I had the honor of planning my six-year-old granddaughter’s birthday party. My daughter is a resident doctor and had no time to plan due to her long hours, so she asked me to help and I gladly accepted. My granddaughter is at such a fun age, she is in Kindergarten and has been in full party mode, attending her classmates' parties all year - so she knows what she wants!
Now as an educator and a grandparent, I wanted to ensure that the party was inclusive and accessible to all guests. To do this, I followed the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework as a way to create a barrier-free, inclusive party.
In setting out to plan for the party - I started with the goal (shared by my daughter), to create a memorable experience for my granddaughter, her friends, and the guests. Then I began the process of proactively and intentionally outlining all anticipated barriers so we could plan accordingly. I wanted to give voice and choice for food, friends, and venue to the birthday girl and her parents because they are the ones who would make the final decision. So, in collaboration with my family, we aligned on the key components of the party and then outlined the potential barriers:
Budget is a huge consideration when planning a party. I needed to understand what the total budget was - and within that - what were the most important elements so that I could weigh how much to spend on each component. Once I had that information, I was able to plan how much we were going to spend on each area: the decorations, the venue, the food, the birthday dress, the gifts, etc.
My granddaughter wanted to invite all her friends from her class. My daughter also had a list of guests. I looked at the guests; there was age variability. I pocketed this info knowing that I would need to plan accordingly to ensure that I planned for the number of attendees (venue size, seating options), offered (enough) food and activities, and created experiences that would be enjoyable for all parties. By recognizing and addressing the variability in your guest list, you can ensure that everyone feels included and has an enjoyable time at the birthday party.
Venue and Time
When planning where and when to have a party - there are a lot of things to consider such as:
- Where would we like to have the party: outdoors or indoors?
- Will the weather be an issue? If so, how can we plan accordingly?
- Is the venue accessible for all attendees?
- What time would we like to have it? Depending on the time of year and the average age of the guests, potentials barriers include:
- Bedtime/nap time
- Popular activities with conflicting times such as soccer games, swim lessons, etc.
- How long will the party last?
Party Theme Selection
When choosing a theme, consider your child's interests and any potential barriers to participation that specific themes may present. My granddaughter decided to choose a unicorn theme for her party. Alternatively, if some children are sensitive to loud noises or bright lights, consider a more subdued theme that considers these sensitivities.
The next step in planning a birthday party is designing invitations. Consider using visuals, such as pictures or symbols, in addition to text when designing invitations. The invitation can help make the invitations more accessible to guests with difficulty reading or understanding written text. Additionally, consider providing alternative formats, such as video or audio, for guests with vision or hearing impairments. Consider asking about food preferences to be sent with the RSVP to ensure all are included and proper safety measures are considered for allergies.
When planning activities for the birthday party, consider offering a range of options that appeal to different interests and abilities. If some guests prefer quieter activities or may not know everyone, consider providing arts and crafts supplies or board games. Just be sure you have adults on hand to help manage the different activities! You can ensure that all guests feel included (and have opportunities to have fun) by offering various activities for kids.
Food and Drink Selection
When selecting food and drinks for the birthday party, consider offering a range of options that accommodate different dietary restrictions and preferences. For example, consider offering vegetarian, vegan, nut-free, and gluten-free options and a variety of beverages that include both sugary and non-sugary options. Additionally, consider providing information about the ingredients used in each dish, or have the info on hand, to help guests with food allergies or sensitivities make informed choices. We need to address food sensitivity by checking with guests proactively (Tips for making a safe space for kids with allergies at parties).
When selecting party favors, consider providing items that are both fun and accessible to all guests. For example, consider giving sensory toys, such as stress balls or fidget spinners, to guests who benefit from tactile stimulation. Provide items that celebrate a range of abilities and strengths.
After planning, it was time to implement; I looked at the goal, materials, and method, but I needed to decide how I would evaluate if the birthday party catered to the needs of all guests. Although all details were considered proactively and intentionally, as the guests were leaving, we kept a suggestion book to help gather feedback. Once the party was over - we also sat down and shared our favorite moments and highlighted any learnings that we could take from the party. We’ll be sure to consider the peer evaluation and our personal reflection for future parties.
Looking back, I was so glad that I planned a birthday party by following the UDL principles. The beauty of UDL is that we are creating expert learners that are prepared to tackle barriers faced inside and outside of the classroom. As an expert learner myself, I was able to assess, reflect, and implement strategies to create a birthday party that everyone could enjoy - and the cake was good too :-)!