26 January 2014

Everypony was There (Cups turns 7)

Warning: This is kind of a mommy-blog post about my daughter’s birthday, so if you don’t want to read the details of some stranger’s kid’s party skip this post.  There’s no roleplaying or board gaming in it – except we did play a round of Seven Wonders while the kids tried to kill the pillow slalom with swords.   It’s mostly just me laying out what we did because somebody else might be able to use it.

I’m still adapting to the idea of having a seven-year-old, but there she is, all seven years of dress-wearing pink-loving makeup-requesting her.  And this year, in addition to makeup (makeup? seriously, where is she going to wear lipstick and eyeshadow?  To first grade?) she wanted a My Little Pony party.  This may or may not have been triggered by the Pinkie Pie piñata we found at Wal-Mart, but there’s something about throwing a party for my seven-year-old with a My Little Pony theme that appeals to my inner seven-year-old.

So My Little Pony it was.  And operating on the guiding principle (evidence-based even) that money is best spent on experiences rather than stuff, party planning began.  The problem was that Cups wanted to invite Friends that Are Boys, and first grade involves the awkward stage of gender differentiation where it’s So Not Cool for boys to do Girl Things.  If we’d waited a few years for this theme then we could have invoked the Brony Principle, but seven-year-old boys are pretty clear on the whole Girl Stuff problem.  We didn’t want them to feel unwelcome, so we had to balance the Girl Stuff out with All Kid Stuff. 

Spoiler: These things work out in the end, if you feed them enough sugar and leave the hair chalk out where they can get to it. Also, my husband rocks the blue glitter nail polish.

We decided on a lunch party, mostly because we like to feed people and it served as a nice opening period for people to drift in.   We scheduled it for Saturday at noon and on Friday night the snow and wind started to hit.   Saturday morning I took a test spin, noted the plows were out and the town roads weren’t really that bad so we called everyone to tell them the party was on and started food prep around 9:30.  At 10:30 AM I got the text message that the county had gone to a red alert (a Snow Emergency, where it’s technically illegal to be on the roads) so we called everyone again and told them the party was delayed to Sunday.  Then we put the food in the 22 degree garage and tried to console Cups. 

Sunday morning at 8 I went out for a test spin on the roads (hey, I’m a doctor, I get to drive to the hospital for rounds in a red alert) and noted that the city roads were bare asphalt without any snow or ice.  We live in a rural town, so county roads by report were still really bad, but the city was normal driving conditions. I called M and we decided that we would go forward with the party and let people use their own judgment about whether to come.  At about 10 the county was downgraded to orange, so it was no longer technically illegal to come to Cups’s party and 13 kids showed up – most of them with their parents. 

We are going to be cleaning up this house for weeks.

I am a consummate scavenger of Other People’s Ideas on Pinterest, and I’m going to try to give credit where credit is due in the following breakdown of the party:

P1260073Lunch and Nibbles:

I bought some placecard templates from Irrelephant Designs on Etsy, which were charming (if a little small, margins were adjusted to get them to print on our postcard cutouts) and paired excellently with the personalized chevron favor boxes I found at a reasonable custom print price from Shindigz.com (despite the shady name, they delivered a quality product in good time).  We labeled all our food, aiming for one per pony represented on the cards, plus Spike since there was a duplicate pony.   I got the flower trays as a surprise find at Dollar General while hunting for something else entirely.

P1260041Rainbow Dash’s Rainbow Fruit Salad: Adapted from Daisy at Home, we went with a flower tray rather than a rainbow design, but same general idea: a rainbow of fruit with marshmallow crème dip in the middle (recipe follows).  Our rainbow’s color sequence gave a little bit to my distaste for melons, so we used strawberries, apples, pineapple, green grapes, blueberries, and red grapes.   We sliced some bananas to put in the rotation but they were too chunky and not asthetically pleasing, so we put them off on the side instead and they really didn’t get eaten (this may be partly because of the 24 hour party delay)

P1260047Pinkie Pie’s Flower Bites: Borrowed directly from Life with Moore Babies, we made PB&J and ham and cheese sandwiches on honey wheat bread and then used a flower shaped cookie cutter to cut them into floral shapes.  Lettuce, tomato, and condiments were on the side.   (This is the point where I ask if anyone has a brilliant idea for what to do with the peanut butter and jelly crusts, because I can’t bear to throw them away.  Current plan is to feed the birds this summer with them.)  For scaling purposes, we used the very largest flower cutter that would still make a flower shape from the bread.  I made 16 PB&J and 16 ham and cheese sandwiches total for 13 kids and 11 adults and had about 4 PB&J and 1 ham and cheese left over. 

