A Robustly Crafty Elmo Birthday Party

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For the month or two preceding my daughter’s second birthday, I was seemingly in the bedeviling throes of an insane amount of self-imposed crafting and domestic arts for a toddler’s birthday party at home, or what I deemed “Operation Elmo Birthday Party”. Yet, even inching towards the finish line, i.e. the wee hours of the morning prior to a 10:30 start time the next day, I felt an extension of energy throughout the summer, that, though quite busy, was never really stressful, Rather, it offered creative bursts of activity that were the, hey, I did it! personally-fulfilling kind. It is as if I had embodied the infectious, positive attitude of Elmo himself.

Friends warned me that, post-party, I might suffer a mental crash afterwards, with any adrenaline I was running on depleted or with a project-based mission now absent. But I really haven’t felt any of that. Instead, I totally want to write about it—partially because the general lack of readership of my blog more or less means I am journaling for personal edification, not blogging for public consumption. But, I also wish to identify the myriad sources who have paved the way of Elmo and Sesame Street toddler birthday parties before me, permitting me to then build on their really great and numerous ideas which, might, in turn, spark your own version of an ultimate toddler birthday party on the scale of crafty, as they did for me. Without further ado,

Invitations

Elmo party photo invitation

My daughter, as probably 95% of the American population of humans (and I bet some dogs) around age 2 or 3 are wont to do, was hyper-happy about Elmo’s existence in our known and fictional world. The idea for an Elmo party occurred to me about half a year before her actual birthday. No, I didn’t ask her what she wanted. Yes, I chose the theme for her. And, yes, I am healing whatever I might have felt was lacking in my childhood through her, though, frankly, at 18 to 24 months, without Elmo’s tutelage on an episode of Elmo’s World about birthdays, I’m not sure she would’ve known what one even was. (Now she knows.) Just right for an invitation, I had captured a photo of her sitting on one of those coin-operated mechanical rides you see at strip malls or in front of supermarkets. This became a pivotal theme-setter for the party.

Tip #1: With a little forethought, establish the party theme with a photo card invitation. Rather than using licensed character illustrations for paper or email invitations, take a pic of your child with that character (on a ride, holding a plush toy, at an amusement park or store featuring the character, etc.). My daughter’s toddler friends were really pleased to receive an invitation in the mail with her photo, at an age when pairing names and faces are still a teaching tool.

Party Games & Activities

Cookie Monster’s Toss Your Cookies Game, made from a Cookie Monster face with cut-out mouth and handmade felt bean bags (which continue to get play at our house in the pretend kitchen).

Cookie Monster Toss Game

Pin the Nose (and Eyes) on Elmo, a handmade felt face stuffed with batting.

pin the nose on Elmo

Dorothy’s airbnb Prize Game. This activity is derived from the classic carnival game where picking a numbered object yields an inexpensive prize.

DorothyairbnbGame(1)

For whatever reason, I was just really, really averse to buying more plastic single-purpose toys for the sake of a party, and, though I contemplated having a tub of rubber duckies so each child could also take one home, I decided that this, however logically inconsistent (because, please, I was still totally committed to shopping at Dollar Tree and Target for the cheap, mostly “Made in China” goods), was unnecessary and wasteful for the purpose sought. So, what I ended up doing was spending at least an hour of design work around a sign just to create a story around why it was not Ernie’s rubber duckies or why Dorothy’s fish bowl had no Dorothy, but, instead, three turtle bath toys we already had around the house. All the while, Dorothy’s bowl is not a fishbowl at all, but an empty glass kimchi jar. The drawers, an IKEA Helmer red enamel rolling drawer unit, was a piece of small furniture we already had that was emptied out for the party to serve as the prize drawers as well as the display stand for the game.

So, the story goes that Dorothy’s actually on vacation and has subletted her fish bowl to the three turtles via an airbnb listing. Drawers 1, 2 and 3 had either a 25-piece puzzle, 2-pack palm-sized board books or flash cards for prizes, all Sesame Street and from Dollar Tree.

oscarstattooparlor(1)

Oscar’s Tattoo Parlor. Besides very, very tiny Oscar the Grouch stickers on the sign, the grimy guy is noticeably absent here, as we ran out of steam towards the end of the week to figure out how to draw him well. The idea for Oscar’s Tattoo Parlor came from a superb and jawdroppingly beautiful sign discovered in my late night Sesame Street reconnaissance. The green plastic trash can contains a paper towels as well as a water-soaked washcloth to apply the Sesame Street temporary tattoos.

Sesame Street Coloring and Activity Pages (free downloads and more free downloads). The coffee table was set up with crayons and coloring pages available from official and licensed sources.

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Three Sweet Make-ahead Tea Sandwiches

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I was recently conscripted to contribute a dish for an impromptu playground picnic as a summer farewell to our daughter’s play friend, who was graduating from exclusively at-home care and entering the world of pre-school, and the friend’s caregiver, who had, thankfully, landed another gig with a new family. The goal was to provide a one-container, transit-friendly food that both kids and adults could enjoy at the park. Tea sandwiches, a.k.a. finger sandwiches, made from ingredients already in our house were really the only solution since the request came to me the evening before the planned outing the next day. Tea sandwiches are a bit on the dainty and, for some, not very filling end of the potluck spectrum, but I think they are a pleasing, casual complement and daytime snack. Recall, the operative word is that the event would be a potluck, so we’re talking shared responsibility here; the onus to feed big and little tummies is not all on you!

