Saturday, April 19, 2014

Secret Agent Man

Max's ninth birthday party was last weekend, and I have gone straight from that into crunch-time for Dance Costumes 2014, not to mention the final countdown to Into the Woods auditions.  Adrian took the boys out for the day today, which finally gave me some time to sort and edit photos....anyway, that's not the excuse for not blogging about the party yet.  The real reason is...big events like this, parties or shows or whatever, they just take all of my creative energy (not to mention my spare time), and it turns out blogging doesn't take a back seat when I'm in the throes of big creative projects.  Blogging gets left home alone.  Without a babysitter.

Anyway.  The theme of the party was International Secret Agent.  We were inspired by Max's current love of geography and world cultures, and it was actually really awesome to incorporate party planning into homeschooling, and learning into partying.
We have been using Top Secret Adventures by Highlights during school this year, as a supplemental activity that Max can do independently, which is where I got the idea to have a mystery for the kids to solve, with puzzles and/or activities in each country to help them along their way.  Honestly, all I could think about the whole time I was planning the party was Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.  Remember that game?  And the TV show??  I wish I could share it with Max, he would love it.  But I have failed to find it anywhere, at least in a version playable on any computer made after about 1988.

Max picked 12 countries for his adventure, and was tasked with developing a list of things he found interesting about each country and culture.  I used this list to create the different activities.

When the guests arrived, they were given a Secret Agent Notebook:

The official Secret Agent Notebooks

The first page of the notebook was a welcome note from Secret Agent HQ, welcoming all of the agents to the party and explaining that Agent Max's cupcakes had been stolen, and they needed to help find them.  The notebooks came in four colors; each color began the mission in a different country.  I did this so that all of the kids wouldn't be piled up at any given country all at the same time (although all of the different mission paths eventually took you to all of the countries).  We'll follow the red path through the party, just for fun.  So if you were a red Secret Agent, you started in Egypt.


Egypt was a hieroglyphics activity.  In the Secret Agent Notebook, I included a message written in hieroglyphics.  The kids had to decode the message to know which country to visit next.  Also in their notebooks was a storage pocket with some materials they would need along the way, including a piece of papyrus for writing their own message in hieroglyphics.  (My favorite Max quote about planning this party - "Dad!! Mom even got PAPYRUS for the party!! I thought they would have sold out of that, like, three thousand years ago!")

Oh, each country was decorated with its flag, and a display board created by Max and I.  The boards included a map of the continent where the country is located (with the country painstakingly colored in by Max), a page stating the continent, capital and official language of each country, several useful phrases in the official language (Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank You, I Love You and Happy Birthday), plus background information and instructions for the activity.  Each board also had an illustration, by Max, of something of interest from that country.

If you decoded the hieroglyphics correctly, you would deduce that your next stop was:


The France activity was really clever, if I do say so myself.  Max, as we know, loves to cook, loves food, loves international food.  He really wanted to do some sort of cooking activity for France, but with thirty guests, it just wasn't happening.  I came up with the idea of stomping grapes one day when a package arrived and my children, as per usual, fought over the bubble wrap.

Did you know they make purple bubble wrap?  And that it's really pretty cheap??

Stomping Grapes in France.

Stomp grapes for thirty seconds to earn your next clue.  (PS - I didn't mention that Max wore a costume because I figured that you know him well enough by now to have just assumed he did.)

Your next clue took you to Ireland:


The activity for Ireland was based on the Book of Kells.  The idea was to take a piece of vellum (from the storage pocket in your notebook) and trace your initial, then illustrate it in the style of an illuminated manuscript.  This is one activity that didn't work out the way I'd hoped, because the kids were, for the most part, too excited to sit and do an art project.  And then several kids skipped the tracing step, and just colored on the templates, so then the next kid that came along with their same initial was out of luck.  Lesson learned: even nine year olds need adult assistance and supervision, even for art projects.

From Ireland, your clue led to Brazil, which was an obstacle course through the rain forest.