P1260048Princess Celestia’s Celestial Clouds: Okay, so this is one of those times where we used “we’re having a party” as an excuse to buy more kitchen gadgets.   Major purchase for the party was a home cotton candy machine.  We bought the Nostalgia Electrics hard and sugar-free version in order to have the capacity to make sugar-free cotton candy for our diabetic friends as well as the thrill of Life Savers Cotton Candy (it’s super good!), and did the cotton candy in advance over a few days.   Best output on the machine was definitely from commercial floss sugar, but we got some very respectable cotton candy from Life Savers, candy canes, hard crack caramel, and sugar free Werther’s drops.  Best of all, each cone contained less than a tablespoon of sugar and kept kids occupied.    

P1250007Applejack’s Down Home Applesauce: From My Crazy Blessed Life, except I try to limit the silverware requirement at any kids’ party to “cake and ice cream only” where possible.  Also, Mott’s tends to put sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup in their applesauce, and I don’t dig it.  So we bought a lot of GoGoSqueez from Amazon and put that out instead.  There were cries of “ooh, GoGoSqueez!”  It got eaten.  No applesauce was spilled.  And we have leftover applesauce for snacks and lunches. 

P1260065Rarity’s Fromages du Campagne:  This translates to Rarity’s Country Cheeses, basically. Originally, we were going to make Rarity in charge of the cotton candy, but I had a Princess Celestia food tag and couldn’t think of anything more royal than cotton candy.  Also, I remembered that I had a bag of cheese cubes in the freezer that I really wanted to make disappear, so we went ahead with the gussied-up cheese tray.   It’s all purchased; while I know I can make a cheese ball, they always come out looking like misshapen lumps. 

P1260054Fluttershy’s Bunny Munch: What better way to get kids to eat their vegetables than to propose them as pony food?  We went with Cups’s favorites: kalamata olives, broccoli, carrots, celery, and then for the grownups we made a (very mild) pico de gallo and filled the last slot with tortilla strips.  Middle of the tray is Marzetti’s Ranch dressing and off to the side is Tastefully Simple’s Onion Onion dip, which is kind of a staple for us.

P1260071Spike’s Dragon-Grilled Chicken Skewers: We have some friends who are gluten intolerant, so sandwiches as a main dish don’t cut it alone.  We hit on doing chicken skewers and were initially going to do long kebabs.  Then I found a couple packages of three inch bamboo forks at Dollar General (never send me shopping alone) and M turned them into charming miniature skewers that were bite sized and easy to handle.   They’re chicken tenderloins, chopped into bites and stuck two to a skewer, then brined in a light salt solution overnight (plus an additional 24 hours for weather delays) and then grilled with an olive oil brushing.  We grabbed a handful of dipping sauces for our condiment table, and the kids really liked them.  The brining leaves the chicken very moist and tender in the middle, even after sitting in the crockpots on warm for hours.  We made 106 and had maybe a dozen left.
Prep note: It took M about an hour to grill all 106 skewers on our indoor range grill, so plan ahead.

P1260063 Twilight Sparkle’s Magical Color Changing Punch: Another nod to Daisy at Home for this one: This is a fantastic idea and the kids really had a blast with it.   It’d be excellent for a science party as well, since the indicator is so easy to make and the color change in lemonade is so dramatic.  We used a simple syrup (1:1 water and sugar) boiled with chopped red cabbage in it.  This gave our indicator a really nice deep blue color and also masked some of the cabbage taste to the juice (but not the smell and not all of the taste, oh no, not all, so if you are looking for a really sweet cabbage juice this is what you want).  The original recipe calls for lemonade, but I am never satisfied with lemonade as a drink (I make it with lemon juice and water, and no sugar, but nobody but me drinks it like that so I always feel like it’s too sweet) so we went to work trying to come up with a punch that had some flavor and enough acidity to turn the indicator colors. 

