I try to keep my posts related to adoption or Asian culture, but I am straying from that for this post because of the love of a certain Halloween obsessed boy. I spent an incredible amount of time and energy to create a birthday party for this not so little boy and I thought I would write about it.
Danny had been saying he has wanted a haunted house in the backyard for a couple of years. He wanted to invite his friends over at Halloween and lead them through his haunted house. Well it didn’t happen at Halloween, but in June instead.
I wanted a birthday party at a local nature center, which gives great parties with different themes at each center for a not so scary price. I had envisioned all parties would take place at one of the three nature centers for several more years. I like that they do a great job, kids have fun, but they also learn something at the same time. And they are out in nature. What is not to like? We had one last year with a Stream and Pond Exploring theme.
But Danny wanted a party at “Pump It Up”, which is a place in the exurbs which has bounce houses and slides and the like. He has been to many parties at “Pump It Up” and Bounce U. But his birthday is in June and there are all sorts of places you can have a birthday party in June. And I didn’t want to pay $500 for a inside birthday party on a probably nice day in June.
So that is where compromise comes in. I suggested we have a Halloween Party for his birthday. But since it is not actually Halloween, we would have a spooky scary birthday party in June. And of course I promised we would make a haunted house in the backyard, like he has wanted for a couple of years. So that is how we ended up with a Spooky Scary Birthday Party in June.
The Haunted House
I promised the haunted house before I had any idea how to do this or how much work it would take. I knew it would take more than one Saturday afternoon to create the haunted house so it would have to be something we could do in phases and make it to be put up and taken down as we were creating it.
We have a two story playhouse that we got off of craigslist a couple of years ago. It has a sandbox on the bottom and a playhouse on the top. We decided that we would start with the bottom and make the haunted house in the bottom and if time permitted then we would do the top too.
I shopped at Value Village, a thrift shop for material I could use to make the walls of the house. I refused to pay over $5 per piece of material and hoped to get each piece for much less. In the end, I purchased 3 dark tablecloths, 2 dark sheets and 1 huge drapery with a rubber lining. The tablecloths were the best, they were cranberry and dark green and they kept out a lot of light and didn’t take any additional work. The drapery probably would have worked by itself, had the color been dark, but the drapery I got was gold and just didn’t keep out enough light for the haunted house. The dark sheets were not so good. I had to use 2 – 3 layers of sheets to keep the light out. That was OK, because I had that in the end. I had to end up painting the rubber side of the drapery with dark paint.
To make this easy to put up and take down, I decided I would use grommets and cup hooks. We drilled holes into the play house and put up cup hooks every 8 inches around the house. For the bottom, there would be overlapping tablecloths for the entrance/exit. There was only one way in and out on the bottom. It turns out that most of the people at Home Depot do not even know what a grommet is. It took quite a bit of work to find someone who not only knew what a grommet was, but could tell me where to find them. We labeled the grommets with letters or numbers and the corresponding cup hook with the same label.
The bottom of the play house/ haunted house took 3 table cloths. The top took the painted curtain (cut in half – horizontally to make 2 curtains) and a sheet. The entrance to the top was up the ladder in the back and the exit was down the slide in the front. We blocked off the gangplank for either entrance or exit. We added cardboard cutouts for the roof gables too and stuffed newspaper in any other places which let in light.
We took out all of our Halloween stuff from the attic. This was Danny’s sixth birthday party and I think he has only been Halloween obsessed for 3 years. So that means I’ve only been collecting Halloween stuff for that long. I have tried to buy as much as possible after Halloween. But I have also found very little selection after Halloween, so I have also bought stuff at full price before Halloween. I try and hit CVS on the morning of November 1 and get a moving scary Halloween decoration. We have the grim reaper and a zombie, both sound or motion activated for about $20. I have found CVS is much better after Halloween than Target. Target sells out of everything before Halloween. I always check out our local thrift stores Value Village and Unique Thrift and get masks and wigs and whatever I can find that piques my interest. My best buy was about 10 Styrofoam mannequin heads I got one year and painted. I only wish I had bought 20.