The kids had to cross the quick sand (walk across a picnic bench), maneuver their way through a giant spider web (clothesline strung between some stakes and the garden fence), climb over boxes, jump on the trampoline, and end with a rope swing.  This was, naturally, a favorite activity of many party goers, and most of them found a reason to visit Brazil more than once.

Brazil's clue sent you to China, and the Great Wall.


This activity was inspired by the popularity of last year's Fix-It-Felix Jr. game; I've never gotten over the hours of play those kids got out of a pile of cardboard boxes.  This year was no different - once the "official" party was over, the scooters came out, and the kids were endlessly entertained with stacking the boxes up, over and over and OVER again, for each other to crash through on scooters.  Anyway, this activity was also inspired by Survivor, which both Max and Milo LOVE.  Several of the boxes had letters on them, you had to use only the letters in your color to spell the name of the country you had to visit next. The red letters spelled out KENYA.


The activity for Kenya was a safari.  I hid various stuffed animals around the Kenya area, and in their notebooks was a page with one of those puzzles where you write down the answers, and some of the letters have a number underneath, and so you write all of those letters down in the spaces with the same number to spell out the final answer.  It's really very simple, although my explanation is not, and would have worked perfectly, but for 2 things.  Number One is, I am sorry to say, that I f-ed up, and put too many spaces for E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T, which might not have been that big of a deal except for the fact that the T in elephant is what they needed for the puzzle, and Number Two is....well....I guess I didn't consider the fact that your average third grader does not know how to spell giraffe.  Or leopard.  Or flamingo.  Ooops.  I ended up hanging around Kenya for a while.

The somewhat unsolvable Kenyan puzzle took you to Thailand, another country that didn't go over as well as hoped.


Max really wanted to have an origami activity.  I worked for a few days with various materials, trying to come up with a way that the kids could make biodegradable lotus flowers to float in the lake, but to no avail.  So I found a place that advertised biodegradable floating lotus flowers for super cheap, and thought it would be cool if the kids each wrote a wish on a lotus and set it adrift in the lake.  Stupid cheap floating lotus flowers.  Yeah, they were made of paper.  Pasted to a foil-wrapped piece of foam for flotation.  SIGH.  I resigned myself to scooping soggy paper lotus flowers OUT of the lake, and persevered.  Max still wanted everyone to make some origami. I thought the lotus was still a nice idea, and pretty easy, but he insisted on cranes.  I very painstakingly made a fold-by-fold instructional display...and I don't think anyone got past fold five.  Including Max, who I have taught to fold a paper crane countless times before.  Oh well.  The wishes the kids wrote on their flowers were sweet and silly and very entertaining.  "I wish I was a superhero."  "I wish I was nice."  (That one made me seriously laugh.)

After Thailand, head to Vanuatu, which Max picked solely because of the tiki heads we recently acquired.  I was really, really excited about the activity for Vanuatu.


Vanuatu is an island nation in the Pacific, and drumming is a major part of their culture.  I collected an assortment of percussion instruments, with the instruction that the kids experiment with the various sounds they made.  In their notebooks was a pattern to play on the xylophone, which was the opening bars of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman" from Frozen, which, combined with the clues, led them to Norway. (Side note:  I borrowed many of the percussion instruments from my sister Katie, who is a bit of a collector, but I purchased the slit drum for my own use.  It sounds like Adventureland, and now I want to hire someone to sit on my patio and play the slit drum all.  Summer.  Long.)


Max is a sweet boy, and wanted to do something for Norway that included dragons (as in, How to Train Your) because his little brother loves loves LOVES the dragons.  I wanted to do something with Frozen, because I luuurrrvvve Frozen and I thought the greenhouse made a pretty passable ice palace (at least, from the outside.  Tad warm, inside.) We compromised, I guess, and when you went to Norway, you had a chance to plant snapdragon seeds in a pot that we painted to look like ice (kinda) to take home.  Then I snuck Olaf in there.  Max was not amused.  (Even though he lurrrrvves Frozen just as much as I do.)