We started with Sprite, which turns a brilliant pink but is undrinkable with cabbage juice in it.  We tried a multitude of things but finally settled on a tropical pineapple-orange punch (recipe follows) that if you add enough indicator turns from yellow-orange to a sort of ruby grapefruit color (I did not get a picture).   This also proves that if you make it fun, kids will drink anything.  They added far more cabbage juice than I could stomach, just to see it change, and then drank the stuff without hesitation.

P1250019During the lunch period, we set up the dining room table with some color-your-own ponies from Oriental Trading Company (I am trying to move away from buying cheap stuff there and doing more on Etsy etc but I still run up a bill every time we have a birthday), markers and glitter glue pens.   Kids really got into that, and I will be scraping glitter glue off the table for a while.  It was nice to keep them occupied while the slower eaters were coaxed into another few bites of sandwich. 

Then we took everyone downstairs for the wearing-them-out portion of the festivities. 

Party Games:

P1260063_1Pony Dressup: I am reasonably certain that if M never sees another set of pony wings come out of my sewing machine, it will be too soon.  I have a thing about handcrafted party favors, and the only thing I could think of for this party was pony wear, so pony wear it was.   I sourced a pattern for wings, horns, and ears from Sugar Tart Crafts, but I am Lazy and I hate stuffing things so I substituted a thick layer of craft interfacing for the stuffing on the wings.   I also put buttonholes on the bottoms of the horns and on the ears (dear Light if there is something more annoying than sewing 8mm buttonholes in pony ears I hope I never have to do it) and threaded them onto headbands for the kids to wear.   We made more than we needed, of course, so everyone got their choice of colors.  
As far as tails go, I went with the good old-fashioned yarn hank tail (wrap yarn around your arm from palm to elbow until you have a bunch of yarn.  Tie one end around a belt or piece of twine.  Cut the other end.  Repeat twenty-five times) and tied them onto the kids.   Participation was excellent in this and I noticed that the boys (we had four total) picked up the purple (“no, it’s not lavender”) sets with some enthusiasm.  I had expected them to go for blue or black. 

P1250032-2Rarity’s Boutique: Idea from Daisy at Home yet again, and quite possibly the part of this party I was most nervous about.  We set up a table with nail polish and nail stickers on one end, and hair chalk (we got two kinds: Hot Huez and Crayola Hair Stix and I would hands down do the Hair Stix over the Hot Huez – not only were the sticks cheaper and colors brighter, they outperformed the Huez compacts in ease of use, staying power, and sturdiness of applicator) at the other end.  I hung some glittery hair clips and some odd spiral beaded hair extensions on bobby pins (Dollar General again) on the sign, and we painted nails and chalked hair for nine little girls who all wanted it done. 

We picked up some new polish on our outing for this (I do not normally do nail polish, so we don’t keep much on hand) and I have to say Good Things about a product for a moment.  Piggy Paint is not cheap (Walmart has tiny bottles in 3-packs for $3.85) but it is extremely low odor, nontoxic, and removes with ethyl alcohol.   It covers well and dries fast.   I don’t know for durability, but I am really impressed with this stuff so far and most particularly with the part where I didn’t feel like I needed a smoke machine and lasers after helping paint four sets of nails.

P1250031This was the Girl Stuff moment that I was really concerned about. So concerned, in fact, that we had a simultaneous Pony Beading station for making bead necklaces and bracelets in case the boys wouldn’t buy into the hair chalking.  Also, M did his nails with blue glitter before the party, in order to be a Positive Role Model for the body decorating.    They were kind of standoffish at first (“what’s that?”) so we ran them through the obstacle course first to break the ice.  Later, the youngest of them came over to me and asked about the hair chalk.   I obliged, putting blue stripes in his hair.  And his brothers.  And then I just got up and left the chalk in plain sight, and they giggled and chalked among themselves.  Someone got his nails painted (we had blue and black and green, just in case).  They even got into the photobooth.