On the second floor, because there was an entrance and an exit, we could not put as much stuff in there. I got this inflatable skeleton which looks really lame, but I really liked it and it was just the thing to put in a dark haunted house. About a month before the party we had bought something that came in a box the size of a child’s coffin – maybe 3-4 feet long. I kept it and made a lid that opens like a coffin. Danny insisted we write “R.I.P” on the coffin lid. We put the inflatable skeleton in there with a bunch of glow sticks so you could see that is was something to open up. You could see the glowing through the crack in the lid which made you want to open it and find out what was in there.
A friend has a dry ice smoker which he brought over, but it stopped working before the party started, but that would have been ever better. The plan was to pump the dry ice smoke into the bottom level of the haunted house. We had scary music to put on around the haunted house, but there was so much commotion and running around, we really never got around to putting it on. We had some blinking (eye ) lights on the second floor. Each floor was unique and the kids could not get enough of it.
A general note about the haunted house is it was a HUGE hit. At first some of the kids thought it was too scary to go in, so they would peek a little at a time. But then as time when on all they wanted to do was keep going back into the haunted house over and over and taking their friends in. We could have put slimy things to touch in the dark, like cold spaghetti or grapes for eyeballs, but I didn’t want a bunch of messy kids running around so I nixed anything you touch and get dirty. No one seemed to miss the touchy feeling slimy things. There were enough things in the haunted house to keep it interesting and “scary”. On each floor there was something that had a motion detector that lit up and started moving. One was a zombie and the other was a gravedigger. They say something, move and light up. What more could you ask?
Cake – I bought a chocolate cake from Costco and asked for chocolate icing and decoration around the outside and to write a birthday message in red at the bottom. That gave me a clean slate for creating a graveyard. I bought two packages of Pepperidge Farm Milanos to act as gravestones and tombs. I didn’t need that many, but no harm in having extras if mistakes are made. We can always eat the extras! I got the idea from Pinterest. I added crushed up Famous Chocolate Wafers to make dirt around the gravestones. I used black icing to write words, dates and a cross to my grave markers. That is where I was glad I had extra Milanos since my first attempts were not particularly readable. Those are 2 skeletons which I had gotten at the dollar store at Halloween which are leaning against the gravestones.
- Zombie Fingers (red pepper slices)
- Vampire Fingers (baby carrots)
- Monster Fingers (sugar snaps)
- dip and hummus
- Zombie Flesh (cut up watermelon)
- Zombie Eyes (black seedless grapes)
- tortilla chips and Zombie Blood (salsa)
- Monster Brains (cold sesame noodle)
- and Zombie Brains (pesto and noodles).
For drinks there was water for everyone, (decaf) iced tea for the parents and a black Halloween punch made out of Kool-Aid for the kids. I actually had the frozen hand and dry ice for the punch, but didn’t get around to putting it in since that all has to happen at the last minute, just when guests are arriving. There were juice boxes to go with the cake.
I made bone cookies with a Wilton pan, I picked up in the spring, for cheap, my only homemade creation besides the noodle dishes. I made half the batch with store bought sugar cookie dough, which later I realized didn’t work well because it had leavening in. The recipe which came with the pan had a sugar/almond cookie recipe with no leavening. That worked a whole lot better. I can tell you a bunch of 6 year old boys are not going to ooo and ahh at homemade food. Let me tell you about this pan before you go out an buy it. You can make 5 bones at once, you have to cook them for 10 or so minutes and then they have to cool completely to get them out. So each batch of 5 cookies takes 20 – 30 minutes. Had I known this to begin with, I think I would have skipped this. But there were so many cool looking things on Pinterest I thought this was the least I could do. I’m not sure why I never took any pictures of the cookies, but they were tasty.
I hired a face painter and balloon man (a combo). The face painter sat over in a section of the garden and painted faces on demand and I asked the balloon man to run games with me. He also made lots of balloon swords which the kids played with. We played games in our yard for an hour. Here are the games we played.
Skull Smash I did not make up this game, I just changed the name. I found it once on a web site and then couldn’t find it again, so I don’t even know what the real name was. This game took quite a bit of planning of trials to get it right. The game is to tie a balloon onto the ankle of the child with a 3 foot ribbon. Each child tries to stomp on and pop other people’s balloon (skull) while at the same time protecting his own balloon.
In practicing for this game I found, first off use NEW balloons, the old balloons I had sitting around popped almost immediately. Then only blow up the balloons halfway, so they don’t pop as soon as they hit the grass.
