by Marty Barnes
Planning a party for any kid is a lot of work. Planning a party for a child with special needs can be extra tricky. It can be done though. Each year I work very hard to try to come up with a wonderful birthday party for my daughter. Over the years I have come up with some great, very accessible party ideas. Hopefully these ideas, and some Special Needs Party Planning Rules I have come up with, will help others planning a party for their child with special needs. These are just a few ideas—there are tons more out there—but this list should get you started.
Arts and Crafts Party
Boys and girls can both have a lot of fun at an arts and crafts party. You may have to recruit some help for kids with limited mobility. Our daughter loves arts and crafts. A lot of the time she is just saying yes to the details and/or placement of things, but she loves to be part of creating something. We did a princess craft party for her once. All of her friends made princess tiaras. They had a great time. We had lots of other things planned, but they all were having so much fun the entire party was spent at the craft table. Boys could do something like pirate hats, treasure chest or maps. The list of arts and craft themes is limitless. Just take what your child is into, Google that topic with “Arts and Crafts,” and you are sure to get a bunch of ideas returned. An added bonus is that the crafts they make can be the party favors. You don’t have to waste time and money on goodie bags that just end up being tossed later anyway.
Not all theaters are willing to do this, so you may have to do some homework on this one. If your child is into movies, you can find a theater that will let you have the entire theater for a showing. They will usually work with you to make it quieter or brighter as well. The trick we have found when we did a movie party was that to get them to be flexible without having to spend a fortune, we had to be flexible on the day and time. It was worth it though, and everyone had a great time. We have a luxury theater in town that only seats 40, but the seats are extra big. We are able to put a tumble forms with wedge in the seat, or a beanbag chair. The lobby is nice for doing pre-movie parties. If you have an iPic or similar style theater near you, it works great for accessibility.
Many music therapy centers offer parties. The fee is reasonable (in most cases) and if your child is into music, this can be a great party idea. The therapist will get everyone involved, there is dancing (for those who can dance and move) and singing (or just making noises). A great idea is to get the song list ahead of time. For not much money you can get blank CDs and burn the song list for all the kids coming to the party. You can make and print out CD jacket covers too. Maybe something like “Casey’s Party Mix – 2012.” If you don’t have a music therapy center, you may be able to get a music therapist to come to your own house as well. You can tell the kids coming to bring their favorite noisemakers with them.
Many bookstores have story time. Some have party rooms as well. If your child loves stories, start calling your local bookstores or libraries. You can rent the party room and invite the kids in for story time. We did this recently and the kids had a blast. In addition to story time, they were also able to make bookmarks. The store we used had party bags for the kids, but before I knew this I was working on writing up a little story just for my daughter about a birthday princess. I was going to have it printed and give that as a favor to the kids. You can do something like that pretty easily. I found some calendars in the dollar bin that had wonderful pictures. I then cut the pictures out and used them as a base for my story. You can scan those into your computer, or use drawings from your child. There are some sites that will do professional printing/binding, or you can use a pharmacy or office supply store for nice but not crazy expensive printing. There are lots of ways to print it out yourself at home too. At craft stores you can find lots of affordable ways to create your own book.
Parks and Playgrounds
Many cities/towns are building accessible playgrounds now. Search for accessible playgrounds in your area. These are great places to plan parties. I would suggest going ahead though, and making sure there is a place out of the weather in case your child needs a break. I would also suggest making arrangements with the city. Some cities require this, but whether it is required or not, I recommend it. They can reserve the area for you so you don’t have to worry about kicking other people off the tables. You can usually hire face painters, balloon animal clowns, jugglers, or whatever your child would like to meet you in the park. Balloon animals make great party favors, too.
There is never anything wrong with a traditional party at home. Invite friends and/or family and just focus on doing the things that make your child happy, even if that means watching a movie on TV or just relaxing and being around loved ones. A party does not have to be action packed. Some kids prefer and thrive on quiet, controlled environments. If that is your child, don’t force him into a party because that’s what you think you have to do. Make sure the birthday is special, but don’t make it torture.
Unfortunately, some of our kids spend birthdays sick or in the hospital. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get a special day. Hospitals are usually great about helping decorate the rooms (nurses are often very creative). If your child is in the hospital or too sick to be around others, have all of your family and friends take pictures. Pick a theme such as wearing silly hats, making funny faces, or holding a stuffed animal. Get them to send those pictures to you (email or printed). Then on the special day show the pictures to your child to show how much everyone misses and wishes him/her a special birthday. If you have enough time you can even put them all together with the birthday song (or any song) and make a little slide show for your child to enjoy. Or if your child is more responsive to sound instead of pictures, have everyone send a voice message. There are lots of ways you can safely celebrate your child’s birthday and include loved ones, without ever leaving the house or hospital. My daughter loves when her friends make her pictures to hang in the hospital room, too. Personal touches like this make any day brighter, especially birthdays.
Regardless of how you celebrate your child’s special day, be sure to do something. Just because our kids have special needs does not mean they don’t still need to be kids. They deserve a day all about them and what makes them happy. In my opinion, they deserve a lot more than just a day.
Here are a few rules to follow when planning a party for your child with special needs. Hopefully if you follow these rules, everyone will have a great time.
- Don’t worry about what all of the other kids are doing for their parties, focus on what your child likes.
- A party does not have to follow a preset agenda. Have enough things planned to fill the time, but if an activity runs long and people are enjoying it, be flexible. You can always save the items you don’t get to for another day.
- Don’t focus on food. Many kids with special needs have special diets. A lot of parties and holidays focus on food. If you have a child who cannot eat cake, don’t center the party on the cake. You can still have one for everyone else and sing happy birthday, but don’t make it the focal point of the event. Also, if other children with special needs will be attending, it is a great idea to let families know in advance what foods and drinks you will have. This will give others warning in case they would prefer to bring their own snacks.
- If your child is hard to buy for, be sure to either provide guest with some ideas, or request them not to bring gifts at all. Many parties have started collecting and making a donation in the child’s name instead of bringing gifts. We don’t do gifts because in addition to being hard to shop for, our daughter is not physically able to open the gifts and her friends are not able to stay focused on watching me or her dad open her gifts. We would much rather use the party time for things she and her friends enjoy.
- Time!!! If your child is not able to tolerate long periods of time, there is nothing wrong with having a party for only an hour (or whatever works for your child). It’s much more important that your child has a wonderful hour, than a good one followed by two painful hours trying to calm her down.