P1260087-2Photobooth: The photobooth was an absolute must after the mad success of Captain’s party.  We set up the camera with an Eye-Fi card and linked it into a computer with automatic photo printing software (I am cheap, I used an evaluation copy) hooked to one of our old printers.  Snap – print.  I’m not ecstatic about the photo quality (at least in part due to not setting up the camera with a tight enough zoom) but it made the kids happy and they all made sure to pick up a picture before leaving. 

This is the second photobooth frame I’ve made, and I’m pretty happy with the process.  We use a large sheet of foamboard and cut a square out of the middle.  Then I design my header in Word using an appropriately-themed typeface, set it to outline mode, and print it out big enough to cover the top.   I lay the paper on the foamboard and use a blunt pencil to trace the letters with lots of pressure.  This leaves an indented letter guide on the foamboard, which I trace and fill with paint markers.    It’s not perfect and it takes some work to get the indents to show (hint: strongly angled bright light) but it means I have great kerning and the typeface is usually much more consistent than my own lettering. 

For the bottom, we come up with a selection of appropriate taglines (“Most sparkle”, “120% cooler”, “Super Awesomest”, etc) and print each one on a half-sheet of paper.  Laminate (I just switched from my Xyron cold laminator to a Staples brand heat/cold laminator and I am really digging the heat lamination) and attach Velcro to the back of each tagline.   Attach Velcro to the middle of the photobooth and you have an instantly changeable sign.   Kids dig customization. 

P1260089Pony Beads: We bought some bracelet forms and beads (Colorful beads! Metallic beads! Star shaped beads!) from Oriental Trading, then added some stretchy plastic cording for longer projects.  I figured beading was something that Even Boys Do and it got some interest.  By far this was the least popular of the activities (although the younger kids enjoyed it and a lot of bracelets got made), something I attribute in part to the really obnoxiously un-tieable plastic cording and the way the beads fell off if you opened the bracelets wrong.  On the other hand, we have a whole lot of shiny metallic beads for projects. 

246px-AiP_CM_Rainbow_Dash.svgCutie Marks:  Absolutely necessary for ponies are the cutie marks.  This is another area where we put some thought into the Boys Attending problem, as the main characters in MLP are all female.  I considered face paint and then I considered my drawing ability, all the other places my skills would be needed and the amount of time painting faces requires.  So we went with option 2: temporary tattoos.   For the record, if you want the actual cutie mark temporary tattoos, Hot Topic is your store of choice.  Alternatively, you can buy the temporary tattoo cards (was this a collecting thing?) on Amazon for like a dollar a tattoo.  We originally anticipated 18-20 kids so we were looking for a higher quantity and variety.   We settled on printing our own. 

We got the images from the My Little Pony Wikia which has a gallery of cutie mark images (both official and fan-created in the MLP games).  It was an exhaustive fit of downloading, and of paying attention to what we were getting (still thinking of the Boys at the Party), which meant that we wound up with Bacon, Skulls, Dumbbells, and Tornadoes as well as more traditional marks.   I will note that there was a big argument over the Bacon cutie mark, and one of our little girl guests wound up wearing it home.  We printed them (using the Contact Sheet layout for 35 images to a page) on home-print temporary tattoo paper (no I do not own a Silhouette cutter, which is probably to my disadvantage) and ran them through the laminator on cold phase to apply the adhesive. 

Everyone wanted a cutie mark. Two or three or ten.  We had enough for everyone to have several, and a number of kids tucked some extras into their favor boxes to take home.  It set us back $18 (we got extras in case of errors) for 70 tattoos and we got to design what we wanted.  I think it was worth it.  I will note, however, that these temporary tattoos apply just like the traditional kind but when on they’re more like stickers – the adhesive is a flexible plastic film, so they will peel off more easily.  A Silhouette or other cutting machine would reduce this film issue. I will leave the judgment as to whether this is a positive or negative to the reader.  

