Worried about how to include everyone at your child’s birthday party? Stressed about choosing the menu due to the ever-present roster of kids with food restrictions, gluten intolerance, or life-threatening peanut allergies? Keep reading.
We have four children between us, each atypical to varying degrees. We’ve run into circumstances where parties were too overwhelming or too unwelcoming—largely because the parents didn’t know how to make their gatherings accessible. We’ve compiled a series of suggestions that will help you navigate those murky waters.
Send inclusive invitations
Schools often have an “ask-everyone” policy to encourage inclusion and thwart bullying. Choosing inclusive language on invitations both allows parents to air “invisible” concerns (i.e., a child who might have a meltdown if surprised, exposed to loud noises, or coated in anything gooey) and shares your desire to help meet their needs. Give parents or guardians the opportunity to call and ask if their child can attend, even if they have special needs.
You might say:
- If your child has any special needs or considerations, please contact us and we will be happy to accommodate.
- If your child has dietary restrictions, please let us know in advance so that we can plan accordingly!
- If your child requires adult assistant and an adult will be accompanying your child, please let us know for planning purposes.
Including all kids might be as simple as offering a warning about a potentially high noise level, or inviting an extra adult who can accompany their child into the pool. You can even offer children with sensory issues the opportunity to arrive in advance and watch the kids trickle in. Include a head count, along with an accompanying parent, aid, or paraprofessional if you are having an off-site party.
Awkward? Think about what it must feel like to be a child who is constantly excluded. Use your invitation as an opportunity to encourage growth!
Plan your menu carefully
Between religious considerations, varieties of vegetarianism, and food allergies, meal planning can get a little overwhelming. Just breathe. There are plenty of ways to make food look special and fun—all while keeping kids healthy and safe. Keep your guests’ limitations in mind, label everything, and try these ideas:
- Watermelon cake (e.g., watermelon cut into a cylinder that’s frosted with whipped cream)
- Creative veggie plates
- Fruit kabobs
- Pizza (e.g., whole-wheat/gluten-free crusts, turkey pepperoni, etc.)
- Fruit with whipped cream, granola, or sunflower seeds
- Fruit bouquets
- Dippers and dip (i.e., pretzels, pita, or veggies dipped in hummus, guacamole, salsa, or bean dip)
- Popcorn (with homemade toppings)
- Make-your-own yogurt parfaits
- Sundae bars
- Seltzer water with juice cubes
Social media sites like Pinterest can fuel your creativity. You can find ingenious, delicious recipes along with gorgeous display ideas. You can check out our board for even more ideas.
Give everyone the opportunity to participate
Activities seem to break down into participatory parties, where the kids do or play something, and observational parties, where the kids watch a play or movie together. Evaluate the needs of your guests and plan accordingly.
Participatory activities offer a wide array of potentially inclusive activities:
- Pool party – Some YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, JCCs, and public schools host pool parties for a small fee. Make sure you can accommodate children of all abilities (i.e., provide floating devices or additional, poolside activities for non-swimming or chlorine-sensitive kids).
- Camping – You don’t actually have to go anywhere. Set up a fake campsite and tell stories, eat trail-themed snacks, stargaze, or play with shadows.
- Horseback riding – Local stables can be surprisingly affordable, and many have experience with hippotherapy (where the movements of the horse provide therapeutic input to kids with various disabilities). Talk to your stable in advance to iron out any accommodations you’ll need.
- Gymnastics – Some gymnastic academies have a multitude of activities for non-ambulatory children, including rings and trampolines. For a small fee, many facilities will host parties and set up obstacle courses or treasure hunts.
- Art party – Host an art-themed party. Finger paints or colored chalk provide fun, creative outlets. If it’s hot outside, make clean up a game. Give them a few water guns and squirt bottles (which have easier grips) and they can squirt each other clean.
- Sensory play – Fill a sandbox (or similar container) with sand, rice, or beans that will be easy to cleanup when you’re done. Younger kids often enjoy sensory based hand play: hunting for toy cars, animals, or dolls in a bin of rice or beans, “fishing” for critters in a water-filled kiddy pool or smaller plastic bin, or playing archaeologist finding ‘”fossils” and “bones” in sand.
Observational activities often involve a group sensory experience and are usually easier to clean up. You can hang twinkly fairy lights to make any at-home event more magical. Examples of observational parties include:
- Evening picnic – Host an evening picnic beneath the stars. String sheets between two trees and show a movie, pop popcorn over the fire in a basket popper, or toast marshmallows!
- Tours – Take a bus or boat tour in your area. Several cities boast duck tours with amphibious vehicles. You may be able to go on a hayride!
- Zoos – Call ahead for a guide and to find out if the zoo is wheelchair accessible.
- Concerts – Local symphonies or bands often host kids’ concerts, both indoor and outdoor. Check to see if any of your guests might be vocal or active (e.g., a child with ADHD or autism may or may not be able to remain quiet and still during a performance).
- Puppet shows – Stage a puppet show. You can always ad lib a traditional fairy tale.
- Visit an animal shelter – Some bigger animal shelters offer party programming and interactions with puppies, kitties, and bunnies. You may also have an area farm or therapy animal program that will help you plan an inclusive party that includes animals.
You can scale up any of these ideas for tweens and teens. Add a documentation element where they photograph or stage a wacky news report about the event, host a cooperative sandcastle-building event, or rate party foods in a tasting contest. Older, tech-loving kids can participate in geocaching searches armed with a GPS or a smartphone app.
ALL children benefit from growing up in a loving, tolerant environment, and we hope you’ll make your next party welcoming and inclusive. Your behavior can serve as a model for the larger community.