When my son turned 2, we celebrated by inviting all of his friends over. We had fun, but I remember the aftermath: a floor covered with jellybeans and frosting (the kids each decorated their own airplane-shaped cupcakes), and toys everywhere (in places we would still be discovering weeks later).
I remember lying down on the couch when it was all done, my son climbing on top of me. We fell asleep to the sound of my husband and father-in-law sweeping the sugar from the floor.
Do-it-yourself parties can be exhausting, but they can also be a great way to spend time with family and friends. And often, they are much more eco-friendly than the packaged parties with disposable plates and throwaway favors. But whether you plan on throwing your next party at home or at the closest bounce house, think about ways to throw one that won’t wreak havoc on the environment.
“Conventional birthday parties create an enormous amount of garbage, from torn wrapping paper to disposable tablecloths, cups, plates and napkins,” says Trish White, a Seattle-area parent of two girls, ages 6 and 4. “By celebrating a more eco-friendly birthday, we can create new traditions and teach our kids about the small steps we can take to help our planet.”
White is the creator and owner of Birthday Kits for Kids, a local company that helps parents throw their own green parties. The idea took root one day when White was examining her boxes full of old party supplies. She wondered aloud to her husband why she couldn’t just rent them.
After some research and creative thinking, she started to organize her own business. Parents in the greater Seattle area can now rent her themed party kits filled with everything from cups and plates to decorations and activity ideas.
Keep it simple
Amanda Blake Soule is the author of three books about natural parenting, including her most recent, The Rhythm of Family. “It’s important that our children see us living true to our values every day — whether that’s a holiday, an ordinary every day or a birthday,” says Soule.
And she’s true to her word: Soule lives with her husband and five children in Maine, where they are restoring a 200-year-old farmhouse and homestead. She and her family, she says, “strive to live simply, close to the earth and close to each other.”
Soule applies this philosophy of simple living to birthdays. “I often remind myself, as we approach a birthday, to keep it simple and special, to keep the focus on the little one whose life we are celebrating and rejoicing in. When birthday parties get too grandiose, it can be so overwhelming for young children — not to mention for the parents, who then find themselves with little time to enjoy their child’s special day.”
Like most of us, Soule had to be reminded of this, at least once, the hard way. “My biggest birthday party failure was when I rented out a large gym for my then 3-year-old son, and invited all the children we knew. When everyone in the gym began singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ he started to cry! It was really just too much for him at that age.”
Since then, however, she’s had some great — and eco-friendly — successes. For one winter birthday, the family skied into a lakeside camping spot. “There were no balloons, decorations or crowds of people, but I’m certain no one will forget that birthday anytime soon.”
Another year, she gave a themed “art party” for her art-loving son’s fifth birthday and set up clay, painting, college and drawing tables. Soule recommends having two different kinds of activities to please the kids who are drawn to more focused, quiet play, and those that just can’t stop moving.
Themes are popular at parties, and White recommends using themes to drive your green goals. “Since birthdays are often focused around hobbies or interests, have your child help gather household items or favorite toys to use as centerpiece decorations,” suggests White. “Kids can also decorate their own parties with pictures from their coloring books.”
Themes can help you avoid the onslaught of birthday-present clutter. “For a puppy-themed birthday, guests can bring items to donate to an animal shelter,” says White. Shannon Polson, a Seattle-area writer and mother of a 2-year-old boy, has done similar charity-related parties. One year, the family requested no gifts and instead donated chickens to Agros International. “We gave each child a card with his name on it, a picture of the chickens and a description of the gift,” Polson says.
Polson held her son’s party at a park, where the kids who wanted to could play on the playground. Those more interested in crafts could decorate the cut tree rings she picked up from a Christmas tree lot before the party. She used her own platters and tablecloths for decorations to further cut down on waste.
White even keeps her invitations green, using wildflower-seed cards. When the invitees are done reading them, they can plant them in the ground and watch their flowers grow. Electronic invites are also greener — and harder for harried parents to lose, she says.
Let the kids help
Getting your children involved can also be eco-friendly — and it might make them more excited about the party. Create favors such as homemade bubbles or play dough, White suggests. “We used our old broken crayons and made ‘rainbow’ crayons for our goody bags.”
And why not let the kids help create the cake? White points out that this saves on packaged food waste and also allows bakers to craft a cake from natural ingredients.
If DIY isn’t your style, finding green options online is easy. There’s Green Party Goods, where I found recycled cardboard airplanes that my son’s friends decorated and then took home; and Green Planet Parties.
Look for compostable cups and plates if you don’t feel like washing dishes. Putting a marker out by the cups lets kids put their name on theirs and prevents them from needing more than one. Etsy, the popular online marketplace for artists, is a great place to look for sustainable options.
After all, if I am going to celebrate the fact that my son has spent another year on this planet, it’s important to me that my celebration not be a part of ruining that same planet. Ideally, I’d like him to spend the rest of his life here.
Wendy Lawrence is a longtime educator and former middle school head at Eastside Prep in Kirkland. Lawrence blogs about parenting and books at thefamilythatreadstogether.com.