When you were very little, birthday parties involved running around in someone's basement or backyard, a dad making something like a beanbag toss out of cardboard, someone's aunt or babysitter dressing up like a clown, and ruthless, unending games of Simon Says or (its more embarrassing cousin) Red Rover.
Those parties are over. Almost obsolete.
Play centers have done for birthday parties what "healthy burritos" have done for fast food: all of the pleasure, none of the worry.
To date, there are eight play centers in Rochester, though what constitutes a play center (according to Kids Out and About) may be as simple as a large space with toys in it. The most basic of these centers is just that: a wide, open space where kids can play with or on toys (some of which they may already have at home), roam around, and from what I've seen, give their parents a break from the tedium of being home when inclement weather or too many trips to the zoo and museums is enough. These are also good spots for play dates, when no one wants to host because the house is beyond embarrassingly unkempt.
The birth of the play center, to my mind, goes something like this: first, there was Chuck-E-Cheese, where kids could lose themselves playing in pools of germy, colored balls but then gorge themselves on greasy pizza. Then, someone invented the play gym. Here, finally, were big spaces outfitted with wall-to-wall, cushy, floor mats and apparatuses for kids to play on, around, under, etc. The play gym asserts a curriculum for youngsters (e.g., "the difference between under vs. over" or "balancing") while offering a structured class. Classes in play gyms tend to include (in no particular order): a welcome song, open play ("discovery"), other songs that involve clapping, banging the floor, or active multitasking (like spinning and singing), a modeled lesson that connects to the day's theme ("balance this ball on your head!"), more open play, and a goodbye song. Sometimes there are bubbles. Kids freakin' love bubbles.
A really intelligent someone then figured out that if you take the structure and the bubbles away, you have a play center where kids can literally go ape. Again, the most basic of these play centers have stuff, like plastic cars and dress-up stations, that some people already have at home. The more sophisticated of these places, however, have climbing structures replete with zip lines and mesh to scale (imagine basic training for kids, but fun and with no sergeant barking orders).
Which brings us to The New Birthday Party. With the popularity of such sophisticated play centers, such as our own local favorite, Kango, came the idea that if you're going to do the play date here, you might as well have the whole pre-K clan and let them romp to their hearts' contentment. A birthday party at Kango is to take the worry out of throwing a party: you know everyone will have a good time, you're not legally responsible for anyone getting hurt, and all you have to bring is the kid and the cake. They've got it covered, from scheduling when to call kids to the party room for pizza, to serving the pizza, to bringing more pizza should the adults need more, to providing the paper goods, beverages, and thankfully, a really professional "party coordinator" who does a thankless but incredibly thorough job. This person deserves a nice tip at the end of the party she just helped you throw, and maybe even a hug.
When the kids are all in one place, eating their pizzas and cake and whatnot--this is the remnant of the old-fashioned birthday party. I hope to witness the emergence of do-it-yourself variety, but wow--for now, I'm really happy to get out of the house and to not have to worry about any of the clean up.
photo source: marthastewart.com