For those of you who might be wondering whether we survived T.'s fifth birthday party, we did. It went wonderfully, and now that we're on the other side of it I can say we're living proof that you can throw a party for 18 preschoolers (and simultaneously host a four-hour playdate for your eight-year-old son), stuff them full of lots of cake and ice cream, and live to tell the tale. I think the only problem during the whole 2-1/2 hour party was that I wasn't fast enough to write down the names during the frenzied gift unwrapping, and so T. and I spent a large part of Sunday morning trying to figure out who gave what. We've found that the key to surviving parties--and especially to surviving kids' parties--is what we call "loose planning." We made a schedule of events, but didn't worry too much about what happened in-between. At 1:30 T.'s guests started arriving as planned, and she took them straight upstairs to her room. By 2:00 her bedroom was filled with almost her entire preschool class. I had moved the dress-up bin of clothes into her room before the party, and made sure it was stocked with not only T.'s dress-up clothes, but also with lots of old dress-up clothes that once belonged to L. So the boys had plenty of pirate hats and plastic swords, a firefighter costume or two, and a knight's tunic. At 2:00 we brought all the kids downstairs for the craft. We set up beads and necklace-making materials on the kitchen table, and set up one group with that activity, while the second group was asked to don "arctic explorer-wear" so they could sift for gems on the back porch. They absolutely loved this activity. Not only did they get to play with sand (we hid the gems in a large plastic bin filled with play sand), but they had the thrill of hunting for the biggest gems they could find. As soon as a kid snagged two or three gems, he or she came inside to take a turn at jewelry-making: This is a super-fun craft activity for parties, and it will work year-round. In fact, it would be a tad more realistic in summer weather, since I'm not sure anyone really sifts for gems in the arctic (but when you host preschoolers, you can get away with stretching reality a bit). All you need is a bin of sand, several bags of large gems (we got ours from Michaels), large paper clips, a glue gun, and some hemp twine or leather string. When the kids came back from the gem hunting, a parent helped glue the gem onto a large paper clip and the kids could make necklaces, pendants, bracelets, and even key rings (I bought a bag of plain metal key rings from Michaels, too). I was worried about whether the boys at the party would get into this craft, but I need not have worried. As it turned out, they all loved it, and three of the boys from T.'s class stayed at the table long after the activity was finished, and worked on several more key chains. We had a dragon/princess theme for the party (T.'s idea) and I bought a plastic tablecloth with a dragon/prince on it, and one with princesses. We put the dragon cloth on one half of the table and the princess one across the other half: We also set the table with both dragon paper plates and princess plates. We served the cake at 3:00, and let the kids pick their own spots at the table. I was happy to see that some girls picked dragon plates (T. did) and some boys picked princess ones (so there, nature/nurture debaters!). We scattered purple and yellow and green plastic mardi gras coins over the table, and placed a plastic gemstone ring and bracelet in the center of each child's plate: And the cake? Never underestimate the creative powers of your local Kroger bakery lady: I still stand behind my love of having my children's birthday parties in our own home. I know many parents choose to host parties elsewhere, but I'll take an inexpensive, fun, at-home party any day. And if you're scared to do it...don't be! It works out; it always does. Everyone has a blast, and pink frosting does come out of a couch cushion in the end--you just have to stay calm.