Q. We’ll soon be throwing a birthday party for our preschool-age son. There is a very firm social protocol for parties at my son’s school, and it includes “treat bags.” The treat bags sometimes involve candy, and they always involve disposable, cheap, probably toxic, and undoubtedly not fair-trade little novelty toys. Unfortunately, the kids LOVE them. We don’t have the budget to furnish 20+ guests with $5 worth of “eco” toys each. Any chance you can think of sources for ethical, inexpensive little playthings, or fun and creative alternatives to the treat bag tradition?

Amy
Daytona Beach, Fla.

A. Dearest Amy,

If I’ve learned anything in preparing this post, it’s that there exists an underground world of parents who secretly loathe birthday party treat bags. Some decry the greedy consumerism they breed, some stress out about keeping up with the Joneses’ favors, and others just don’t need any more plastic crap in the house. But for some reason, nobody speaks up. Parents keep dishing out favors that they find distasteful to the children of other parents who’d rather not receive them in the first place. It’s madness, I tell you.

Still, Amy, you have a firm social protocol to deal with here. And I suspect your concerns stem a lot more from what the other parents will think of you than the opinions of your son and his friends. (Kids love those junky toys, sure, but there are a hundred other ways to send them home happy besides loading them up with cheap plastic racecars.) If you don’t want to cry emperor’s new clothes on treat bags entirely, there are plenty of creative, eco-friendly alternatives to the usual birthday party swag out there.

The way I see it, your choices fall into a few broad categories. You should pick your strategy based on time, budget, party theme, and whether or not you’re the kind of person who likes to stay up late using a hot glue gun.

Option 1: You make the favors

If you have some extra time and/or are fairly crafty, creating a handmade favor is an excellent solution. How about whipping up a big batch of homemade play-dough and sending each kid home with a brightly colored ball? Or some homemade finger paints? Friendship bracelets or beaded jewelry? You might try molding custom crayons out of old crayon stubs and cookie trays or candy molds. And you don’t need to get carried away, either: Making your own favors can be as simple as tying up marbles in scraps of old cloth. Head over here for 40 more DIY projects: Stamps! Superhero masks! Juggling balls!

DIY can also stand for Darn, It’s Yummy — don’t overlook the edible party favor. Rather than sending the frosting-hyped little monsters home with still more sugar, you can skew this healthier and make pouches of granola, trail mix, muffins, or popcorn. Or you can bake a batch of cookies. Hey, it is a party.

Option 2: The kids make the favors

Kids love crafts. It’s in their DNA, right up there with dinosaurs and ponies. And when you set up an art project as part of the party, you get an activity and a favor in one fell swoop. You might have the pint-sized guests make popsicle-stick picture frames or tie-dyed t-shirts, tissue-paper flowers, button bracelets, or bedecked crowns. I especially like the idea of kids decorating tiny flower pots and planting their own seeds to take home and watch grow. This is just a bare sampling of the many crafty ideas out there — if you have a spare hour or 12, wade into Pinterest and see what grabs you.

Option 3: Buy something

If you’re short on time, or the idea of 20 paint-smeared five-year-olds in your living room weakens your knees, you can always just buy favors. They need not be expensive, and you don’t necessarily have to shop at a green party goods store. Art supplies are popular and useful: What about crayons and a coloring book? Or sidewalk chalk? Or think games and stock those bags with mini-puzzles or card games, which can be affordable at dollar stores. Or send every kid home with an inexpensive book. Nicer toys, like tiny wooden tops or cars, are also pretty cool, but can get pricey fast.

Option 4: No favors

A bold move, perhaps, but a valid one. Let’s get it out there: Parents, you don’t have to provide treat bags. Showing a bunch of preschoolers a good time for a few hours is more than enough. And Amy, I’d bet there are at least a few members of the anti-favor brigade among your guests’ parents — they’ll be the ones sighing with relief, and think of how happy they’ll be when their offspring’s birthday rolls around and they can point to your proud example as a reason not to send junk home with all the rugrats. You can be in-your-face about this (“In lieu of treat bags, I’ve made a donation to Bobby’s favorite charity, the Pony-and-Dinosaur Rescue Fund”) or not say a thing. Any kid (or parent) who demands a treat bag before leaving has bigger problems than you can solve with an action figure, anyway.

To close, I’ve rounded up a few battle-tested suggestions from Grist’s staff parents:

“I’ve given out mini recycled-paper journals. Metal cookie cutters. Tiny books about nature, like this.” — shy staffer who prefers to remain anonymous

“For my kid’s third birthday, I had all the kids make hats. I cut out templates before the party and put out a bunch of stickers and crayons for them to decorate with. Then we all wore our hats and put on a parade around the neighborhood … My favorite favor came from a party where every kid was asked to bring a book and there was a blind book exchange. Every kid went home with one, and it was well-received by 5-year-olds.” — Brice Gosnell, president

“We’ve tended to do themed-parties, like the year I was a pirate captain, when our daughter was 5ish, and I led the kids on a quest to find a treasure chest that turned out to be filled with … NATURE-y things, like stones, leaves, and shells. To curb disappointment, we’ve always fed the kids lots of homemade treats (cupcakes) and made gifts like pirate hats” — another media-shy staffer

“In ten years of parenting and 16 birthdays hosted, I’ve sent kids home with beautiful, big glass marbles, peacock feathers, bunches of fresh herbs (we heard for weeks after stories of how they were used in cooking, set by a bedside, mixed into a magic potion, etc.), seed packets, fairy wings (substitute superhero capes for boys), card games, socks — and nothing. Yes, nothing. Last year we took 10 kids to the movies, provided them with snack bags of home-popped popcorn and a small organic chocolate bar or organic gummies, and then we fed them a delicious spaghetti dinner. Did they need a favor? Nope.” — Tara Thomas, whose husband, Greg Hansocm, is one of Grist’s senior editors.

Make-a-wishfully,
Umbra