No matter the holiday, size of gathering and age range of guests, you’ll need stuff to do: crafts and activities. You can program one edible craft for a home party, or organize 30 supervised activity stations for a blowout Hanukkah Carnival or Purim Carnival.
Looking for a short, educational holiday demo for a school visit? Please see my Holiday School Visits: Show and Tell pages for those.
In general, good parties and carnivals keep kids and families busy making and doing. Active engagement puts people at ease, promotes schmoozing (social time), and educates (sneakily, without seeming to). Select a variety of crafts and activities that can appeal to the widest possible range of interests and abilities. For example, some kids may hate paper crafts and would rather build something, play a game or decorate a cookie. Some kids are happy staying at one activity, some kids want to sample everything.
My favorite challenge of holiday parties is to make everything, absolutely everything thematic. Over-the-top thematic. Even if it’s just changing the name of a familiar game or changing ordinary materials for something relevant to the holiday story or custom. Why? It’s fun, funny and memorable. It makes the celebration feel deeper, even if a few individual components are cheesy or kitschy. An example pictured here is Sufganiyah on a String, which is just the classic hands-free donut game renamed for Hanukkah. Sufganiyah is Hebrew for donut, which is a traditional Israeli Hanukkah treat. The game becomes thematic and also makes a tasty excuse for party-goers to learn a new Hebrew word.
I’ll be speaking in terms of “stations,” working on the assumption that each craft or activity will be at one station. The stations can be successive in one area or spread out simultaneously. At large parties with mixed ages, it works well to designate an area for activities appropriate for young children. Even if the littlest ones want to explore the larger areas, they will still have a comfortable homebase from which to venture.
BUT FIRST, PARTY BASICS:
Typical party components are Music, Movement, Making, Story, Food.
These need not be kept separate. A station can combine Movement and Food (like Hanukkah Sufganiyot on a String), Making and Food (like Hanukkah Edible Dreidels), Music and Movement (like Hanukkah Freeze), Story and Movement (like Purim Costume Parade), and so on.
Music: Avoid the awkward, silent beginnings of a gathering by playing thematic music on a boombox near the entrance. Another option—especially for big events in a facility— is a TV/DVD cart with an appropriate photo montage or movie. Add a few chairs for folks who are interested in watching, for nursing moms (who might welcome sitting near something that diverts attention from their boobs), and for the rest it can be ambiance. If your party needs a group holiday song to kick things off, choose a song most people know or post the text visibly. A poster or projector is better than a handout, but the latter can be taken home and perhaps used again.
Movement: Games of skill and chance can be adapted to the holiday. One of my favorite inventions (if I do say so myself) is a Connect-4 boardgame played not with checkers, but with specially adapted silver gelt vs. gold gelt (it took hours to prepare but it was worth it). Most kids like games that involve tossing, throwing, bowling, and aiming in general, and all of these can be made thematic by changing the object or the target.
For example, here are a few variations on a simple Tossing Game. See “Toss Tips” right after the list: they really make a difference in overall fun factor.
• Falafel Toss (toss brown, round bean bags into a big stockpot).
• Latke Toss (toss flat, brown beanbag discs into a big frying pan).
• Hamantasch Toss (toss colored beanbag “fillings” into giant velcro covered Hamatasch).
• Hamantaschen Toss: Cornhole (toss triangle beanbags into Haman’s mouth.) Decorate poster board with Haman’s face, cut hole for mouth that aligns with hole on Cornhole board or sandwich board), tape to board.
• Matzah Ball Toss (toss homemade or store-bought matzah beanbag balls into big stockpot). OyToys.com sells juggling matzah balls. Pingpong balls spraypainted tan/beige work, too, and if you are utterly obsessive you may add dark brown dots with a permanent marker.
• Matzah Ball Toss, Big (toss inflatable or plush matzah ball into Little Tykes BBall stand, aluminum beverage tub (to mimic giant stockpot) or large, colorful, plastic bowl (to mimic serving bowl).
• Plague Toss (toss toys that represent one plague or several into big cardboard box shaped like a pyramid with an open side.
• Tzedakah Toss (toss coins into jar). Post a sign that shows where the donated money will go (add a picture for the kids who can’t read yet).
• Menorah Ring Toss (toss wooden or plastic curtain rings onto the 9 arms of a menorah.) You may have to tape the menorah to the floor for stability.
Toss Tips: For most tossing games, blue painter’s tape is your best friend. It makes lane and throw lines on any floor surface and can be lifted easily at clean-up. A toss game without a border/lane clearly marked, and without throw lines is nebulous. It needs definition to really attract players. A great place to start is beside a wall, parallel with the tossing lane. This keeps flying objects in check on one side, and also helps prevent passersby from accidentally walking through the line of fire. Also, if the target is on the floor, make a visual anchor point for it. Otherwise, the target will mysteriously shift or disappear. Just shape 6 pieces of blue tape into a big Star of David. (I warned you I like thematic.)
Another Toss Tip: Signage. Just a piece of printer paper with the game name in BIG LETTERS is okay. Add a picture and even kids who can’t read yet will understand. To throw a brown ball into a stockpot is marginally entertaining, but if the kids know its called “Felafel Toss” (because there is a sign near the target with a picture of a real felafel), it is more fun.
Also, tossing games need an attendant to keep things fair and safe. Set up a folding chair near the target (but not too close or attendant will get pelted).
More Movement: Dancing, dramatic play, costume parades, photo booth or photo board cut-out posing station.
Making: Any craft. Search this site.
Story (the Holiday Story): Puppet shows, professional storytellers, a theatre student or a teacher who is good at stories can all convey the reason for the season. Young kids can have a designated story time with a decent picture book about the holiday. Or, ask fearless adults to dress in character and staff a station or walk around and generate questions. For example, as Judah Maccabee or Queen Esther or Moses. At Purim, story is taken care of with a Purim Shpiel, a spoofy, dramatic telling or acting out of the Purim story.
Suplementary story-telling options:
The story can be embedded in crafts and activities, but the signage and supervision of a station will need to play a part. For example, at an Origami Dreidel station, the letters we put on each side of the dreidel tell, sort of, the reason for the season. If a table sign posts the letters and what they mean, kids are reminded A Great Miracle Happened There. A station leader can reinforce this when she helps kids fold. Another option: remember that TV/DVD set up near the entrance? Play short videos about the holiday, like for young kids, a Shalom Sesame DVD.