I took some elastic tape (the stuff you find at a sewing store) and tied it into a circle so it could easily slip onto children’s ankles. I used elastic tape instead of just tying a ribbon onto the child’s leg, so no one would get hurt and it would be more comfortable around their ankle. I tied the 3 feet of ribbon on to each circle of elastic. And I blew up 100 balloons and kept them separate. (I remember from another birthday party, trying to untangle balloons on strings, so that is why I kept them separate.) When it was time to start, I asked all the parents to help out. We tied the balloons onto the ribbon right before the game. And because this is such a fun activity, I didn’t want it to end with just one balloon per child. So there were at least a half dozen or more parents who tied new balloons onto the end of the ribbon after the balloon popped and they got back in the game. So there were about 5 balloons per child, so they got to have quite a bit of fun with this. We didn’t concentrate on winners, just fun and we didn’t keep track of how many balloons each child got. I used white balloons (skulls) and then purple balloons (monsters). You need to buy big enough balloons so that when you blow them up half way, they still have some size. This game could have gone on much longer if we had more balloons.
Plants vs. Zombies Relay Race was a game I made up. Those kids familiar with the ipad/iphone app got it, others not so much. We had 2 teams and two toddler lawn mowers. Each course had 3 zombies that needed to be mowed down and they had to go over one bump (mulch bag) and a bucket at the end of the course that they had to go around. I had 2 helpers who put back mowed down zombies. Children only mowed down zombies in one direction. The “zombies” were actually a zombie head painted on black buckets that someone had given me. I wanted to do something really current, that is why I came up with this game.
Three-legged Monster Race was the typical three-legged race. I bought some spandex material and sewed tubes for the kids to put their legs in. I figured this would be more comfortable than just tying legs together. A brother sister pair came in first. There was a big difference in ability in this game. I tried to pair up children the same height together. We had enough tubes so that this was not a relay race, each pair competed as a team.
Zombie Relay Race – This is another game I made up. I was able to get three size 12 or 13 old men’s tennis shoes. I painted them with red paint to look like streaks of blood. There were three teams. Kids could either take their shoes off or put their shoes in the big shoes. This worked very well. The kids did a great job. Danny had already practiced this quite a bit, so it wasn’t as funny as the first time he tried it. Our rule was if the shoes came off in the race the child had to sit down and put the shoe on before continuing in the race. No one was allowed to just carry the shoes to the relay line.
What Time is it Mr. Skeleton? Others know this game as “What Time is it Mr. Fox?”. I learned it as an adult as “What Time is it Mr. Alligator?” as they played it in a swim lesson in a pool whose mascot is the alligator. Someone stands on one side of the play area. That is Mr. Skeleton. The other children stand on the other side along a line. I had actually spray painted lines on my lawn for this party. The children yell “What time is it Mr. Skeleton?” and the “it”, Mr. Skeleton, says a time, like 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock anything between 1 and 11. Each time Mr. Skeleton says what time it is, the children take that number of steps toward Mr. Skeleton. If the it says “6 o’clock”, the children take 6 steps toward Mr. Skeleton, they keep asking what time it is as they get closer and closer to Mr. Skeleton. Then at some point (before any child has gotten to Mr. Skeleton) the “it” says “Midnight” and then all the children run back to the base line and Mr. Skeleton chases the children. The first person to get tagged gets to be the next “it”. There are variations of this game you can read about, but this is how we played it. My balloon guy and I started out leading this game for a couple of rounds, but then it took on a life of its own. The children just kept it going and going and going. I had other games in my pocket we could have played, if we had extra time, but this is last of the games I planned to have them play. And this one only ended because it was time to do something else.
Sword Play Since I hired a balloon man/ face painter combination, I had asked the balloon man to make balloon swords on demand. So when kids were playing in the haunted house and at other times we were not playing games, Balloon Man was making balloon sculptures of which just about everybody wanted a balloon sword. So we had kids running around the yard and the haunted house playing pirate with their balloon swords.
We had cake, sang happy birthday and then it was time to do a pinata. I had one children’s picnic table, borrowed another children’s table from a neighbor and then got a third children’s picnic table at a yard sale about 2 weeks before the party. This was great because there was room for everyone to sit down.
