Since young children have a natural inclination to pillage and plunder, pirate parties are always in fashion. Readers Connie and Tony Bonaccio told us that they were hooked by the flexibility of this theme and all the swashbuckling fun, which made their son Ben's fourth birthday party a blast. It was such a hit that they threw the same party for their younger son Nick when he turned four.
Let's face it: The reason pirating was once such a popular career choice was because of the loot, so a treasure hunt is a sure bet. Hand the captain (the birthday child) a map, covered with decades of dust (a pinch of flour). Inside, write a message about a stash of treasure hidden somewhere in your yard or house. For example: "As any pirate ought to know, this is where tomatoes grow." Each guest gets to guess the answer to a riddle, and as a pack, the guests can run to wherever the clue leads and find another one. At the Bonaccios' party, Connie came up with a great variation for young kids. She used Polaroid picture clues instead of written ones. At hunt's end, be sure to hide a suitable prize, such as a stash of candy coins.
Organize the rest of your party around two principles: that pirates are an energetic lot, and that they like to take home lots of booty.
•Walk the plank. The Bonaccios secured a board across a Little Tykes pool with duct tape. They set toy alligators in the pool for ambience, then each child got to walk across. Upon reaching the other side, the pirate was awarded a Hook Hand. To make one, cut a slit in the bottom of a plastic cup. Cut a hook shape out of cardboard, wrap with foil, and slip it through the slit in the cup.
•Make spyglasses. Have kids cover the end of a toilet-paper tube with a square of colored cellophane and fix it in place with a rubber band.
•Tick tock, find the croc. With a little imagination, an egg timer makes a suitable crocodile. Have pirates try to locate the hidden croc by its tick, before the bell rings.
•Musical islands. Set as many hula hoops on the floor as you have guests, and play music. Pirates must walk around the hoops until you turn off the tunes, at which point they must be standing inside one of the "islands" or they're out. Every few minutes, take away a hoop, until only one seafarer remains.
Your pirates can leave with quite a haul, such as gummy fish, temporary tattoos or candy necklaces.
Spear a wooden skewer through a small piece of paper to make a schooner sail and set it in the middle of a hot dog. Add a few Goldfish crackers and the fearsome pirate cake below.