Box of Tea Sandwiches

When I think high tea and sandwiches, I think of the charming, mostly feminine experience of afternoon tea at Lovejoy’s Tea Room, a local shop and restaurant here in San Francisco, or even the refined style of proper tea at an elegant hotel like The Palace. I think cucumbers. I definitely think cream cheese. But this picnic was going to be for a few toddlers and their moms and nannies and, for prepping at 7pm the night before, one of the sandwiches was—for sure—going to be peanut butter, fancy or not. (Note: We were certain there would be no picnickers with any known nut allergies.)

Here, essentially, are the steps to make these three kinds of fun, tasty (and vegetarian) finger sandwiches to satisfy the sweet tooth using uncomplicated ingredients:

peanut butter banana
honey cream cheese raisin
strawberry cream cheese

The foundational premise in make-ahead sandwiches is to keep them fresh but not soggy, and for the filling to be spreadable on a delicate slice of bread, from end to end.

Equipment + Materials

an electric mixer
a long serrated bread knife
a spreading knife or butter knife
an airtight container
wax paper
damp paper towels (soaked under the faucet and thoroughly wrung-out)

Ingredients (for 36 little sandwiches, 12 of each kind)

9 slices white bread
9 slices whole grain bread
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened at room temperature for 30 minutes
1-2 teaspoons milk
1-2 tablespoons honey, to taste
½ cup raisins
6-8 medium strawberries, sliced thin
½ banana, sliced thin
a few scoops peanut butter (or equivalent non-peanut/nut substitute)

Preparing the fillings:

  1. For peanut butter sandwiches, do nothing for now! These are, of course, pretty straightforward.
  2. For both varieties of cream cheese sandwiches, mix cream cheese on low to medium speed, slowly adding milk, until you achieve a silky texture. Set aside approximately ½ of the batch.
  3. With the remaining ½ batch in the mixing bowl, slowly add honey to mix. Then fold in raisins.

Preparing the sandwiches:

  1. You will need 6 slices of bread for each variety, for 12 sandwich quarters (shaped like triangles or rectangles, depending on the cut).
  2. In this recipe, I paired the peanut butter banana with whole grain bread for both sides, the honey raisin cream cheese with a slice each of whole grain and white, and the strawberry cream cheese with white bread for both sides.
  3. Cover one side of each slice with your spread from end to end. The spreads will serve as a moisture barrier from the more wet ingredients.
  4. For the sandwiches with fresh fruit, top with one even layer of fruit slices on one side.
  5. Neatly stack the 3 whole sandwiches and gently saw away the crusts on all four sides.
  6. Cutting diagonally or cross-wise to make finger sandwich quarters.

Preparing for storage:

Gently stack the sandwiches standing up, i.e. not flat on their sides in a container lined with wax paper. Top each layer with another piece of wax paper and, over that, with a damp paper towel. I recently found these nicely square 10” x 10” BPA-free plastic food containers at the local Dollar Tree that fit all of the tea sandwiches in the recipe. Refrigerate.

Other tips:

Be aware that the banana slices will turn brown if you are making your tea sandwiches ahead of time, but I wouldn’t worry too much, as taste is not affected, the brown bananas blend in with the peanut butter, and kids won’t care!

For a cute alternative, use sturdy metal cookie or biscuit cutters to cut out fun shapes. Beware of sandwich wastage and lower yield using this method, of course.

Other probably wiser sandwich-makers advise against using whole grain bread, but I find that, for the peanut butter and honey-raisin based sandwiches, the whole grain lends a nice nutty texture. Deploy alternative bread slices at your own discretion.

tea sandwiches

Making these finger sandwiches felt like an easy, yet creatively homemade endeavor and, I think, a nice fallback recipe for informal gatherings in the future. I am, however, fascinated (in the way watching a circus performer put his head inside the mouth of a lion or bear is fascinating) by the idea of making 800 tea sandwiches for a party of 250.

My Craft Year

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It was last year, a year in which my daughter turned one, and my term of volunteer board service for a nonprofit organization, one of several I had consecutively served on for about eight years, was concluding, that I vowed via somewhat inconsequential Instagram declaration that I would take the time to get back to the pleasures and mistakes of crafting again. My sense of self, for years seemingly for a purpose greater than just me, whether for family, causes or employer, started for some time feeling not like me anymore.

craft books library

Yes, it was something of a new year’s resolution of sorts, which, of course meant that it was quickly forgotten after the absence of a few days off afforded by the winter holidays. And then I remembered it. And then I propped the task up for anxiety and potential failure by buying a little paper monthly calendar from my favorite Asian-import 100 Yen shop to jot down within the boundaries of each day’s square any and all attempts to “do something creative day” and try to do it for a year. In all honesty, I felt guilty for declaring this as a goal, felt apologetic that the endeavors I sought were not intellectual or cause-based. It didn’t further anything of substance, really. Wasn’t going to improve the world or my community, or pay the bills, or even improve my health. But I gave myself permission for the year and, strange as it may seem, I needed to do that before doing It.

So, I have been doing various things, the biggest craft bonanza being an Elmo-themed birthday party we threw for our child. What amazed me in this process was how fulfilled and challenged I felt by making stuff! What further amazed me, in all of my late-night research for party ideas, was how other (typically) women and mothers, too many to single out really, were blogging about their crafty accomplishments and casting their ideas out into the world for others to be inspired by.

Now that we are nearing the last quarter of 2013, I am now compiling how-to’s and recipes to come back to as needed and to remember that I once had the energy to make stuff, write about my craft year, and share new and often-borrowed ideas as time and motivation permit. First up: three kinds of tea sandwiches for a playground picnic.