Let’s face it, life can be hectic. Sometimes you don’t have time to put on a show-stopping birthday party. Admit it, sometimes we want to impress other parents with our amazing parties! I know I do! I love some good bloggy eye-candy, but the truth is, with three boys who aren’t even in grade school yet, I just don’t have the time and energy to put on a Martha Stewart level party extravaganza.

The good news is, kids are just as impressed by simple ideas as they are by show-stopping ideas.

Here are a few quick party games I threw together in just minutes at my youngest son’s first birthday party. The kids had a great time with these activities, and I was so happy that they took minimal time and preparation to pull off.

The best last-minute games use things you already have on hand, and are simple to understand and quick to learn.

1. Stacking Contest

Did you know that stacking is now a popular competitive sport in schools? You can use the same concept for a fun party game. In sport stacking, players try to replicate a specific stacked pattern as fast as they can using plastic cups. In my version, we used what we had on hand: foam building blocks. The object: to build the tallest tower. Prizes are optional, but nice if it’s a competitive game.

Use large plastic party cups purchased from the dollar store, or something you have on hand, like these building blocks. Even Legos would work. Give each player a bin full of blocks or a stack of cups.

  • Grade school version: Use cups, and have players try to replicate a specific pattern, like in sport stacking. Sequences are usually pyramids of three, six, or ten cups. Players compete against each other to see who can build the sequence quickest.
  • Preschool version: Build a tower as tall as you can. Everyone can build at the same time, and there is no specific winner.

2. Clothespin Drop

This is an oldie but goodie. I remember doing the clothespin drop game at my birthday parties when I was a kid in the 80s! If you don’t have clothespins, substitute blocks or beanbags (or whatever else you have on hand).

Supplies you need:

  • 5-10 clothespins
  • A Mason jar or other container (I used a gallon pitcher) — the wider the mouth the better for younger children
  • A chair

To Play:

Chair is placed with Mason jar behind it. Child sits on her knees facing the chair back and drops clothespins over the back of the chair into the jar. Prizes for the person who gets the most clothespins in the jar.

  • Baby/Toddler Version: Seat child next to the container (NOT a glass jar), and give them a few clothespins. Show them how to put a clothespin in the container. They’ll have fun putting clothespins in and taking them out.

3. Beanbag Toss

I threw together a makeshift beanbag toss for my kids in about five minutes. The older kids and adults enjoyed the challenge of throwing the beanbags through the holes. The toddlers liked walking up to the box and putting beanbags in the holes.

Supplies you need:

  • A medium-sized cardboard box (I used one of those open-faced fruit boxes from Costco)
  • Markers
  • Utility scissors or utility knife
  • 1-3 Beanbags

Draw three 5-7″ diameter circles on the bottom of the box. Put a number from 1-3 next to each circle. The numbers are the point values for each hole. Cut each circle out with utility knife or scissors. The bigger the holes, the easier it is to get the beanbag through them. If children are older, vary the sizes of the holes, with smaller holes being worth more points.

To Play:

Set box upright or leaning against the wall, and have child throw beanbags — aiming to get them through the holes. Throw the beanbag three times and the person with the highest number of total points wins.

Optional: you might want to mark a line on the floor with tape so kids know where to stand to toss the beanbag. If there’s a wide range of ages at your party, make several lines (closer for younger children, farther away for older children).

Other Ideas:

Basically any carnival game can be adapted to be a fun party game. Some are easier and quicker to put together than others. Just remember that simple and easy to understand is always a great way to go!

Games for babies and toddlers should be non-competitive and focus on fun/funny activities:

  • water and sand stations (for outside parties)
  • funny hats to try on (buy at the dollar store or thrift store)
  • small pile of blocks or other toys
  • put objects inside or under other objects (put balls in buckets)

pin the tail on the donkey

Preschoolers can understand games with simple rules that require a bit of skill:

  • bowling: group empty cans together and roll a ball toward them to knock them over
  • mixing bowl ball toss: arrange tiered mixing bowls in a row and toss a ball or beanbag into them
  • fishing pond: block a doorway off with a blanket or sheet and make a fishing rod with a broom handle, cord, and clothespin. Child throws “hook” over the blanket and gets a small trinket on the end of his pole.
  • pin the tail on the donkey (or Put the Hard Hat on Bob the Builder, or something that goes with your party theme)

Remember to keep your games simple and use stuff you have on hand! Kids love simplicity, and so will you.

Heather Mann, a mother of three boys, is a kids crafts contributor at Make and Takes. She publishes Dollar Store Crafts, a daily blog devoted to hip crafting at dollar store prices, CROQ Zine, a print magazine devoted to hip crafting, and also CraftFail, a community blog that encourages crafters to share their not-so-successful craft attempts.