Let's face it: At this age, the party is really more about you than your child. Since most toddlers don't have much of a social life, the party is likely to consist of relatives and other adult friends, plus their kids (especially if it's a first birthday). But if you have a crowd of toddlers coming, you might want to include an activity or two to give the party a bit of structure. Just don't be surprised when they're interested only for a few minutes and then wander away!
Fill a play yard with plastic balls, or buy a ball pit for the occasion (which will still be fun afterward) -- and let baby and his guests roll, toss, and mouth them.
To extend the theme, place beach balls around the house, which will give older guests something to do if they can't fit into the ball pit. Babies and toddlers can play together or separately, and balls tossed all over the room won't make too much of a mess. If the guests will include older kids, you may want to let them take the balls home as favors -- instant cleanup!
Laurie May, of Boardman, Ohio, threw a ball party for her 2-year-old son Carter. She made cupcakes with brightly colored frosting, topped with little balls, and arranged them on a cupcake tree. "The snacks were ball-themed too: cheese balls, meatballs, tater tots, and melon balls."
This party works best outdoors. All you need is a mound of dirt or play sand (or a sandbox, if you've got one). Cover the dirt or sand with toy people and animals -- just make sure none of the objects you choose pose a choking hazard -- and an assortment of toy dump trucks, cranes, and plows. If it rains, forget the dirt and move trucks and objects indoors. Kids will love pushing and carting around their miniature cargo on the living-room floor.
Make cleanup easy by having kids remove shoes and socks before they get in the dirt or sand pile, and have a hose or large watering can nearby for rinsing hands and feet.
To extend the theme, gather all your riding toys (or borrow some from the neighbors) and designate a "driving" area, marked off with chalk. You may be surprised how popular an activity this is. Be sure to have an adult monitor, so the children will take turns.
Make a "dirt" cake with chocolate crumbles (crushed Oreos work well) or a "sand" cake with smashed vanilla wafers.
Request that each guest bring a stuffed animal, or present a selection of your own. Use the menagerie to have an animal parade. Put each stuffed animal in a box -- you may want to cut out an opening to better see the toy. Kids can use stickers and markers to decorate the float they make to carry their animal.
To extend the theme, have the kids create fun zoo masks from paper plates that have a Popsicle-stick handle glued to the bottom. Cut out eye holes ahead of time, and invite guests to decorate the faces. A Dixie cup glued rim-down and decorated with nostrils makes a great snout. Kids can use yarn to create a lion's or zebra's mane. Fashion animal ears out of construction paper or felt, and glue them to headbands.
If you're not into crafts, you can buy costume pieces. Visit orientaltrading.com for a selection of animal ears, noses, and tails.
Decorate the top of the cake with plastic animal figurines. Set out bowls of animal crackers for snacks.
Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, the magical realm is no longer for girls only -- although you can still plan a girly fairy party if you choose!
Set up several craft stations. Kids can make their own wands (put out sticks, ribbon, glitter, and glue sticks, and make sure there's an adult or older child present to help) and wizard hats (create cones out of sturdy paper ahead of time, and provide glitter, cut-out star and moon shapes, and glue sticks for decoration).
Extend the theme by hanging white twinkle lights and pretty paper lanterns. A bubble machine will add even more enchantment to the atmosphere. Sprinkle the table with star-shaped confetti (available at orientaltrading.com).
Fairy and wizard figurines or edible glitter (check coppergifts.com) are an easy way to make a plain cake frosted in white, pink, or dark blue magical. Serve star-shape PB&J sandwiches and pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate (edible wands!).
If you're planning a girlier version of this idea, have a tea party featuring juice or chocolate milk. Ask the guests to wear their Princess dresses (most little girls own at least one!). Melanie Myatt of Chicago served up flower-shaped sandwiches and strawberries for her daughter Tessa's tea-party birthday. "The highlight was letting the girls use real china teacups -- I got cheap ones at TJ Maxx," she says. "You could tell they felt special and wanted to be careful."
This works best as an outdoor party, but with a little creativity you can pull it off inside if it rains or you don't have a yard. Set up a plastic pool (don't fill with water) and have the guests go "fishing" using a magnetic pole and fish. Then send them on a nature-inspired scavenger hunt. Of course, at the end of the hunt, you'll need to provide some kind of prize. You can either do a traditional goodie bag or offer a camping-theme gift like a flashlight (you can never have too many of those!). Let the birthday child open his gifts inside a kid-size tent.
When Jessica Rowland of Bronson, Missouri, threw a camping party for her son Spencer, she made a camping cake: "I used a cake mix, baked it in a 9-by-13-inch pan, then dug out a small channel in the middle. We frosted the cake in white and filled in the channel with blue icing to make a river. Green sprinkles on the rest of the cake made grass, and two graham crackers propped together created a tent."
Meagan Francis, a writer based in St. Joseph, Michigan, has five children.
Originally published in the June issue of American Baby magazine.