I loved planning the girls’ birthday parties when they were little. I’d dust off all the classic party games I remembered from when I was a kid and give them a new twist. Pin the Tail on Pikachu? Sure! I got to play with markers and poster board and it was all good, because I was doing it for my kids. It wasn’t that I still love arts and crafts time following by a long nap. …OK, it was that, too.

The birthday parties we planned were on an epic scale, and because we didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a birthday party, they involved a lot of party preparation, time, and creativity. I had a great time doing it but by the end, I was exhausted.

Now the girls are older, I’m working full time, and I still have fibromyalgia. In terms of spoon theory, I don’t have enough spoons in my day to orchestrate a big event right now. But we still want to give them epic birthday parties they’ll remember fondly when they’re old, full of whimsy and hijinks.

My younger daughter just turned 11. Her birthday fell on the last day of school this year. I work in a school system, and the end of the school year is a particularly busy time for me. Several weeks before her birthday, we asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday party this year.

“I want to run a LARP for my birthday!”

For the uninitiated, a LARP is a live-action role-playing game. It’s pretend play ramped up to level 10. Now there’s a lot of potential for the Parental Units to get really involved here. A good LARP involves costumes, pre-planned adventures with mini quests, clues, a story line, and props, and someone to act as the storyteller and rules arbiter. It’s a big undertaking. So you’ll understand that I experienced a sinking feeling when she said that. No need to panic though. We can make this work.

Step 1 in the Art of the Unplanned Birthday Party:

“So, what do you have in mind for your LARP?”

Notice the shifting of authorship from Parental Unit to Offspring here? Also, it’s always a good idea to check if your definition of the birthday theme matches your child’s. Because chances are, it doesn’t.

“I want to run around in the woods with swords!”

Excellent. We can do that.

“Do you want to have costumes for your LARP?”

“I want a pinata.”

Aha. The priorities are clear now.

This is where the bucket of swords comes in. We just happen to keep a bucket of foam swords on hand. It’s been a useful thing to have stashed in a corner of the basement. Political discussion getting too heated? Take it outside, fellas. Here’s a sword. Kids have way too much energy? Everyone grab a sword and go run around the house five times.

With swords and a pinata, we had a birthday party. Our daughter made the pinata herself with minimal help. I found some boxes she could use and showed her how to use a can of spray paint. Was it pretty? Heck no. Was she fully invested in her project and did she have fun making it? Heck yes.

The pinata became a silver-tipped grizzly bear and the story line for the LARP. You see, that pesky grizzly bear gobbled up all the goody bags for the party. A grand quest was needed to find the bear and beat it until it puked up the candy it stole. I can’t make this stuff up. But an 11-year-old can!

Her friends came over and she played the part of the host, welcoming them and helping them stash their sleepover gear in the living room. As soon as all the kids were here, they grabbed swords from the bucket and disappeared into the woods for a couple hours. A few wore costumes they brought from home because they wanted to, others wore play clothes. It was all good. Individual expression at its best. They made up their own stories as they went along, and everyone came back in one piece, triumphant and tired.

They found the pinata, beat it until it gave up its candy, and hit the living room for another hour of self-led play. This time, Candy Store. Once the trading was done, my part of the party came into play. I left and picked up a truly ridiculous amount of pizza. That, plus buying the five pounds of candy and texting a few friends whose kids aren’t in the same school as my daughter, was just about all the party prep I had to do.

Parents of teens are probably laughing at me a bit here, because I feel like I’m discovering the grail and this is nothing new to them. But hey, check it out — tweens are awesome! They have plenty of their own ideas and they’re big enough to make most of those happen with just a helping hand from the Parental Units, rather than the full press “make it fun and entertaining while also keeping them alive” you have to do with a toddler. This is cool stuff!

By the time we shipped everyone back to their parents the next morning, I had achieved the pinnacle of party planning: the kids were more exhausted than I was. And they had a great time. I’ll be keeping that bucket of swords around. It’s a handy thing.

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