From Norway, you went to Russia.  I really struggled to come up with an activity for Russia, and Max was hard-pressed to even articulate why he wanted to include it, but he would not be dissuaded.  Maybe it was the Olympics, maybe it was just because Russia has been so much in the news of late.  Whatever his reasons....I finally came up with an idea based on a Russian birthday tradition, which is that instead of goody bags, at children's birthday parties there will be a string tied across the room with small gifts hanging from it, and the guests have to knock down one of the gifts to take home with them. So I took that idea, and put their next clues inside color-coded balloons, which they had to pop to release the clue.  It was a very successful activity (although some of the balloons wilted in the heat before the party began), plus is made for a colorful decoration across a kinda plain area of my yard.  Win!


Your Russian clue took you to Japan, which was out in Max's tea house.  This was another big art project, which was solely Max's idea.  I thought it was a great idea, but I executed it poorly.  He wanted the kids to make fish wind socks, as they do on Children's Day in Japan.  Perfect idea, right?  The problem is.....this is the thing I left for last.  This is the thing I was still working on as guests were arriving.  This is the thing that I roped my sister and Lisa-from-Parmesan and Jeff-from-Pooh-Sticks into finishing up for me as I was welcoming the first guests.  The thing that, after ALL that, the kids didn't really do anyway, because they didn't want to sit and do an art project.  Ah well.  Beta-testing.

Japan, complete with Jeff.

The clue in Japan led you finally, FINALLY to Italy, where the missing cupcakes were, and where my greatest achievement of the party lay:



I really, really did.

I did not drive myself insane with grandiose baking plans.  I did not heat my kitchen to a zillion degrees baking forty-seven batches of sixteen different flavors of cupcakes.  I did not greet my guests smeared in twenty-nine shades of frosting.  I did the thing that I have been swearing to do for the past nine years worth of birthday parties.


I *did* stick all of those cunning little flag toothpicks in them...but guess what?  I BOUGHT THOSE, TOO.

I'm very proud of myself.

Anyway, this was a fun party, and I love the fact that it was a little nerdy and educational, too.  I also love that Max was really an active participant this year, both in planning and execution (and I love that I let him do as much as he did, there was a time when there was NO WAY I would have used his artwork as decorations)(oooh, mom of the year right there, huh?  Jeez.)  Some aspects didn't work out as well as I/we hoped, but, you know, live and learn.

Birthday Boy!


  1. I got totally sucked in by Vanuatu. It took the lure of meatballs to dislodge me. I never went back, did they not hang the fish up in the trees in japan? I thought that would look sooooo cool :-)

    If Max's geography fixation includes map geekery, send him my way. I have piles.

    1. No, there were some fish hung up in the trees. At least a dozen, if not more. They just weren't as decorated as I had envisioned. I think the kids were just too excited to complete the mission, they didn't want to sit still for art projects. I had briefly toyed with the idea of stationing parents at each country, to hand out the clues once the activities were completed...but that seemed too fun-killing.

    2. I kinda hung out in Vanuatu giving hints as to where to go next. You'd be amazed how many PARENTS had no clue Frozen and Norway were at all related.
      But mostly, I just liked it in Vanuatu.

  2. Looks amazing as usual! Queen of party planning!! So sad we missed it. Happiest of Birthday wishes to Max. We love you guys

    1. Thanks, Dana! I wish you all could have made it. Next time!

  3. Looks amazing as usual! Queen of party planning!! So sad we missed it. Happiest of Birthday wishes to Max. We love you guys

  4. That is just totally awesome. I may have to steal some of these ideas for Katie's party. I'm amazed at the creativity and how it all flowed together ( despite minor pitfalls). Color me impressed.

    BTW, the very first thing I thought of when reading this was Carmen San Diego. It's really shame that is no longer available.

    1. Thanks! I have been toying with the idea of developing some down-loadable or party-in-a-box parties for kids, with different adventure themes, customizable to the age of the kid and the parent's interest in setting up activities (like, a version of this party for 6 year olds, or a version that has 7 countries, or a party that's a Knight's Quest or a Superhero Adventure or some sort of kick-ass girl thing that's not about helpless princesses). Something I could sell on Etsy, maybe. Let me know if you'd be interested in doing some free beta-testing ;)


So, whaddya think?