Sizzling Summer Party Ideas

The heat is finally on! Try these five fun and inexpensive ideas that go beyond your ordinary backyard barbecue.

by Jolene Bouchon; originally published LifetimeTV.com

Fit to Be Tie-Dyed

Children all too often catch the "I'm bored" bug when left with unstructured summer playtime. Tie-dyeing is the perfect party activity to keep kids engaged, and it can be done outside, away from precious furniture and carpets.

You'll need several colors of fabric dye, like RIT, and buckets to mix colors. Don't forget rubber bands or string to tie off sections of fabric, rubber gloves to cover your hands and a large tarp or garbage bags to protect the ground. You'll also need long tongs or spoons that you're willing to donate to this project (unless you don't mind rainbow-colored serving ware). You can provide cotton shirts (or socks, tote bags or tablecloths) or ask parents to send along items they'd like to dye. Then tie, dip and dye! Alternatively, you can provide fabric paints and brushes for a potentially mess-free artistic experience. Visit pburch.net, kinderart.com or about.com for detailed tie-dyeing instructions.

Swap-and-Pot Meet

Gather your gardening friends in the backyard for a good old-fashioned plant swap. Ask each guest to bring a tasty dish, as well as her seedlings, and watch the party grow.

Set out two tables: one for plants and one for food. For the planting area, provide garden tags with markers so guests can label their offerings. You may also want to pick up a bag or two of potting soil, some gloves, a few trowels and some pots so that guests can plant and carry home their new seedlings. (If you don't want to buy extra gardening tools, ask a friend who lives nearby to bring hers for the afternoon.) Since some guests will be planting while others are eating, set up the food area as a self-serve buffet with plenty of insect screens, plastic wrap and citronella candles to keep the bugs at bay.

The Great Bake-Off

Take advantage of summer's succulent fresh fruit and challenge your guests to a pie-baking contest. It's a sweet way for friends to get together and showcase their culinary chops.

Give your guests guidelines when you send out the invitations (for example, pies and tarts only, no store-bought crusts or fillings) and let them know the categories in which they will be judged (best presentation, best crust, tastiest, most unique combination, best sugar-free entry, etc.). You can appoint judges or have each guest vote by secret ballot. If you like, make first-, second- and third-place prize ribbons, or buy them from a party supply store. Good prizes include cookbooks, pretty pie pans and other bakeware. And if participating chefs are willing (secret recipes, anyone?), ask them to bring along copies of their recipes so everyone goes home a winner. You can design your own decorative recipe cards with Smilebox (download the application to your computer and search under "recipe" to view available designs).

Green Scavenger Hunt

Fun for kids and adults alike, this scavenger hunt can be held in any botanical garden, public park, nature preserve or personal garden — wherever a variety of plants, flowers and trees can be found.

Scope out the location beforehand and choose the route and objects of the hunt. Make the tasks a list of clues that your guests need to crack (for example, "This edible plant is also a woman's name"). Use gardening books and magazines or the Internet for reference. And because you don't want to harm the environment during the hunt, ask participants to bring digital cameras or camera phones to collect their evidence. On the day of the event, set a time limit and a meeting point, then ready, set, go!

Two (or More) for Tea

Although afternoon tea might conjure images of London fog, the typical English tea menu of scones and cucumber sandwiches is ideal for warm-weather entertaining. Plus, it's the perfect party theme for a girl's birthday celebration or a wedding or baby shower.

Drape an elegant tablecloth over your patio table and top it with a bouquet that evokes the English countryside (think lilacs, heather, hydrangeas and tea roses). Provide an assortment of savories like cucumber and watercress sandwiches on buttered white bread (crusts cut off, if you please) and sweets like scones with berries and cream. And to keep guests refreshed, place tall pitchers of chilled tea — one flavored black and one herbal — in shallow ice-filled buckets.