Let’s Play Birthday Party!

Every birthday is monumental in a kid’s eyes.  Even pretend ones!  “Birthday Party” is one of my favorite dramatic play themes to set up, and the kids love it too!  Melissa & Doug know a thing or two about kids, play, and birthdays, so they’re sponsoring this post as a part of their Ultimate Birthday Bash.  (They’re also hosting an amazing giveaway, so be sure to check out those details at the end!)

Kids love to play pretend.  Spaceships, restaurants, post offices, castles — they all spring out of the simplest objects when accompanied by a child’s imagination.  I love to encourage dramatic play.  Its benefits go way beyond a little fun.

It can be overwhelming to organize and store all those little props and supplies to accommodate a child’s racing imagination.  One trick I learned for managing dramatic play props is to create a prop box.  Here’s how I created the most used prop box in our house!

To keep from having a billion prop boxes, I like to combine similar or complimentary themes into one box.  For this box, I combined the birthday party props with the pizza parlor props.  I set up the props recently for a birthday party theme as my niece came over to play.

I set up the area, covering the table with a trimmed down dollar store special table cloth, along with coordinating party plates and hats.  I used a recipe box with a bow attached only to the top as a fun and durable gift box that can be opened over and over again.

For the birthday dinner, I added Melissa & Doug’s Pretend Pizza Party, which has been a favorite in our play kitchen for years.  If only making real birthday pizza was this easy!

I’m always anxious to add literacy-building pieces to dramatic play, so for the birthday theme, I added a few birthday cards, as well as a big birthday banner, and some real world food packages you’ll see soon!

Of course, it isn’t a birthday party without a birthday cake!  I use this fantastically realistic looking candle I received as a gift from a student almost a decade ago.  It was too pretty to just burn, so it sat stashed away until I finally rescued it from the darkness of the cabinet and turned it into a prop!

In the kitchen area, I added an empty cake mix box to encourage real world connections and add environmental print.  For the same reasons, I also included a pizza box, which happens to fit our toy pizza perfectly!  (I asked a local pizza restaurant for pizza boxes and menus to put in my prop box to use for our pizza parlor theme, and they were happy to donate them.  Don’t be afraid to ask!)

Once the area was prepared the cousins set their imaginations loose!

I always love watching the play theme evolve as the kids interact, adding, elaborating, and inventing as they go.

Of course, you can never anticipate all the twists and turns dramatic play will take.  These two decided it was a dog birthday party, so the props were quickly moved to the floor, of course!


Once the theme is exhausted (which usually takes days, if not weeks for this one), all the props can be stashed away in a prop box labeled with the theme as well as the contents.  Then, when you want to set up the same theme, or simply use one of the props for another theme, it’s quick and easy to locate, use, and put away any of the props.

What’s a favorite dramatic play theme in your home or classroom?

Read more about the importance of dramatic play here and here.

Find an inspiring round up of dramatic play set-ups at Modern Parents Messy Kids here.

$500 Giveaway to spend at Melissa & Doug:

Want more Birthday Bash fun? Click here to see ALL our Birthday resources and tips, AND to enter our special Birthday Bash Giveaway, where you could win $500 to throw the Ultimate Birthday Bash from Melissa & Doug! For even more fun, be sure to check out our Birthday Wishes Pinterest Board!  Find all the benefits of the Melissa & Doug Birthday Club here.



Filed under Building Readers, Celebrate!, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

9 Responses to Let’s Play Birthday Party!

  1. A current favorite at my daycare is “Doctor’s Office” which sometimes become “Veterinarian.” We have a doctor kit that I got at the toy store with some basic tools (stethoscope, tweezers, etc.). I’ve added empty bandaid boxes, a couple of vitamin bottles and some gauze bandages. Mini-clipboards and pencils are available for doctors who need to take notes. This theme comes and goes often, especially if one of the kids has had a recent doctor visit.

    • That’s a favorite here too! (And I would definitely combine doctor’s office and veterinarian for a prop box.) I’ve always wanted to score some old X-rays to add, but haven’t found the right ones yet. Though I did land a huge gauze pad that covers the whole exam table for the animal puppets, which works perfectly!

      • Evelyn

        I also include a tallying activity: How many heart shapes can you find in the house (or a particular room)? We go on a quest to see where we find any hearts, like on blankets, toys, pictures on the wall, etc. It’s amazing how hearts there in one room , let alone the whole house! We make a tally mark for each one. They get so excited when they spot one on their own!! Using a mini clipboard for this would work wonderfully! Then, we count by 5’s when we are done.

