Sometimes the simplest birthday celebrations are the most fun, especially a slumber party with good friends. For an unforgettable backyard camp-out, all you need are a tent, a few games, and a menu of hearty outdoor fare. "Camping appeals to kids of all ages," says Child food editor Laurie Goldrich-Wolf, who planned a similar party for her 7-year-old daughter, Olivia. "Guests get a feeling of adventure without leaving home, and the food is easy to prepare and serve."
Begin the party in late afternoon with activities: mining for gems and a scavenger hunt in which clues lead to a stash of small prizes. Then let kids chow down on a supper of beans and franks, roasted corn with salsa, and birthday cake. As the sun sets, campers can don hardhats and play flashlight tag, then settle in to tell ghost stories, make flashlight shadow puppets, and snack on trail mix and Parmesan popcorn. If you don't choose to chaperone an all-night camp-out, have the kids bring their sleeping bags inside at bedtime and pop in an outdoor-themed video such as A Bug's Life, Davy Crockett, or The Jungle Book.
The next morning, young adventurers will delight in designing their own alfresco breakfast featuring warm-from-the-griddle pancakes with delicious fillings rolled inside. Offer a choice of fresh fruit and chocolate chips, which soften and melt when placed in the pancakes. "Even kids who don't like breakfast love pancake roll-ups," says Laurie. As the guests depart, don't be surprised if your happy camper begins plotting the date and activities for next year's outdoor slumber party!
Panning for gold (actually, assorted rocks and minerals hidden in the yard or, in this case, on a nearby beach) gives guests the chance to make their own party favors while learning about gems. "It's the ultimate discovery party game," says Laurie. Gather an inexpensive stash of turquoise, malachite, copper, quartz, and other colorful gems from a craft or nature store, plus a small shadow box for each guest. Give the kids a sieve and let them collect a dozen or so items, then glue the gems in their boxes. The fun continues as they identify each item with the help of a visual guidebook such as Rocks and Minerals from Dorling Kindersley.