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Kids' birthday parties in the COVID era: How to celebrate big with less risk

Kids' birthday parties in the COVID era: How to celebrate big with less risk

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My 7-year-old son’s birthday party last year involved 10 boys sweating it out at the trampoline park and then gathering around the cake together, singing “Happy Birthday” and sneaking swipes of frosting. It’s enough to make a germaphobe wince in the best of times, but in our current COVID climate of hand sanitizer, mask wearing and social distance, the traditional child’s birthday party runs high on the risk scale.

Moms and dads are already weary from exhausting months of homeschooling or balancing childcare with work duties. Now, if faced with an upcoming birthday on the calendar, they have to drum up ways to make it feel fun and meaningful without the traditional birthday fare.

Shelby Phelan of Vinton knows what that’s like — her son Connor turned 10 last month. “We just wanted to make the day feel special, and that’s hard to do when the days have been monotonous for months,” Phelan said.

After participating in a “virtual hug” for a friend’s 40th birthday, Phelan and her husband, Chris, decided to organize one for Connor, soliciting video messages via VidHug ( to turn into a montage of greetings. People ranging from soccer teammates to out-of-town family recorded messages in advance, and the Phelans showed the compilation video to Connor on his birthday. “We decided that it would be a fun way to surprise Connor, and lift his spirits knowing this year’s birthday may feel less eventful than years past.”

Connor loved the VidHug, his mother said — friends did trampoline tricks, sang, listed their favorite things about Connor and did cannonballs into a lake. “He just kept exclaiming ‘What!?’ while he watched,” Phelan said. “It caught him by surprise and made his day. We were able to send it to family who wanted to see it and download it to have as a keepsake for him.”

We talked to other local parents and companies who put together unique surprises and birthday plans that you can adapt for your family’s next celebration. Whether your budget is limitless or limited, you have options — the Phelans’ video hug was just $15.

Virtual parties and messages

When COVID-19 shuttered schools and offices, the technology company Zoom became a household term. Your kids may have used it for school, so why not for a birthday party? Users can sign up and use the app for free (under 40 minutes at a time) and can provide a code to friends to join a live party. To up the excitement factor, make formal invitations and provide an activity that the group can do together on the call.

Emily McCahill, who runs Bay & Branch Plant Design in Roanoke, usually hosts in-person plant parties but now has pivoted to virtual ones. “I think it’s a lot of fun, because it’s a shared experience — everyone is doing the same thing at the same time,” McCahill said. A kit from Bay & Branch comes with pots, supplies to decorate the pot, soil and plants. The kit can be personalized with favorite colors or themes, and can be dropped off contact-free before the party date for as little as $20 per kit.

Other crafts that can work well for Zoom are wood crafts, jewelry and beading. Such kits can be found at Michaels, dollar stores and online.

While Zoom provides a live party experience, VidHug and Loom are platforms to record messages, so friends and family can do that in advance of the big day. VidHugs can be downloaded and kept forever, so you can watch as often as you’d like. Loom is a bit clunkier to use but has a no-cost option.

Front-yard celebrations

Social distancing is easier outside, in wide open spaces. Whether your front yard is tiny or huge, you can use it for birthday fun. The Roanoke franchise of Sign Gypsies, run by two Northside Middle School teachers, can set up an oversize celebratory greeting, personalized for your kid’s birthday. The franchise got going before COVID, said co-owner Lauren Burgess, but current demand has hit the roof.

“Everyone is so limited in what they can do, and where they can go,” Burgess said. “This has been a great way to celebrate, and we’ve doubled our business during COVID. A lot of that has been graduations and birthdays.”

Integrating a yard sign with a drive-by birthday parade is another idea. One of Burgess’ clients had a 16-year-old sit in the front yard in a chair decorated with balloons, and a sign said “Honk for the birthday” as friends waved from cars. Feeling like dousing the birthday kid with water on a hot day? In the spirit of a carnival dunk booth, have the parade throw water balloons from car windows — prizes for direct hits add a little incentive. This is not for everyone, but older kids and teens might enjoy the challenge of ducking from friends’ throws.

Speaking of hot summer days, renting an ice cream or treat truck is a cool idea. Kona Ice, Blue Cow Ice Cream and Mama Crockett’s Cider Donuts are three local trucks that can be rented for special events. Or fire up your fire pit for s’mores and set up a movie screen in the yard with blankets 6 feet apart for a camp-style birthday for a small crowd. There are many movie screen and projector options on the market now, and they set up easily. Sound Decisions and Audiotronics in Roanoke can help you pick out equipment for purchase, or you can rent an entire setup from Aztec Rental for approximately $300. Expect that price for purchasing an entry-level projector of your own, while top-of-the-line models cost over $1,000.

Local outdoor options

Venture beyond your yard and take advantage of the outdoor options in Roanoke and surrounding towns. For older kids, gathering a few friends for a hike, biking trip or outdoor adventure for a birthday outing cures cabin fever and scratches that itch to move. Find hikes and bike trails appropriate for your kid’s age and ability at

At Explore Park in Roanoke County, Treetop Quest is open with social distancing in place and serves kids 4 and older, as well as adults. Participants soar through the forest on swings and ziplines, and balance on tightropes. A small group can have fun together without any physical contact.

Another outdoor option is to rent a boat for the day on Claytor or Smith Mountain lakes and bring a couple of friends for tubing, swimming or fishing. Rental companies can issue a one-day boating license, and will rent tubes, wakeboards and other water equipment. Try Bridgewater Marina at Smith Mountain Lake, or Claytor Lake Water Sports.

To get on the water with less time and money commitment, try Douthat State Park, Carvins Cove or Fairy Stone State Park for paddle boats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboard rentals.

Megan Hanks of Roanoke devised a neighborhood birthday party for her 4-year-old son, Jonah. A huge Halloween fan, Jonah requested a trick-or-treat party for his June birthday. Hanks got the neighbors involved, setting up a 15-house trick-or-treat route for party guests, who were able to stay in socially distanced family groups as they made their way through Raleigh Court.

“As a parent of young kids, I’m desperate for face-to-face activities where we are out of the house and doing something fun,” Hanks said. “This gave everyone that opportunity, and neighbors helped make the day special. People were just phenomenal, and I hope they got to enjoy seeing all the kids dressed up.”

COVID-19 has touched every aspect of life, but you can still make a birthday memorable and fun this summer with some flexibility and creativity.

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