Preschoolers are in heaven when they're down on the farm. They revel in the sublime mix of baby animals, rambling tractors, and big stacks of hay. If you've got a barnyard aficionado in your brood, throw this old-fashioned hoedown, which offers a mix of dress-up, games and, most of all, the chance to play make-believe.
When guests receive this clever invitation, they'll have to throw open the barn doors to find out the party details. To make one, cut out a barn shape from red card stock. Cut and fold back a set of barn doors and loft doors. Next, coat the perimeter of the barn's back (avoiding the doors) with a glue stick and press firmly onto white card stock. Carefully cut around the barn, then outline the roof. Write the party information on the inside and cap off the invitation by putting an animal sticker in the loft.
Let the "animals" pig out on farm feed--a variety of foods that look like hay, grains, vegetables or (to be not so delicate) slop. French fries and pasta may pass for hay; granola makes excellent grains. For dessert, pile on This Little Piggy cake.
Host this party outdoors so you won't be picking hay out of the rug for the next year. Spread a checked tablecloth on a picnic table and scatter the area with hay. Build a big red barn out of a large rectangular box. To make the barn, use scissors to round the front and back flaps on the top of the box (this will form the barn's rounded roof). Fold the smaller side flaps in toward the middle to work as supports. Next, cut out barn doors with an X-Acto knife (parents only). Decorate the barn with red tempera paint and add trim with white tape. Now raise the roof by taping together a few sheets of white poster board (end to end), lightly creasing them to round the roof, and taping them atop the barn.
As kids come to the door, grown-up farmers (parents dressed in overalls) can turn them into their favorite animals. Along with face paints or store-bought animal noses, have construction paper on hand to make headbands with ears. Be prepared to design most anything your guests want to be: horses, cows, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and geese. Your designs can be simple--a yellow feathery headband and a plastic beak for a chicken, and a set of pink ears and a plastic snout for a pig. At this age, a little goes a long way.
As each animal is ready, let him or her play in the pretend barn. Horses can practice jumping, cows can graze, donkeys can be stubborn. Encourage each animal to practice her sound, waddle or walk. Because this kind of play can escalate into horsing around, plan some quiet activities too. The kids might choose their animal names or pretend to nap in a pile of hay.
After the animals have had their fill of fun in the cardboard barn, play classic farm games that everyone knows the rules to, such as pin the tail on the donkey or duck-duck-goose. Make sure that everybody wins at least once.
LOST ANIMAL SEARCH: It's the farmer's job to call all the animals in from the pasture, but sometimes an animal gets lost. To play this game, the kids, now pretending to be farmers, must find all the lost animals (plastic or stuffed ones that have been hidden in the yard) and bring them back safely to the barn before the sun goes down.
PRIZES IN A HAYSTACK: Hide inexpensive candy and prizes in a pile of hay, then give each child a minute or two to dig through and find a handful of goodies to take home.
WAGON HAYRIDE: You could set up a real hayride for the kids, if you know of a farm or stable that provides such a service. In lieu of real horses and hay wagons, being pulled around the yard in a little red wagon filled with hay is almost as thrilling to young kids.
ANIMAL SOUNDS BINGO: To make each game card for this farm version of bingo, draw a nine-square grid on a piece of paper. Add a star in the center square for a free space and fill each remaining square with a sticker from a set of eight different animals (each card should have a mixture of the same animals). To play, kids mark their cards with buttons when they hear a parent call out an animal noise that matches a sticker. When one player covers a row or column, he calls out "Bingo!"
An instant photograph of each dressed-up farm animal will serve as the perfect thanks. The birthday child should be in the picture too, with a hoof around his pal.
Let farm guests pick prize "apples" from a tree. To make an apple, fill a red bandanna or fabric piece with plastic farm animals, tiny toy tractors or trucks, or farm stickers. Tie the bandannas with yarn to resemble apples and hang them from a tree for guests to pick after eating cake.
Why not add a moo-velous cow cake to your Barnyard Party?