The “to the stars” birthday party is almost a birthright for American boys (and many girls for that matter). The fascination with space exploration for children has been there pretty much since Sputnik hit the skies in the 1950s. Indeed, back then the fascination with going into space itself was a novel and amazing fantasy—the notion of going up in a space ship and walking on the moon was often enough to be entertainment in itself.
But, even back then, the Adventures of Buck Rogers showed that once the imagination reaches pace, it wanted to imprint the same dramatic conflicts we find here on earth. Six shooters morph into laser guns. Bad Bart’s nasty moustache becomes Ming the Merciless’ sinister goatee. It was only a matter of time before our vision of space was filled with the same life-or-death struggles that populates so much of our earth-bound fantasy.
It’s funny now, as a half-century or so later, the excitement over space travel has been turned on its ear. A jaded American public now has a hard time envisioning the need, and the adventure of space exploration. It’s turned into a far more niche fascination. But the “nerd stuff” of space fantasy has gone far more mainstream, be it Star Trek, Star Wars, or Avatar. For kids, The Final Frontier is far more about what evil lurks out in the stars, rather than the wonders.
That nerdy lament aside, the challenge of the modern Sci-Fi birthday party is how to have one that engages on the level kids desire, but perhaps point away from a “point and fire” session. That’s not to say there’s no fun in that. Major kudos go out my way to friends of ours who had a Star Wars birthday party, and fashioned light sabers out of household plastic piping and swim flotation noodles. Boppin’ good time had by all! But there are some themes within science fiction that can really be turned away from the more classic conflict end, toward something more cooperative. Let me give you some examples from the two Sci-Fi parties, I’ve given, Star Wars and Star Trek.
Use The Force: A magic power to lift things, turn things, carry things, read thoughts, command others, etc.? Just testing a young Padwan’s ability to use the force opens a whole host of opportunities that have absolutely nothing to do with combat. Reflex games (hot potato), prediction games (how many fingers am I holding up?), sensory challenge games (the Piñata!) can all be fashioned into testing the young apprentice’s ability to control those pesky midi-chlorians.
Another way to think about using the Force is you being the Force. This works particularly well at younger ages. For example, Gus wanted a Star Wars/Baseball birthday party at 4. I merged the two loves of his life at the time with a game of Light Saber t-ball. Simple enough to set up, but many of the kids simply didn’t know their way around a baseball diamond, or were afraid of getting out. So when they were in danger, they called upon The Force (me), and I lifted them up and shuttled them around the diamond, avoiding tags while humming the Star Wars theme. With suspension of disbelief so high at that age, grown ups picking them, or objects up and moving them around as they use The Force is a great way to keep them engaged. We also had a rousing game of “Jedi-Jedi-Sith” (aka Duck-Duck-Goose). So even renaming more simple party games into themed ones can do the trick.
Strange New Worlds: I’ve spoken ad nauseum about the virtues of Star Trek’s core messages. But Star Trek also brings with it some crazy looking, and very well defined alien races. For Gus’ 8th, we created a Star Fleet Academy training for the fellas, and used the races in what we called “Communicator Conundrum.” I came up with tongue twisters that involved alien races from Gorn to Andorian to Horta, and the boys got one minute to get their personal puzzle down. They then had to talk to the ship computer (Gus’ Bubbie hiding in the laundry room with the other side of the walkie-talkie) and say the tongue twister without a mistake (or many mistakes, anyway). Each twister had hints as to the associated alien race (mostly physical, as not all the cadets were fully versed in the social rituals of the Gorn), and then the team had 2 minutes to get all the tongue twisters correctly associated with the picture of the correct alien.
To see how well they could handle a starship’s computer and work under pressure, we created a game called “Red Alert!” The key for this was a relatively inexpensive, but quite cool electronic Cubed Puzzle Game. We simply timed each one to see how many puzzles they could put together, and how quickly, putting a benchmark time on what was “Starfleet Accepted.” This ended up being a surprise hit of the party, with the kids wanting to use this puzzle over and over even after they were done with the task.
Now, much like using light sabers for baseball bats, it is about impossible to do a Sci-Fi game without some kind of weapon use. We used silly string guns for a phaser target shoot. Of course, desperate to shoot each other, I did give them some time to run around and zap—but I did note that “phasers were on stun” so it ended up more as a game of freeze-tag rather than kill your friend. We did something similar at Gus’ recent Marvel Super Heroes party that turned out really well—I’ll give you the dope on this in a post or two.
I think there are other ways to get the space theme going strong in other ways. Indeed, there’s a reason why they call it a “Moon Bounce.” But it really comes down to extracting the central themes that are exciting about what they like, but as much as possible, the ones that go away from the wham-bang path. And, like Luke dropping his light-saber in Return of the Jedi, such themes are really there for the taking upon examination.
Party Long, And Prosper…