  2. Pingback: The Melissa & Doug Ultimate Birthday Bash! - Melissa & Doug Blog

  3. I love this idea! Most of the time everything is all thrown together, so organizing and combining props by event would make playing so much easier. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Emma

    Great blog…. I really enjoy reading it (when I get the time!!). I read this post the other day, and thought it was a wonderful idea and told myself I should buy some storage boxes and start collecting extra props and sorting some of the kids toys into prop boxes. But then as I thought about it more, and throughout the week watched my 3.5 year old son use random items as completely different objects (a small US flag from 4th of July was a “gold medal” today!), I wondered… would pre-prepared boxes of props for pretend play not actually stifle his imagination more than enhance it? For the longest time, I held off buying a toy kitchen, even though he loved the one at his daycare, as he would often use the sofa as an oven – lifting up the cushion “door” and putting in the “food” (mardi gras beads, blocks, dirty socks, you name it) to cook. Or he would take some “salmon” (fish from a magnetic fishing game) and put them under the “grill” (table in our breakfast nook). But now that he has a proper toy kitchen, he cooks the food that came with it, in the pans that came with it, in the cute little oven & microwave… but I haven’t seen him “cook” any random toys in odd “appliances” since : (
    Also… with a prop box, I can TOTALLY see him wanting ME to set everything up for him just so (like he does with board games or train tracks or some of the “busy bag” activities we got from friends), whereas usually he is great playing by himself or with his little sister and just making everything up, getting dressed up, and putting things “in the right place” all by himself. For example, today they made a house with cushions and the side of the sofa, and I’m not quite sure what they were doing in there, but it involved baby doll and a TON of stuffed animals, and it was only after about 30 minutes of happy playing and the odd whinge at each other, that I went upstairs to check out what they were doing (and wouldn’t have even done that, except I needed to give them the 5 minute warning that we would be going out).
    I’d appreciate your thoughts… am I taking the “independent/free-range play” thing a bit too far, and would it actually be good for him to have a little more structure to his play sometimes?
    I do set up activities for him sometimes, usually during his “quiet time” while baby sister naps, but generally I just let him fend for himself among the assortment of toys, costumes, books, and random items in his bedroom.
    Thanks, Emma

    • Great points, Emma. I really see what you’re talking about. I think, first off, I’d say the prop box is as much for me as for them. It helps me to organize what I have so I can find it later rather than having a tangled mess somewhere. It’s also a great tool for schools where you do have teachers setting up a planned activity before children arrive. The children certainly can add to and improvise, but the teachers need their materials organized in order to prepare the environment.

      I think you make a very valid point in that children are great at using their imaginations and that is something we want to encourage. It’s hard to know sometimes if giving them props encourages an extension of the play they create naturally or if it will stifle it (as you mentioned your concern with your son). I generally check to see if the structure provides a theme for open-ended play or if it becomes more of a pre-scripted, passive activity. To me, that’s where the dividing line is.

      I think you’re doing it right with a balance — free-range play, as you say, and structured play. I think kids need both. If you feel like he’s waiting on you for the “right” way when he should be self-guiding, just encourage him to do it on your own. When kids ask for me to do an activity for them I try to excitedly tell them I want to see how they will do it. Maybe make it a “surprise”.

      I hope that helps!

  5. Are your prop boxes accessable to the kids at all times or do you rotate them out of storage?

    Also, my oldest (3.5) doesn’t seem to be able to pretend well. She’s very literal and scientific. Should I keep tying to push her to pretend or should I just go with her inclinations and set up activities/scenarios that I know she would enjoy. For example, she loves sensory bins that allow her to run things through her fingers or scoop and dump but doesn’t do any pretending with the bins if I include animals or figurines. What do you recommend?

    • notjustcute

      I usually keep the prop boxes in a separate closet. The children can help get them out almost any time, but it helps to not have EVERY prop out at the same time. It’s another one of those balance issues where you want the kids to have creative liberty, so I am flexible about getting items out, but you I don’t want EVERYTHING out because you can’t have total chaos either or you lose some of the focus of the play (along with my sanity).

      As for encouraging pretend play, I think you play to the child’s strengths, but also give opportunities to stretch and grow. So keep giving her sensory activities and talking about literal things, but keeep putting those figurine in and making dramatic play props accessible too. But don’t push the issue too much either. Play is supposed to be fun. Pay attention to particular interests and see if there are ways to tie them into dramatic play opportunities. For example, if she likes being scientific and analytical, pretend to be scientists collecting data outside and bringing it back to the lab. Much of the work you do will truly be scientific, but you can add some extra elements with a pretend lab or pretending your excursion is out in the jungle instead of just the back yard. If she doesn’t dig it, that’s OK too. She may also tune in to reenacting something from a favorite book or story she knows, since that is more literal, but it still uses some of the same creative, dramatic play skills. Good luck!

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