Bells clang. Lights flash. Buzzers blare. Children scream.
Bug-eyed creatures turn repetitive 45-degree angles, and machines spit paper tickets like some kind of mechanical vomit.
Many parents exclaim the virtues of these popular children's entertainment venues. They say such places are secure. Kids can run free and have a good time while parents chat over coffee — or in some cases, beer — and then drive home fuss-free. Discuss amongst yourselves.
My focus remains on the "fun" of such exploits, which, by the way, continues even after a family leaves the building. Because inevitably, some cheap plastic prize a child gets in return for those tickets ends up lost or broken before the car reaches the driveway. Even the most well-balanced kid, overstimulated by free soda refills, screeching monkeys and humming lasers, is ill-equipped to deal well.
I can't help but question why humans, as relatively intelligent beings, pay money to do this and call it "fun."
An ad dubs one of these chains as a place where, "a kid can be a kid." Well, a kid can also be a kid in my dining room with as much fun, half the cost and no migraine.
I was reminded a few years ago of the good old late '70s to early '80s b-day parties when my sister hosted one in that vein for her daughter. A few girls came. They played simple, charming games I loved as a kid, like tossing pennies into mason jars, and transferring cotton balls with a spoon from one bowl to another while blindfolded. The girls were surprised and how hard the cotton game was to do and how silly they looked. They had so much fun they were laughing out loud. There was cake and ice cream and everyone left happy.
My two youngest children have birthdays during the same week. Most years, birthday celebrations have been a favorite meal, parents and siblings singing happy birthday, then cake, ice cream and presents. A couple times, we've gone the commercial play center route, but I've never sprung for a "party package."
This year, when my daughter turned 7, she wanted to celebrate with friends. She mentioned theme-based places. But we decided to take a more traditional approach and invite a handful of her friends over for a couple hours one evening.
She loves art and crafting, so we covered the dining room table with a white disposable cloth and an array of markers, paper, googly eyes, pipe cleaners and the like. I granted her request for some Rosemary Clooney and Harry Connick Jr. tunes, and we put out some snacks.
I wasn't sure how long this pursuit would keep the group occupied. Pleasingly, an hour and 10 minutes in, I had to ask if we could clear a space among the masterpieces for a cake so we could sing happy birthday and give gifts.
There was no cringe-worthy shelling of cash for uneaten pizza, overpriced drinks and evermore tokens; no frenzied child round-up; no clamoring amid boisterous chaos for pointless trinkets; no eye-bugging and no headache.
There was time for adults to converse while children played in the comfort of home; a birthday celebration; and a reminder that life is not about the bells and whistles, and that trendy or more expensive doesn't mean better.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Birthday at home was fun for all
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