Birthday party planning can be stressful. I get it. I have nine-year-old twin boys and we’ve had our fair share of big, blowout birthday parties. For a few years, we invited all 60(!) of their classmates. Thankfully, our days of parties are over. Now we try to invite a few close friends for a special activity like mini-golf or Great America. If you’re just getting started with your planning, you’re in luck. I’m sharing my recommendations for the best parties I’ve planned, researched or attended.
Emily Oaks Nature Center
All year round, Emily Oaks Nature Center in Skokie will help you host an unforgettable outdoor-themed event. We hosted a summer party there a few years ago where attendees were “transformed” into mice and went on a nature walk through the woods where they hid from foxes, made a mouse house and found mouse food. Later we went back inside to make a woodland-themed craft. The indoor party room is spacious and you can bring in any food or cake you want. We got catering from Brown's Chicken because they offer really affordable options including pasta. Emily Oaks has a nice outdoor playground if you want to continue the party or entertain children waiting for a parent to pick them up.
The choices for party themes at Emily Oaks have so much variety. They have themes built around birds, bugs, bees, coyotes—you name it! There are even nighttime options like storytelling around a campfire and roasting s’mores. Their parties are perfect for kids age 3-10. Activities are limited to 25 children but the party room can hold 70—plenty of space for parents or family members to hang out and celebrate along with the birthday kid and their friends.
What kid wouldn’t want to see their name on the marquee of a movie theater? We hosted one of our favorite parties at Facets and I highly recommend it, especially for large groups. They’ll curate a custom screening of award-winning short films from their Chicago International Children's Film Festival archive. Optional add-ons include popcorn and drinks. After the screening, head upstairs to the party room where you can serve food and cake. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing option, Sweet Mandy B’s is less than 5 minutes away, making pre-party pickup a breeze.
Art Side Out Studio and Mask Shop
I recently drove by this storefront art studio and literally did a double take. I had to pull over to write it down so I could look it up later. Turns out this creative mask shop is also the perfect place to host a birthday party. Teaching artists will assist groups from 5-45 in creating unique and individual masks. Transform into a butterfly, a bear, a dragon—the sky’s the limit.
Farther north on Western Avenue is my family’s favorite frozen custard shop, Lickity Split. They cater special events and their custard is so delicious. Need to tire out the troops after a few hours of intense art-making? Head to nearby Indian Boundary Park for a romp through the old-fashioned wooden playground (bigger and better than Oz Park) or explore the new nature play center. Then go home and take a well-deserved nap.
Cradles to Crayons
Have a child who is exceptionally altruistic? Eschew the traditional birthday party and have friends and family join you for a volunteer shift at Cradles to Crayons. They provide children from birth through age 12 living in homeless or low-income situations with the essential items they need to thrive—at home, at school and at play. Children as young as 5 can help sort donations in their warehouse. If you’re looking for a way to give but not ready to ditch a party completely, have guests bring toy donations for Lurie Children’s Hospital. They take gift donations all year, not just during the holidays.