Ask any preschooler what he or she would like to be, and the answer is bound to be something four-legged, hairy, and hopelessly noisy which is precisely why jungle parties are such a roaring success. Birthday celebrations are still a novelty for this age group, so keep games and food familiar and limit the wild rumpus to five guests and a two-hour get-together.
Send out the call to your child's favorite party animals with an unfolding pachyderm. From an 8 1/2- by 11-inch sheet of gray paper, cut out the shape of an elephant's head and trunk and draw in the eyes and tusks. Fold in one ear over the face, then the other. On the top ear, write "You're invited"; on the second ear, write "to [the birthday child's] unforgettable ..." Fold the two ears back out, then write "Jungle" on the left ear and "Party!" on the right. On the trunk, fill in the party information, including a request that each child bring a favorite stuffed animal. Fold up the trunk accordion-style, then fold in each ear and place the card in an envelope.
Any favor that is striped or spotted is gold with this crew (remember that two or three prizes still feel like a big haul to them). Shop for small animal figures, jungle noses, animal stickers, windup creatures, animal coloring books, tropical-flavored candy, or boxes of animal crackers. The plastic sand pails used in The Great Peanut Hunt make durable favor bags.
With decorations, as with favors, a little goes a long way. Traditional party decor -- balloons, streamers, or strings of lights -- in tropical colors turns the average house into a deep, not-so-dark jungle. Cordon off an area of the party room with string and hang a sign labeled Jungle Petting Zoo. When the guests arrive with stuffed animals in tow, they can set them in a comfortingly nearby spot.
As any four-year-old will tell you, it's the stripes that make the zebra. With quick-to-make headbands, kids can decorate and don their animal alter egos as soon as they hit the party. Before the event, cut out one poster board strip (roughly 3 by 20 inches) for each guest, adding the ears for a particular animal (rounded ears for a tiger, say, or ears and horns for a giraffe). At party time, set out the strips on a newspaper-covered table or bench and scatter around a pile of crayons or water-soluble markers. Children can pick whichever blank headband they like, then color it. Measure the band around the child's' head, then staple the ends so that it fits snugly. A touch of face paint -- for whiskers, stripes, spots, or a black nose -- completes each child's costume.
Because three- to five-year-olds have a split-second attention span, the best party games are variations on those they already know. Try the ones below or invent your own version of your child's favorite (Tarzan says? Monkey, may I? Jungle tag?). Remember to plan a quiet activity for the party's end when kids are waiting to get picked up; a jungle story or favorite video helps wound-up kids wind down.
A great mixer for new arrivals, this game gets even the bashful hissing and howling. Before the party, sort through old magazines with your child, cutting out pictures of animals and pasting them on index cards. At the party, each child gets a turn to pick a card. She must then act out her creature (no words are allowed, but animal noises are encouraged) until the others shout out her identity. When the animal is guessed, the rest of the party goers get to jump up and act out the same animal together.
Like most winning games, this twist on duck, duck, goose combines suspense, action, and make-believe. Kids sit in a circle on the floor. One partygoer, the lion, tucks a homemade tail (a yellow piece of fabric with a knot in one end) into his waistband and begins circling, touching each child on the head and saying "Lion." When he decides he wants some action, he touches a player on the head and shouts "Hyena!" The lion then must dash around the circle and take the hyena's spot before the hyena can grab the lion's tail. If his tail is snatched, he remains the lion; if not, the crafty hyena becomes the new king of the jungle.
Like an Easter egg hunt, this simple contest indulges kids' love of discovering surprises. Before the guests arrive, hide unshelled peanuts around the yard or house. At the party, explain to the kids that they, as elephants, must go out in search of a tasty meal. Give each child a plastic sand pail, then send your trumpeting herd out to forage. Offer a small prize for the partygoer who harvests the biggest crop.
A great finale, this activity lets little ones cap off the party with a wild forest chorus. Before the party, the host parent sets up a "paw print" trail throughout the house (poster board cutouts taped to the floor). Come parade time, party goers gather their animals from the Jungle Petting Zoo and line up behind the birthday child at the beginning of the paw print trail. When the host parent puts on some music (The Jungle Book sound track, for example, or any other well-loved animal tunes), the children and their pets can begin their merry march through the jungle, continuing until the music ends.
Organizationally, a sit-down lunch is still your best bet for three- to five-year-olds. Stick to a simple and reassuringly familiar menu, such as the one below, that helps ensure cake and ice cream are the dessert, and not the main course.