How to Throw a Toy-Free Birthday Party for Book-Loving Kids

by Dena McMurdie

Photo credit: Hero Images, Hero Collection/ Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter to a birthday party for a girl in her kindergarten class. Our school has an “include all” birthday-party policy, so the entire class had been invited. As you can imagine, the birthday girl had an Everest-sized mountain of gifts to open, most of which were toys.

If you live in an apartment or small home, you probably don’t have space for all those extra toys and are dreading the clutter they bring. What’s more, your child may not even like the toys they receive, which could prompt unwanted drama.

We all know that books are the best thing ever — and plenty of kids seem to agree. So if you want to avoid raiding the local toy store and make books the center of your birthday party, here are a few fun suggestions.

The No-Gifts Birthday

If you don’t want party guests to bring a gift at all, say so on the invitation. There will inevitably be some people who don’t see the note or choose to ignore it, so be prepared to thank any gift-givers and have a secret stashing area out of sight of the other party guests.

To be fair, people seem to have an aversion to showing up at a party empty-handed. If you want to keep those guests happy, try one of these ideas.

Painting Party
Ask each guest to bring two or three tubes of washable, non-toxic paint to the party (I like Crayola Washable Fingerpaint). Give them paper and brushes (or let them use their fingers!) and have them paint a picture. Once dry, the pictures can be placed in page protectors and arranged into a book for the birthday child.

The Book-Signing Swap Party
Instead of bringing a gift, ask each guest to bring a copy of their favorite book to the party. Pass the books around so that every guest can sign or write a short message in each book. Then swap books so that everyone goes home with a different book than they came with.

The Nature Walk Party
Find a book about plants or insects native to your area, like A Walk in the Woods Treasure Box, Ultimate Explorer Field Guide: Birds, or My First Pocket Guide Wildflowers. Ask party guests to bring the book, a magnifying glass, and a bug-catching net (if desired) to the party in lieu of a gift. Take all the children on a nature walk and help them identify plants, birds, or insects from their book. Each child then has their book as a memento of the experience, plus any plants they collected.

A Booksgiving Feast
Instead of bringing a gift, ask guests to bring a dish of book-inspired food to share. Think butterbeer from the Harry Potter series, green deviled eggs from Green Eggs and Ham, chocolate chip cookies from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Turkish delight from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A quick Google search for book-inspired food will give you more than enough recipe suggestions. Let guests try to guess which book the food was inspired by, then load up your plates and have a feast!

The No-Toy Birthday

If you have nothing against gifts but dislike the prospect of an overflowing toy box, suggest one of these gift ideas instead.

  • A book to build your child’s home library.
  • A gift card to a bookstore.
  • Tickets to a kid-friendly event or attraction like a movie, museum, or play.
  • Musical instruments like a tambourine, a recorder, or a harmonica.
  • A gift card to Target, Amazon, iTunes, or Wal-Mart.
  • New or gently used books to donate to charity.
  • Cash toward a college fund.
  • Donations to a cause your child is interested in, such as an animal shelter.

Bookish Party Activities

Whether you decide to go with gifts or without, every birthday party needs a fun activity or two. These book-inspired activities will make your child’s party a blast.

The Scavenger Hunt Party
Find or make items from your child’s favorite book, then hide them throughout your house or yard. Create a series of clues using passages from the book to lead party guests to each item until they’ve collected them all. Books like If You Give A Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Joffe Numeroff, and Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss, easily lend themselves to this activity.

The Time Capsule Party
Have each guest write a letter addressed to the birthday child — in the future! Give them markers, stamps, and stickers and encourage them to make the letter fun and personal. Collect all the letters and place them in an appropriate time capsule container and bury it in the back yard (or put it under the bed). At your child’s next birthday party, dig up (or pull out) the time capsule and read the letters out loud.

A Book-Making Party
Similar to the time capsule idea, help the children make a secret message book for the birthday child. You can then collect these message books for your child to display or read whenever they want.

The Bookish Olympics
Play book-inspired games at the party! Need ideas?

  • Play a game of Quidditch (you can find all the rules here).
  • Play Capture the Flag, Percy Jackson-style (rules are here).
  • Create a Maze Runner maze in your living room or backyard and enlist any loitering parents to play the part of the Grievers (they get to eat children, so you’ll get a lot of happy participants).

The Photo Booth Party
Encourage guests to come dressed up as their favorite book characters. Have a photo booth at the party and take photos of each guest. (Instructions for how to make a free photo both can be found here.) You can download printable birthday-themed photo props, or ones inspired by a book.  Use the photos to make a memory book for your child. (I’ve used Snapfish and Shutterfly for this and have been happy with the results.)


Will you be throwing a toy-free birthday party soon?