There’s a general, well-known rule of thumb for the number of guests at a kid’s birthday party: Child’s age + 1 = number of guests. That works really well until your child enters compulsory education; then his classmates become his daily playmates, and ideally, he can’t narrow down his list of closest friends to just seven. In a perfect world, I like to think that means I’m raising a child who is inclusive and friendly. In the real world, when my son turned six and was just in kindergarten, that meant that I was faced with managing 38 (including my own) children for two hours. (The two-hour time limit was my arbitrary window of insanity.)
Well, my son came up with an idea that was actually do-able: a Frontier Party. He was very clear that it was not a Cowboy Party, or a Pioneer Party. All the days we’d played hooky from preschool and gone to Disneyland instead had paid off, and he wanted to recreate Tom Sawyer’s Island and Fort Wilderness in his backyard for his birthday. I think he also thought he wanted a coonskin cap, like the one Daniel Boone wore, and were then available in Adventureland in the Bazaar. (Now, I think they can be purchased at The Briar Patch, just past the Haunted Mansion, on your way into Critter Country.)
That many invitees plus limited time (I admit, his birthday had snuck up on me!) meant I needed an invitation that was easy to do. I found some printer-friendly paper at a local stationery store (my paper was decorated with cartoon-like mountains and trees, but any paper with “Mountain Scene” or “Fall Foliage” would do), and one night (very late) sat up and typed out the text. I was a little bit punchy, but the end result had a cute flavor and I think worked out well:
Howdy! This here is a formal invite to head west to the edge of the Eastbluff Wilderness and rendezvous with the Scouting Party gathering there to celebrate Danny Smith’s 6th birthday on Saturday, November 11th from 2:30 – 4:30 pm… Explore the frontier on a scavenger hunt, cook up some wild grub, tell tall tales ’round the campfire, and generally have a hoot… Rsvp to the bona fide, certified rangers at 123.456.7890 by November 6th… Hope to see you there!
(Because we were inviting everyone in his kindergarten class, I didn’t even have to pay for postage: I just dropped off the invitations the next day at school, and one of the volunteer-moms distributed them in the kids’ take-home bags.)
Once the date and time were set and the invitations were done, I had to plan the actual party. I started with activities; I was looking for ideas that were kindergartner-friendly and wouldn’t break the bank, and theme-oriented, of course. I figured the kids could do crafts for the first 20-25 minutes of the party, while everyone was arriving. The second half-hour would be devoted to the scavenger hunt (ahem, the tracking party), followed by 30-40 minutes of cooking lunch (hot dogs and s’mores) over campfires, eating cupcakes (instead of birthday cake), and finally, opening gifts. After that, it would be time for the guests to go home – phew!
By party day, we had 30 scouts to accommodate. I rented three kid-sized tables and 30 kid-sized chairs; I covered the tables with plastic tablecloths from Party City (light green, green, and orange), and purchased paper plates and napkins in similar “frontier foliage” colors: mostly dark green, and some brown, orange, and yellow. (I didn’t need cups because I was serving juice boxes for beverages, and I didn’t need silverware because the food was all handheld).
I also printed up name tags (just pre-printed package labels with a sticker) for each guest when they “checked in” at the front gate; I wanted to make sure the adult-helpers could identify each guest by name.
Serendipitously, this reinforced the patterns and sequencing tasks the kids were doing in school, so it was definitely age-appropriate.2) Bird seed feeders – made from toilet paper rolls smeared with peanut butter, then rolled in bird seed, and strung with red yarn for hanging. (I also had a box of baggies and a black sharpie – to stash the finished feeders and label the bags.)
3) Pretzel log cabins – made from stick pretzels and peanut butter, stacked like Lincoln Logs. (The scouts constructed these on small paper plates that were then labeled with each scout’s name with another black sharpie, and placed in a baggie.)
4) Leaf rubbing placemats – made from purchased plain white placemats, various leaves collected at our local park, and crayons.
5) Coloring pages – reproduced from some very old Disneyland coloring books, with images of Trapper Mickey heading off into the forest with Goofy, or sitting around a campfire with Chief Donald.
Crafts were followed by a scavenger hunt, thanks to the creative talent of my party-planning-friend-in-arms (hmm, -cahoots). The scouts were divided into six scouting parties of five, each led by a mom or dad who had volunteered to help.
