A while back, we made the mistake of asking Joshua what sort of birthday party he wanted this year.
“I want Zombies Vs. Chocolate.”
“You want what?“
“Zombies Vs. Chocolate. You know. As a theme.”
“I don’t even know how that would work!”
“How about we compromise, and you have a Mad Scientist party?”
This is a truncated version of a conversation that took about a week, on and off, but once we’d decided on the Mad Science theme, everything clicked. It’d be a cinch. We’d do a couple of experiments, have gruesome food, and I could wear my lab coat. There are loads of online resources, and we could have this wrapped up and ready to go in plenty of time without breaking a sweat, couldn’t we?
No, as it turns out. It didn’t help that the week Joshua turned eight was the week that coincided with a planetary alignment that saw us having to juggle about nine or ten different appointments in the space of three or four days. It also didn’t help that the house was a mess, and that we had to tidy it, and that the dumping ground that is our spare room was no longer an option because there were going to be people sleeping in it. And it doesn’t help that I am one of the world’s great procrastinators and that I just bought the Lego Lord of the Rings game.
But we got there. It took the combined efforts of three of us on the day, and several late nights beforehand, and also the admission that it wasn’t going to be as grand or organised as the myriad children’s science parties I discovered online, complete with elaborate costumes, individual lab coats and goggles for each child, personalised laminated name badges, party bags filled with lab equipment (grow your own crystal meth!) and at least a dozen meticulously prepared experiments, all documented with shots of excited-looking children running their hands through gloop. Ours had to make do with a half-inflated balloon and a Mentos rocket (more of that later) and Dad in a silly wig. Oh, and slime. On the other hand, my wife is twenty weeks pregnant and this is the third party we’ve organised in as many months. Besides, I got the invitations done nice and early.
(They are, as the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed, based quite heavily on the Doctor Who invitations I produced last summer.)
Our parties are usually held on school afternoons as it’s more likely that people can come – particularly in the summer, when weekends are taken up with weddings and sporting events. It also means we have to get them there ourselves, and arguably the toughest bit of any children’s party is escorting ten lively primary school kids along the road without losing any of them. When everyone had arrived they were in need of drinks, so we’d prepped this.
From left to right: Fizzio, cherryade, lemonade with blue food colouring, orangeade, limeade. And to any chemists reading: yes, I know some of these are probably wrong. I DON’T CARE.
We encouraged children to mix drinks to make various ‘potions’, most of which seemed to be fifty shades of purple.
While they were doing this, I was rushing around the garden dropping dozens of slips of paper, which I’d painstakingly cut out during that week’s Doctor Who documentary viewing. A good scavenger hunt is always fun at these gatherings, largely because you get to make a big mess and YOUR CHILDREN HAVE TO CLEAN IT UP, and I came up with eight mad scientists and eight pieces of lab equipment that everyone had to find. And I’m sharing it, because I’m nice like that.
Em and I were panicking about experiments. There are plenty of resources, but I’m really not someone who can be trusted with naked flames, at least not since the accident. Furthermore, my knowledge of chemistry and science in general doesn’t go beyond basic GCSE level (I only just scraped that ‘C’), and even then I’ve forgotten most of what I knew.
“Look at this,” I said to Emily at quarter to eleven on Wednesday evening (which gives you an idea of just how last-minute this was getting). “There’s one here about marshmallows. I can do it with the SodaStream.”
“Are you sure you can do it with the SodaStream?”
“Yes, look, you put marshmallows in there and then you use a vacuum pump to make them shrink. Then when you open the seal, they come back to normal.”
“A SodaStream is not a vacuum pump.”
“No. If you do that without water, it’ll probably damage it. Might even explode if you over-pressurize.”
“Do we have a vacuum pump?”
“This is a non-starter, really, isn’t it?”
Then there’s elephant toothpaste, but we don’t have the elephants. In the end I inflated a balloon with bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. To do this:
1. Pour [a quantity] of vinegar into a plastic bottle.
2. Tip [a quantity] of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda, if you’re reading this in the US) into the neck of a balloon. It helps to blow up the balloon first, to stretch it, before allowing it to deflate again.
3. Stretch the neck of the balloon over the rim of the bottle, being careful not to let the contents enter the bottle yet until you’re ready. Then tip the bicarbonate of soda into the bottle. If nothing much happens, give it a shake (but be careful!).
Exact quantities vary – we found about five tablespoons of vinegar worked best for the bottle we had, along with about three tablespoons of soda, but even then the results weren’t exactly brilliant.
Still, I was wearing a funny mask at this point, along with goggles, ear protectors and a hard hat, purely for comedic effect. And no, you can’t see.
The next game was a derivative of Port and Starboard, that game we used to play in the playground where you ran to different parts of a ship and mimed various actions like scrubbing the decks, climbing the rigging and saluting the captain. But I made up a different version that Emily duly christened Professor’s Lab (“Because Operating Theatre and Fido’s Kennel just doesn’t have the same ring to it”). It went like this:
Operating theatre (sun lounger) – all run to port
Fido’s kennel (play house) – all run to starboard
Greenhouse (overgrown shrubbery by back window) – fore
Skylight (climbing frame) – aft
Open the roof – pull on imaginary ropes
Test the potion – swig from an invisible flask
Mop the chemicals – mop the floor, possibly making ‘steam’ noises as well
Professor’s coming – all stand rigid, like a creepy butler
Chase the lab rats – all run around in pursuit of imaginary rodents
Throw the switch – pull a huge lever
Maniacal laugh – exactly what it says on the tin
Dissect the body – vigorous sawing movements, you know, the ones Eddie Izzard described as being like punching a baboon
After this everyone was in need of a rest, so Emily got them all to make slime, which was basically bubble bath and cornflour in separate pots, mixed together by turns to make a gooey substance which also doubles as soap.
We let the kids do their own, and then told them they could take it home and use it in the bath. Of course, that night when Daniel was getting ready for bed I discovered it had left an unsightly ring around the tub, so I’d imagine I’m not the most popular parent at school right now.
It was starting to spit, but the next game was a decent indoor activity: the old guess-the-body-parts routine. The trick with this is to give it a sense of atmosphere, which I did by drawing the curtains and telling them all the story of Dr Finkelstein, Frankenstein’s Jewish cousin, who owned a mortuary in New York and from whom Frankenstein pilfered the idea of using body parts to create a new life form. Dr Finkelstein heard a noise in his cellar one night, and went down only to lose his footing and crash into the glass jars that contained his severed body parts. And then, one by one, you have your young guests stick their hands through a hole in a cardboard box and feel this lot.
The rubber glove is filled with ice. Want a hint? Do that one last. By this point they were practically screaming.
Last but not least we did the Mentos and Diet Cola thing, which went rather well.
To make this work you have to make sure they all hit the surface at more or less the same time. Emily dropped in an entire tube, and only the last two or three were still going in when the fountain started. P.S. You can drink the cola afterwards, but minty cola tastes disgusting.
We kept food simple, although I have read various ideas for molecule fruit, which I would have considered were I not paranoid about someone getting their eye poked out with a wooden stick. (And that’s just the grown-ups.)
Party bags are often something we throw together at the last minute, but Em was super-organised and had them prepared weeks in advance. The books (which she’d picked up cheap) were a nice touch.
So it worked, in the end. There are days when you do nothing, and it is good. Then there are days when you barely stop, and it is good. This was one of those.