Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Around the world in an afternoon

My older son, Max, loves geography and history, is fascinated by other cultures and languages, and longs to travel the world.  Our homeschooling is entirely designed around his obsession, with me working math and science lessons into whatever his country du jour is.  (Actually, as obsessions go, I have to say it's a pretty good one to homeschool around.)

His interest dates back several years, at this point.  When he was turning six, he decided he wanted an Around the World themed birthday party.  After I cleared my head of all the hazy memories I have of Around the World parties I hosted in college (White Russian, anyone?), I got him focused on making a list of countries he wanted to have represented.  I was thinking three or four.  He gave me a list of seventeen.  We compromised.

Once we had our list of countries, I set about coming up with an activity and a menu item for each one.  The kids would "travel" from country to country as they chose, collecting stamps in their passports as they completed activities.  I found an adorable invitation on Etsy that resembled a boarding pass, and blank passports on Amazon.  I customized each passport with photos of the party guests (which really surprised a lot of the kids!) and their names.

The nice thing about Max's birthday is that it's in the spring, and we always have nice weather (touch wood) so the party can be outdoors.  We have a very small house, but a very big and whimsical yard, which lends itself nicely to lots of different party themes.  It was easy to designate a different area of the yard for each country, and I found a great website to purchase really inexpensive flags from, which made it clear which country was in each part of the yard, and really took care of all my decorating needs in general.

When the kids arrived, they were greeted at the top of the driveway at the "airline counter." Each kid was given their passport, along with a piece of luggage (I got a couple dozen brightly colored reusable shopping bags for super cheap) in which to collect a takeaway gift from each country, and luggage tag.

The airline counter.  Not sure what Max's face is all about....

Passports and luggage tags

The picket fence in the backyard proved to be the perfect spot
 to stow luggage waiting to be taken home.

A couple of the countries were set up for independent play:

GREAT BRITAIN: Great Britain had two areas.  The first was my real labor of love for this party, and the thing that really didn't turn out nearly as grand as I imagined, which I really hate.  Max really, REALLY wanted a hedge maze.  Once I made him understand that I could not possibly plant and cultivate a hedge maze in time for his party, he allowed me to proceed with my plan to construct one out of plastic sheeting and wooden stakes.  First, I sketched out a maze on paper, then spray-painted it onto the ground.  A stake at each corner, and then I stapled plastic sheeting all the way around (I also went back and covered all of the staples with duct tape, because yes, I am completely neurotic):

The maze in Great Britain
Um, yeah.  As Max was VERY QUICK to point out, "Mom, we are going to be able to see right over the top."  Like I said.  It looked a LOT cooler in my head.

Also in Great Britain was the "baby" area, a nod to Max's younger brother (who was about 15 months old at the time) and some other little friends.

The (fairy) castle play tent in Great Britain
Milo and a friend making sand castles in Great Britain.  Get it?  Castles?  Britain??  Yeah, ok.
 The takeaway for Great Britain was a snazzy foil crown.

INDIA:  My father travels a lot.  A LOT.  And often to exotic places.  As it happened, not long before this party he traveled to India, and asked me if he could bring anything back for the party, which was one of the major reasons I lobbied for Max to include India in the list of countries.  He brought back about a dozen lengths of really lovely sari silk, and so India became a dance party on the patio, complete with an awesome Bollywood playlist and stick on bindis.

Rajah the tiger stands guard over the dance silks and a basket of jeweled bracelets.
The takeaway for India was as many jeweled bracelets as you could fit on your arm, my dad seriously brought home about a gross of the things.

JAPAN: Here was a lovely thing about this party, in fact may have led to choosing the whole theme to begin with.  Not long before this party was the devastating earthquake in Japan.  This might have been the first "news", the first major world event that Max was really aware of, and he was intensely curious.  We had many long discussions about what was happening, and how peoples' lives were changed forever because of this natural disaster.  So this amazing kid decides that instead of presents, he wants the guests at his party to make a donation to the American Red Cross, "for the kids of Japan."  Adrian and I were really blown away by this, and told him we would match whatever donations he received.

Anyway, Japan was up on the porch, and, in honor of the Japanese children Max wanted to help, the activity was decorating kites.

Max hangs out at the kite-decorating station.
The takeaway for Japan was the kite.

