If you are planning a party with lots of guests, which I do not advise and discussed in my recent post “keep party guests to a manageable number”, then activity stations are your best friend. And for small parties too. For example, if you have invited 12 kids, you could have three stations with 4 kids at each. But if you’ve invited 24 kids (don’t do it, really) then you could have four stations with 6 kids at each, or however you want to work it to keep the groups manageable.
This is for a very structured party where all of the kids are the same age.
Let’s say that you are having a magician party. You could divide your 12 party guests into four groups of 3 kids where each group is doing a different activity. Your four stations could be: learning how to juggle, learning a card trick, learning how to find a coin in someone’s ear, and learning how to pull a rabbit out of a hat. You could set a timer for 20 minutes at each station and with only three kids at each, they will have more hands on time. They automatically rotate when the timer rings. Also, this will keep kids from getting too rowdy since there’s a smaller crowd learning each magic trick. After four 20 minute rotations, the party is 1 hour and 20 minutes over, and you have the last 40 minutes to sing “Happy Birthday,” serve cake, and open presents. If you were having an art party, then the rotations would be similar: playing with playdough, coloring a picture, painting at an easel, and stringing a pasta necklace.
When dividing up the groups, don’t let it turn into the old last-one-picked-for-the-baseball-team type of thing. As the adult, take charge and either have the kids number off “1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4” or form the groups quickly by whom they are already standing by. It can be comforting for shy kids to not have to wait for other kids to pick them and it’s fun for social kids to meet new people. Plus they’ll see each other as they mill about in the same room anyway, rotating around.
It’ll work, I promise.
The rotations can also build on each other.
As guests arrive (not usually all at the same time) start the first few kids out by giving them some cookie cutters and dough. They finish and the next group of guests starts. The first group moves on to coloring some frosting while they wait for their cookies to bake, then off to sit on a rug to listen to someone reading a book while their cookies cool, then at the last station they frost and decorate their cookies. Everyone ends up at the table together eating cookies. It builds. A dress-up party would be the same. As girls arrive, they get a tiny bit of make up put on, then they move on to having their hair styled, next is putting on the dress ups, then last having their picture taken.
You get the idea.
Finally, the free form activity stations.
This is great at parties with a mix of ages or if a lot of adults are there. Set up areas where kids can come and go. An example would be a carnival party where kids have to get each activity marked off on their punch card, but they can go to whatever station they want in whatever order they want. They might stand in line to throw a ball at a bunch of bottles, then go to the ring toss where the line is really short. Each station punches their card and after they have finished every activity and their card is full, the reward at the end could be a freshly made cone of cotton candy. All of the kids will end up together eventually on the lawn as they enjoy their sticky, sugary treat (I love cotton candy, it should be served at every party). Another example would be a first birthday party where you have different tables of crafts set up for kids of many ages to make at their leisure. They can make all of the crafts or just two or they can go hang out with their parents instead.
If you are stumped about how to manage a big crowd at your party, or if you just want some structure and good sense of flow, then I say have some activity stations. Now go and make your party fantastic.