I had gotten a Frankenstein pinata. This has a very small area to fill up, all the appendages are all empty. I had bought a bunch of candy from Costco (non chocolate — this was June). And I pre-filled little sandwich bags with 3 pieces so each child would get some candy regardless of the candy scramble after the pinata was broken. The bags for the kids to collect the candy it. We hung the pinata up on our swingset with the swings removed. Everyone lined up in birthday order, so except for the birthday boy, the youngest children went first. It took a long time to get that pinata popped. So each kid had at least 2 – 3 turns at the pinata. In retrospect I would have made more of an effort to throw the candy around in a larger area so more children could get to it. As it was some kids got a lot and others not so much. No one was blindfolded for this event. This was our first time with a pinata, which I got because it was so cheap when I wanted to order it in May. You can get real deals on Halloween stuff if you order out of season.
Face Painting: I had a special place in the yard under a tree for the face painter to sit. There was definitely a theme to what the kids wanted painted. We had a lot of zombies, a couple werewolves, some ghosts and a couple other things.
Tattoos: I had gotten a bunch of small temporary tattoos at the dollar store. I cut them up into individual tattoos and an friend of mine put them on kids at their request.
Photos: I had ordered 2 cardboard things you stand behind and take pictures of the children. I though it would be fun to take a picture of each child and use that for a thank you note. I had a Frankenstein and a witch. I tried to add thicker cardboard behind them to make them stand up, but with the wind, this did not work. With a little more effort and some person assigned to taking these pictures, this could have worked.
Timing: This party was scheduled for 2:oo – 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. There was always something happening. Most of the families arrived on time and left on time and we got all this in in 2.5 hours.
I made this little sign and put it over by the face painter to let everyone know the timing of the different parts of the party. I invited parents to stay. Many parents stayed because they had traveled from Virginia (many of our adopted Asian playgroup). We invited Danny’s friends from his kindergarten class and neighbor children who are all close by and some parents stayed and some dropped off.
I did actually encourage those parents I knew to stay so I would have extra hands to help with games.
- 2:00 – Guests arrive
- 2:00 – 2:30 – face painting, explore haunted house, sword play, photos, tattoos
- 2:30 – 3:30 – games on the lawn, face painting. No one was required to play games, so some children got their faces painted while others played games and still others decided they wanted to play on the swingset or visit the haunted house. But most children wanted to participate in the games.
- 3:30 – 4:00 – face painting, food served, photos, tattoos, haunted house
- 4:00 – goodbye balloon man and face painter
- 4:00 – cake and sing happy birthday
- 4:20 – pinata
- 4:30 – hand out treat bags and say goodbye to guests
Everything moved fast fast fast and there was never a dull moment at this party. Danny had only been to one at home party where they played games, which he attended with his father, so I didn’t see how things went. The whole idea of playing the games for this generation was more unusual as most parties he has been to have been at a party venue with bounce houses or MyGym or the like.
We scheduled the party for one week earlier than we usually schedule parties so that we could have a rain date if needed. We put the rain date on the invitation. We do not have a big enough space indoors to play all these games and entertain 20 children and a dozen parents. But the date of the party was a most beautiful day in June with low humidity, a little wind and not too hot. We could not have asked for better weather.
But by moving the date of the party up to the second weekend in June instead of the third weekend in June got us 33% more acceptances to our party. Usually I plan on 1/3 of the children invited not being able to attend, which is what it had been in the past. This time just about everyone invited attended. I had not realized that a party a week after school ends is so different than a day after school ends.
This was a strictly NO COSTUMES party. It is not that I don’t love costumes, but we were having an outside party in June and wanted kids to come dressed for playing outside and not in hot costumes meant to be worn in October. We got the dressed up effect by having a face painter who painted all those zombies, ghosts and werewolves, so instead of a costume we had face paint, which is much cooler when playing outdoors.
I also labeled a water bottle with each child’s name on it to encourage children to drink water while playing. That was only somewhat successful. I had signs to the bathrooms and told each parent who was staying that I would be using them to take a child to the bathroom when needed. This worked out great, so each time a child asked me to take him to the bathroom, I was able to hand the child off to another parent, so I could manage the party and the games.
The upshot of this party is that Danny wants to do it all over again next year. We’ll see.