Each scouting party was given a brown bag with handles (recycled from the local supermarket), and labeled with the party’s name. Each bag also contained a small compass, and a baby-food jar with a punctured lid for collecting insect specimens.
This was important because each group had to find their “track” clues in the neighborhood to help them collect the items on their scavenger list.
The tracking clues were simply plain pieces of paper decorated with a group’s specific track and then taped to the ground.
Under the paper was the actual item to be discovered or a clue as to where the next item could be found. The supervising parents, or “guides,” had been given some directions as to where to lead their scouting party in case finding all the items became too daunting. (Earlier in the day, we had distributed water bottles and feathers for later collection.)
Frontier Scouts’ Scavenger Hunt Directions:
Follow the trail, and you shall find
All these things we have in mind.
With your eyes only, watch out for:
someone wearing green clothes
someone on a scooter
a spider web
Leave the Scout Camp gate and head south (right).
Beware of a monster poisonous spider in a tall palm tree as you hike.
A brainless man with straw for arms you shall pass.
Don’t be fooled by his smile.
Keep on the path headed south.
DO NOT DISTURB THE OCCUPANT. It could be Dracula’s home. Save your blood. Continue slightly south-east.
Don’t forget to stop for water by a bush with yellow flowers. Scouts can’t get dehydrated.
(At Tommy Smith’s house: 1234 Buckingham):
Two short palms guard the gate.
Enter now – don’t dare wait.
At the door, you shall meet
A fair lady that you shall greet:
“Lady, lady, what windy weather
Will you please give us a feather?”
When two roads cross, it’s a dangerous place. Make sure that the direction that you face is east (left). Cross with care. Crazy wagon drivers may be there.
Trudge up a steep hill.
Another crossroad you shall find.
Stay with your leader – don’t get behind.
Cross safely… if you can.
The third crossroad is very tricky… a wrong turn would be fatal. Go west (left). Proceed to a great open wilderness (park).
Remember – no collecting from settlers’ or squatters’ yards. It might make them ornery and cantankerous. Collect from the great open wilderness:
6 different leaves
6 different flowers
1 piece of litter
1 sweet gum ball
1 live bug
1 lost toy
1 bottle or can
Leave the northern edge of the wilderness, heading west. Under the porcupine tracks, find a penny. (Please retrieve the track!)
At the street sign that begins with “A,” you will find a scout’s collection. Collect a picture of your team animal.
Head down the mountain and at the second street that begins with a “B,” turn south (left), and return to Base Camp. Welcome Home! Now, c’mon in and we’ll rustle you up some grub!
But it was just daunting enough, and all the kids had a great time running through the neighborhood, stopping at some pre-arranged “cabins” to collect items that couldn’t be found in nature, and going to our local park (a five-minute walk away) to collect the nature items.
Meanwhile, I stayed at home and set up the “campfires” – portable, disposable barbecue grills that I purchased at end-of-summer sales at our local super market (of all places!).
Two more volunteers helped me get the coals going, and set up the food supplies: juice boxes, wooden dowels (that had been pre-soaked in water since the night before) for skewering, hot dogs, hot dog buns, ketchup and mustard, plates, and napkins. The roasting activities were all supervised by the parent “guides” and any parent stragglers who were hanging around – and believe me, there were plenty of stragglers!
Hot dogs were followed by s’mores: marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers.
Finally, the s’mores were followed by singing “Happy Birthday” and cupcakes, one of which had birthday candles for the Birthday Scout.
Some of the party-goers started going home at that point; each guest left with a Kraft bag labeled with their name in green or copper-colored puffy paint (for that tactile feeling), and filled with a small compass and flashlight (both from Oriental Trading), and their craft activities (the bird feeder, wampum bracelet, log cabin, placemat, extra coloring pages, and a homemade shortbread cookie in the shape of a maple leaf.) I heard one of the moms say how pleased she was with the low-key nature of the party favors – they were simple and personal.
The scouts who wanted to stay helped my son open his gifts. And that was the end of the party! It was two hours of jam-packed fun. It was not outrageously expensive, but being organized and prepped meant that every minute was filled with meaningful activity.