Turning 10 should be special. That’s what Tameisha King was thinking as she googled virtual birthday ideas — and nearly broke the internet. Within minutes, she found inspiration for crafting get-togethers, group movie streaming, pizza parties, and more. “I wanted to do everything,” recalls the mother of two. So she did.
King realized that by combining several ideas into a loose schedule of online and hands-on activities, she could stretch out the fun through the evening and into the following morning. In the process, she could also try to recreate the magic of a sleepover with a few close families, and give her son a birthday worthy of his double digits.
Watching kids reach important milestones under the glow of a computer screen hasn’t been easy for most parents. In Los Angeles, where King and her family live, school has been fully virtual since March of 2021, and any in-person play has been masked, outdoors, and very limited.
“We’re all missing so many life moments right now, and it sucks,” says Abbie Schiller, founder and CEO of The Mother Company and a personal life coach. But it’s also a time when parents can help teach emotional literacy, Schiller says, like modeling appropriate responses to the “bummer of a no-party year” — and connecting with friends in new and safe ways.
In the best of times (and in a trusted home), sleepovers let kids “flex their independence and create an adventure in their PJs,” Schiller says. And while it may be impossible to recreate every aspect of an in-person overnight online, the spirit of excitement and friendship is what truly counts. “I really wanted the kids to be able to ‘hang out’ and have that authentic experience,” King says.
A virtual overnight has its advantages too. For one, it allows first-time “guests” a smoother introduction into a right of passage that not every child may be prepared to handle. And nervous parents can rest assured they won’t get any awkward phone calls at 1 am.
Older kids and tweens will get the most out of virtual overnights, says Schiller. The key is to give them enough space apart from siblings and parents, so that they really feel “together, away from the norm.”
If a late night — and lazy morning — of online games, treats, and laughs sounds like your kid’s kind of party, we’ve got plenty of ideas to get you started.
1. Choose a Mix of Online and Hands-on Activities
It’s hard to imagine a sleepover without some movie magic. Luckily, in 2021 the options for multi-device movie streaming are plentiful. Services like Teleparty and Scener offer free, simultaneous streamed movies and shows plus a chat feature for Netflix, Disney, Hulu and HBO customers on Google Chrome. Many of these platforms also offer their own group streaming options too, like Hulu’s Watch Party service, Disney Plus Party and Amazon’s Prime Video Watch Party.
If you’re willing to pay $5 for a one-year subscription, Kast is a popular streaming app that allows you to share video in real time with friends. People like Kast because it has a built-in video chat in addition to text, and guests don’t have to sign up. Just know movie choices are limited.
An open Zoom chat mixed with online games is a good way to break the ice and get the party started. Kahoot offers free, fun trivia quizzes that you can design yourself on topics as far-ranging as “cute small dogs” or “Mandalorian: Season 2.” If you’ve got gamers in the house, you may want to build in time for multiplayer platform games like Roblox, Minecraft or Among Us (with a Zoom chat going in the background). Kids can also try their hand at a fun online version of Pictionary at Scribbl.io, or check out other free online games like Connect 4 and Battleship at Papergames.io.
If you plan on streaming a movie in the evening, a hands-on craft or building project is a great way to mix things up for the morning. Something simple is best, like a Solar Powered Robot kit from Green Science, or a DIY Butterfly Wind Chime from Creativity for Kids. You can deliver kits to guests ahead of time (more on that below), or plan a simple art project with supplies that are easy to find at home. Children can chat and work on their project together online, or finish later on with their families.
Your schedule might go something like this:
5:30pm Zoom chat room opens
6–7pm Online games and chat
9:30pm Free online play and chat
10:00pm Chat room ends
8:30am Zoom chat room opens
9-10am Hands-on project and hangout
10-10:30am Birthday treat, “Happy Birthday” & goodbye!
2. Make Food Part of the Fun
If the idea of a birthday without pizza or cupcakes is unthinkable, don’t fret. There are lots of creative ways to get delicious party food on everyone’s table.
Simple, three-ingredient “pita bread pizzas” are easy to assemble and bake over Zoom, with parental supervision of course. (Spread one tablespoon of pizza sauce on the flat side of a Greek-style pita, sprinkle with shredded mozzarella cheese, and bake on a greased, foil-lined baking pan at 425 F for 10 minutes).
If you can afford the expense, having a large pizza delivered to each house is a wonderful way to make families feel extra special. Another option is to coordinate with guests and have pizzas delivered around the same time. Either way, your local pizza parlor will certainly appreciate the extra business.
As for sweets, simple packaged madeleine cookies, toaster pastries, or cake pops are perennial kid favorites and easy to coordinate from afar. But if distance isn’t an issue, build up a little excitement by delivering the individually packaged treat of your choice to each home before the party. This is also a great opportunity to set up your guests with a few more supplies for the big night.
3. Deliver the Party Supplies
After deciding on the details of your “sleepover,” and saving the date with a small number of families, it’s time to get practical and decide what kids will need for the party (besides a laptop) to keep them entertained.
A party supply box or gift bag is a fun way to play up the birthday theme and help kids bridge the cyber space between them. If you’re unsure of what to include, a snack, activity or craft supplies, a birthday treat, and a personal note make for a nice basic package. Growing kids will appreciate a granola bar or a pack of microwave popcorn to munch on while streaming a movie together. Single hot chocolate packets are always popular; or if you’re building aluminum-can robots, consider including a can of soda with a “Don’t Throw Away” note, alongside your handwritten card.
For guests who live far away, it may be easier to work with parents ahead of time and create a simple “party supply scavenger hunt” that each child can collect at home to prepare for the fun. But if everyone lives within driving distance, try teaming up with your child to pack and deliver party boxes yourselves the day before.
Paper cake boxes and multicolored gift bags are affordable, roomy and always available at Amazon or Michael’s, and they’re easy to dress up with tissue paper and stickers. Websites like MakeStickers and Vistaprint offer fast turnaround for personalized party labels, but Microsoft Word also has dozens of preset Avery label templates built in.
For some kids, driving around town to hand deliver their party supplies is half the fun. Adults can text each other ahead of time, and decide whether to use the opportunity to say hi from a safe distance.
If you prefer to avoid in-person contact, transform party box delivery into a “top secret mission” with your child, dropping off packages like a masked Robin Hood before you whisk off to the next home.
In times like these, it’s comforting to know that a new adventure is waiting right around the corner.
Mimi Sabo is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. Her writing and musings on food can be found on her blog DontLickYourknife.