Obstacle Course:

If there is one thing I have learned as a parent it’s that the secret to crowd control in large groups of children is motion.   Keep them moving from one activity to another and make sure there’s a reward at the end of it.  This will make sure nobody gets distracted and will also put some competition into the problem.   While I was painting nails and chalking hair, M was leading groups of kids through the obstacle course (did I mention we have a really big basement?) We did most of the following activities with a stopwatch in hand.   The actual function of the stopwatch was to lend a sense of urgency.  

We put up a sign at each station with a little rhyme about the station and some instructions, but still found that shepherding the kids through the stations in small groups to work cooperatively where possible produced the best results.  Each station had a themed completion token (small square of cardstock with appropriate clip art on it) to record times on for each kid.

P1250022Rainbow Dash’s Cloud Slalom: We are packrats (hence: big basement) and don’t throw things away until we can no longer find any use for them at all.  This led to our having at home in the basement seven extra pillows that were in use only for occasional guest bedding.   I bought some cheap pillow protectors with zipper tops and installed grommets in each corner, then suspended them from the ceiling using a staple gun on the rafters.  We duct-taped arrows onto the free-swinging pillows to make a slalom and timed kids going through.  It’s amazing how dizzy they get when dodging pillows left and right. 

P1260093Fluttershy’s Forest Friends: This station would have been easier to make if it had been “Fluttershy’s Undersea Adventure” or “Fluttershy’s Cretaceous Rumble”, given our selection of stuffed animals, but we made it work. We hid seven stuffed forest creatures (loosely defined) around the room (including a magnetic bat attached to the support I-beam) and had the kids hunt down all of the creatures.  We provided a list of animals, just in case there were problems, but working as a team the kids didn’t have much trouble.

P1260100Applejack’s Apple Stand: This one went through a bunch of iterations.  I knew I wanted it to be a “find the bad apples” puzzle, but we couldn’t settle on what kind of apples to use.  Real ones seemed wasteful and fake ones were either too expensive or too tiny – plus, what do you do with a bunch of fake fruit after the party? Then we found an apple sorting toy that looked educational and appropriate for our needs, so we bought a set of Attribute Apples and made them part of the present loot.  They come in a little cardboard bushel basket and suited our purpose perfectly: nine of the apples (one of each size and color) have a little worm sticking out.  The kids worked together to find the bad apples and save the apple stand, and we have a new educational toy for the Cap’n.

P1250035Rarity’s Fashion Fiasco: Dollar General provided a large quantity of ribbons for this project, and in doing so (they’re sold in 9-yard spools) decided the length of ribbon to work with.   I threw in a few spare ribbons from my craft remnants as confounders and taped everything to the heating duct (large flat ceiling surface that holds tape, don’t judge).  The kids had to find three matching ribbons, pull them down, and make a braid for Rarity’s high couture.   Turns out seven year olds aren’t good at braiding.  Also, for the older kids, three feet of ribbon takes a while to braid.  We modified this on the fly to “find three ribbons that match”.   Prep note: confounders are really important, as is having more sets than kids.  We had fifteen sets or so and the pickings were pretty easy for the last few.

P1260097Twilight Sparkle’s Library Emergency: Grab ten books of varying sizes and scatter on the floor. Ask the kids to sort by size.  Largest book has the token.  Be prepared to answer the question: “Largest like tallest? Or widest? Or Fattest?”  Also, maybe next time don’t let the seven year old choose the books.  Some of them were the same size.

P1260081Pinkie Pie’s Party Pop: This one was quite possibly the second favorite (after the slalom), owing to the fact that you can only pop balloons once per balloon.   We stuck the completion tokens in balloons (prep tip: round the corners, they go in better) and blew up the balloons, then told the kids they had to pop the balloons without using their hands.   Most of them got the hang of sitting on the balloon and bouncing against the concrete floor pretty quickly.  Apparently, popping balloons is something kids like to do.

Everyone who finished the obstacle course (that’s everyone) got a mystery pony package.  We wound up ordering these direct from Hasbro Toys since Walmart wanted enough for them individually that we were already going to be spending the cost of a case on our anticipated kid load.   We also bought a blank pony for decorating as a present and got the free shipping discount, since we were close and the pony was less than shipping.  The kids really liked the surprise ponies, and I think there was some trading going on.  I know one of the boys got Flam, and was really excited to have “a pony with a ‘stache”. 