Some of the other countries required adult supervision or assistance.

AUSTRALIA: Australia was the activity I was the proudest of.  I found a parachute that came with some sea creature bean bag toys, and sewed the bean bags to one side using long pieces of yarn.  I rounded up several parents, and got them to help wave the parachute up and down, with the bean bags dangling underneath.  I told the kids they were snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, and they had to go under and try to spot (and remember!) the same number of sea creatures as their age.

Australia, complete with scrubby Outback tree, with China in the background.
What, you don't have a wooden cutout of a tree in YOUR backyard?  Also: those paper lanterns in China?  From Adrian's 30th birthday party.  NINE years before our eldest son turned six.  Yeah, I compulsively save things, but every once in awhile it pays off.  They went in the garbage after this party, don't worry.

The takeaway for Australia was a plastic boomerang.

CHINA: Max was really interested in the Chinese zodiac, and I almost always do a custom "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" game for birthday parties, so we combined the two and had "Pin the Tail on the Rooster" (Max's Chinese Zodiac sign).

Pin the Tail on the Rooster (far left), we used craft feathers and double stick tape for the tails,
plus bonus dragon stand-up.

The takeaway for China was a necklace with a pendant that featured a Chinese character (assorted pack from Oriental Trading).  The boy guests LOVED these necklaces.

ITALY: We live on a small lake, and we have a canoe, so "gondola" rides in Italy was not much of a stretch.  Luckily, Adrian is a really good sport, and really likes canoeing!  We wrapped our Festivus pole* in white and red duct tape, and Italy was done and done.

Gondola rides in Italy.

Huh.  I guess I didn't have a takeaway for Italy.  Your takeaway was not getting dunked in the lake, I suppose.

MEXICO: Mexico was on the driveway, and was, naturally, a piñata.  I ordered the classic multi-colored donkey piñata, it was awesome.  And I don't have a picture of it.  Here's some pictures of the Mexico area, anyway.

The piñata hung from a tree branch that is approximately directly above
where I am standing to take this photo.

Cool artistic-type photo of Mexican paper lanterns.

The takeaway for Mexico was whatever candy they scrabbled around on the ground for.

All of the food was inside.  I have a weird thing about food outside.  Weird in that I don't like to put food outside.  Truth be told, I don't even really enjoy eating outside, although I do...Anyway, I always have kind of the same set-up of tables-plus-breakfast-bar buffet for parties, it just makes life easier.

I tried to have a food item to represent each country, while still accommodating the palates of my young party guests.  I had Max sample a few things in the weeks leading up to the party, with various degrees of success.  What I finally came up with was chips & queso for Mexico, and sweet & sour chicken for China, both of which I purchased from local restaurants, because let's face it, kids like both of those things the way they are at the restaurant, and they are difficult to reproduce at home.  The food I made myself was largely and enthusiastically consumed by the parents: meat pies and sausage rolls (oh, the kids gobbled these up, too) for Australia/Great Britain, crab rangoon for China, meatballs and antipasti  for Italy, and potato & pea samosas for India.  It was a very...brown buffet.  Thank God for the veggie tray, am I right?

Beige food, as far as the eye can see.
What the kids really loved was the sushi:

Candy sushi for Japan
 and by sushi I mean the rice cereal, gummy candy variety, of course.

For once I made a cake that turned out halfway decent:

Giving the birthday boy the World

I used a spherical cake pan, frosted the whole thing blue, and then cut the continents out of green sugar sheets (white for the polar ice cap).

Seven countries, two dozen happy travelers, and a nice-sized donation to the American Red Cross.  A very successful sixth birthday celebration.

*We don't really have a Festivus pole.  It's just an eight foot aluminum pole.  Oh.  Right.


  1. I found John's passport a few weeks ago. And his flag (it's Australian, not British) Yep. Someone else kinda holds onto things..... :-)

    1. I like that it's John's luggage tag that you can see in the photo. He's a good egg, coming to little kids' birthday parties. LOL, not British. Now THAT's a puzzle, I wonder where that thing went? Anyway, one of these days I am counting on you to remind me to get cool artistic type photos of EVERYTHING before the kids get there. I have so many good photos, that have so many other-people's-kids in them....


So, whaddya think?