September brings a birthday celebration in our home. Our younger daughter turned two this month, so I have had birthday parties on my mind. As I purged the toys in our playroom before her birthday arrived, I thought about how quickly we accumulate stuff.

Thinking about all that stuff reminded me of The Story of Stuff, a short but powerful look at consumerism and consumption in Western culture.

At the close of this short film, the audience is challenged to consider doing things “another way”. I realized it was time for my family to have an alternative approach to birthday celebrations.

Here are nine ideas for “another way” to celebrate birthdays.


1. Go handmade.

Rather than purchasing pre-made, impersonal party invitations by the pack, personalize the invite by sending invitations created by your child. Most families have some child-created art around the house—this is the perfect opportunity to repurpose it for new life. Drawings could be mod-podged onto cardstock and slipped into envelopes, or you could turn your children loose with some glitter, glue, and paper and let the festive muse inspire.

2. Go electronic.

Create and send online invitations via evite. Of course, if you wanted to really go back-to-the-basics, you could rely on good old-fashioned email to spread the word about your child’s party. This is a great waste-free alternative to the mailed invitation.


3. Give back.

Plan activities that will honor a person, group, business, or service that brings happiness to your child.

If your toddler delights in storytime at the public library, have the guests create a giant card to say “thank you” to the librarians and library staff. If your preschooler is fascinated with fire trucks, invite party guests to make several batches of cookies or other sweet treats to deliver to the local fire department.

Be creative. This is a wonderful way to celebrate the little things that bring joy to your child without bringing more stuff into your home.

4. Bless others.

Pick a charity or relief organization focused on children, and at the party, create something to donate to your chosen organization.

For example, find a simple stuffed animal pattern before the party, and gather the materials needed for each guest to create one (repurpose material you already have around the house). Party guests can each create one of the stuffed animals.

While they create the animals, talk to the guests about the organization you and your children have chosen to bless.

5. Go simple.

Really simple! Don’t buy a single thing for any of the party’s activities. Encourage adults at the party to teach the guests some of their favorite and “vintage” party games. Turn everyone loose outside for freeze tag, or have the adults create a scavenger hunt. Challenge yourself to cut out any unnecessary stuff when it comes to party activities.


6. Celebrate local food.

Shop the farmers’ market, food co-ops, roadside stands, and local farms for fresh produce, and plan the party menu around whatever is in season. Sweet potatoes in season? Why not serve sweet potato pie? Summer birthdays can be celebrated with a blueberry cobbler made from blueberries gathered at the local U-Pick. Orange ginger cookies would be wonderful for a winter birthday.

This is a sweet and inviting way to advocate buying locally and eating seasonally.


7. Ask for handmade well wishes.

If your focus is on less stuff, the issue of gifts will have to be addressed. To take really bold action against consumption, you could ask guests to forgo traditional gifts.

Rather than showering the guest of honor with toys or clothes, ask each guest to bring a letter-sized paper filled with words and pictures that celebrate the birthday child. Collages, poems, songs, inside jokes, and favorite memories could fill pages that you could slip into a photo album after the party.

Rather than bringing in more “stuff” that will eventually be tossed or outgrown, your child would have a tangible reminder of his value and worth.

8. Ask for a gift to donate to charity.

When my friend Angela’s youngest daughter turned one, she asked guests to bring a donation to the local crisis pregnancy center in lieu of more toys for the birthday girl.

Consider the organizations that are in need of donations in your community, and invite party guests to partner with your family in meeting the needs of others.

9. Give gift ideas to the insistent.

Some guests will insist on bringing a gift for the Birthday Girl. If a friend or family member really wants to buy a present for the child, the most loving response is gracious acceptance.

When someone asks for gift suggestions, let them know you’re open to pre-loved toys or clothes from resale shops. Those who want to buy something brand new could be directed to local merchants and small businesses, or to online venues which feature handmade toys and clothes (such as Etsy or Hyena Cart.

In some social circles, birthday parties can turn into competitions of extravagance and—ultimately—waste. It takes courage and conviction to stand apart from the crowd and choose to celebrate another way. I can’t help but believe the alternative path here is one of deep satisfaction and meaningful reward.