The piñata:   

P1260016-1In true party tradition, we hoisted up a piñata (shaped like Pinkie Pie) and handed the kids an aluminum practice baseball bat to attack it with.  Kids over six got a blindfold.  I am sort of amused and sort of appalled by the fact that our piñata came with eight ribbon attached to the bottom and instructions for playing “the piñata game” – this involves pulling on the ribbons one at a time until one of them triggers the hidden trap door and the candy comes out.   I understand that this is safer and less violent than hitting Pinkie Pie repeatedly with a bat, but then we would miss out on the savagery of young children. 

To wit: As we hoisted the piñata, seven year old Cups yells out “we’re all murdering pony beaters!”  There were cheers from the child audience.   Vicious attacks were employed with the blindfold or without.  At one point there were half a dozen kids on the steps chanting “Kill. Kill. Kill.”   When the hanger gave way (taking the mane with it), the last few kids brutalized the carcass on the ground anyway, just to get their hits in.  And then, by the end of the party, in a move worthy of The Godfather, the kids got hold of the piñata’s remains, removed the head, and went running around with it.  I think someone took it home, against his father’s wishes. 

P1250018I am unsure whether to be appalled or fascinated by this behavior, but it renders the imagery of Lord of the Flies at once more horrific and less distant. I can only hope that we can instill in Cups a strong moral code and an awareness of the difference between a piñata and another child.

The Cake:

P1250039We finished up with cake and ice cream and present opening, and I’m just putting this part in because I want to show off the cake.  This is Rainbow Dash and the Sonic Rainboom.   It’s done in marshmallow with a fondant pony and rainbow, and my amazing sister in law made it for us.  This is the kind of birthday gift I can get behind.

We had stipulated the party was going to last until 3, but we finished with cake and ice cream and presents around 2:30, so I told the kids to “go tear down the house”, which got a cheer and a stampede.  They hit the basement, popped the remaining balloons, stuck tattoos to every exposed surface of their bodies, cut the elastic on one set of wings in half, dragged crepe paper through the whole place, and then ran in circles through the slalom until their parents dragged them away.  We sent them home with their costumes, a coloring book (thank you Hasbro downloadables), a whole lot of candy, and a decorated wooden pony.   Also, in one case, a decapitated Pinkie Pie head. 

All in all, it was a success.P1250038


Marshmallow Crème Fruit Dip:

1 13 oz jar of marshmallow crème
2 8 oz packages of softened Neufchatel (note: by softened we mean room temperature and attempting to ooze off your counter soft). 
Vanilla extract to taste (1-3 tsp, depending on how much you like vanilla)
Powdered sugar to taste (approximately 1/4 cup seems to do it)

To make:
Whip the cream cheese with a hand or stand mixer’s whisk attachment until fluffy.  Very important to achieve uniform fluffiness or lumps will remain.  Add marshmallow crème and whip it more.  Whip it real good.  While whipping, add sugar and vanilla.  Taste.  If not satisfied, add more vanilla and/or sugar.

Serve with fruit and a spoon.  Keep out of reach of small children, unless you like it when your plates are attached to the wall.


Magical Color-Changing Punch:

Chop half a head of red cabbage coarsely.  Place in a mixture of 1 part sugar to 1 part water (volume as you choose).   Boil until you like the color.  Strain through a very fine strainer to remove cabbage.   You should have a blue liquid.
This will change to a pinkish-red color in the presence of acid.  Lemonade is your best bet for a drink.

2 cans Welch’s Tropical Passion Fruit Juice Concentrate (sold in the non-frozen juice section)
1 46 ounce can of pineapple juice (this is a little shy of 1.5 liters if you measure that way)
45 ounces or so of pulp-free orange juice (we used half a “family sized” jug of Simply Orange)
4 liters of your favorite Lemon-Lime soda. 

You can, by adding equal parts indicator and punch, get a ruby grapefruit color to this.   Only your kids will drink it at this point, and it smells of cabbage so buy noseplugs.  And Beano.  Just saying.