids,” says Regan Lynn-Larroque, a mom of two girls under 7. The most important advice we got, however, was first asking your kids what they want and going from there.
Packing mult-ipurpose items will make your supply toting so much easier, says Karen Aronian, an education consultant and mom of two. She recommends bringing a parachute because they weigh nothing, look festive, are great to sit on, and offer endless possibilities for fun. And, she says, “You’d be surprised at how inexpensive they are.” There are tons of games you can play with a parachute, including a simple one where you put a ball on top and try to get it to bounce out near one of the other players. You can also turn it into a giant colorful tent for the kids to sit beneath. Aronian notes that the parachute can also conveniently be used to wrap up and carry some of the other supplies.
Everyone we spoke to mentioned packing picnic blankets. Some suggested buying something with a waterproof backing, but you can also just grab a couple of old but nice-looking sheets you already have. Aronian also offered a fun twist on this idea: She suggests bringing a white or solid-color sheet plus a pack of fabric markers and inviting kids to decorate and write birthday messages on it. “Then you have this kind of keepsake that your kid can use,” she says.
To avoid lugging a ton of stuff into the park, Eunice Kindred, an artist and mom of two, suggests a party activity planned around something most kids already have with them: razor scooters. “I set up a scooter racetrack using sidewalk chalk, and we ran scooter races. I even brought some crepe paper rolls, tape, markers, and construction paper so the kids could decorate their scooters,” she says.
“Never underestimate the power of bubbles,” says Lynn-Larroque, who brought a bubble machine and bubble wands for all the kids at her 6-year-old daughter’s recent birthday party. Both Kindred and Ro mentioned seeing bubble machines like this one at parties this spring, as well. They say the machines are especially a hit with toddlers.
If you want something a little more active, this set of bubble wands has a bunch of different shapes so kids can experiment making bubbles shaped like butterflies, stars, or octopi.
For older kids who might scoff at a teddy-bear bubble wand, challenge them to make a human-size bubble with this set of four giant bubble wands.
Several parents mentioned the near-universal appeal of sports and obstacle courses. Lynn-Larroque recently attended a very successful soccer-themed party with her daughters that featured a trained soccer coach. She says that after the past year, trying to get kids off screens and back into the real world is a challenge and having a charismatic coach there made it more fun for the kids. (You could easily swap the professional coach with an athletic parent if you want.) All you need are a set of mini cones, some lightweight collapsible soccer goals, and a ball.
Both Kindred and Ellen Pandey, a mom of two, recommend setting up different play stations so kids have options, if they want to do their own thing. Pandey loves these Swoop bags that act as both a play mat and toy-storage container. She says they’re a perfect way to set up a toy station with blocks, Legos, or action figures — and an easy way to clean it all up after.
Pandey says letting kids do things they wouldn’t normally get to do, like drawing all over each other’s faces, is always a huge hit. She suggest washable face paint crayons because they’re non-toxic and won’t upset other parents.
Aronian recommends using the park as inspiration for a craft activity and sending kids out to collect leaves, flowers, and other bits of nature that they can use to make rubbings on paper with crayons. You could also turn this activity into a nature scavenger hunt, and older kids (with longer attention spans) could even create a little book from their rubbings.
“If the parents are having fun, the kids feed off that energy, and everyone is just more relaxed,” says Kindred. So to avoid a party where parents are looking at their phones, bored, and not mingling, she gives the moms and dads “tipsy pops” from Guicy Gems in Brooklyn. They’re like flavor-ice popsicles but with alcohol, and they come in flavors like Brooklyn Bellini, Guava Moscow mule, and Frosé. “The parents really appreciate and love that. I even let them take home extras as parent party favors,” she says.
If you take your kids to the park or the beach a lot, chances are you already own a MacSports cart. The foldable, heavy-duty wagons earned half of the spots on our list of the best beach carts and took the top two spots in another similar article. They’re also the cart you’ll see most often while strolling through Prospect Park on a sunny weekend day. Strategist writer and mom Lauren Ro has one and loves that it folds up easily, packs a ton, isn’t hard to wheel, and has a tray for drinks.
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