Imagine two adults meeting for the first time. They say hello and share their names. Then instead of discussing family or weather or work, one asks the other, "How old are you?" Without hesitation, the other answers, then asks in return, "How old are you?"

That exchange among adults would probably be awkward, but for preschoolers, it's standard operating procedure. Children often define themselves and each other by age.

So, not surprisingly, birthdays at the preschool age can be a big deal. My 4-year-old son, Griffin, will turn 5 in April and is counting down the days. He started looking forward to his next birthday about two days after he turned 4.

The question my husband and I need to answer is: How are we going to celebrate Griffin's birthday?

Birthday parties have certainly changed since we were kids. Growing up, my birthday parties were always at home, with a few friends and neighbors. We played a game or two and then ate homemade cake. A handful of times, I went to friends' parties at McDonald's or ShowBiz Pizza (which became Chuck E. Cheese's), and that was exciting.

Nowadays, small parties at home are the exception. Guest lists have grown. Often the child's entire class is invited, and siblings are included.

The number of birthday party venues has grown, too. Pump It Up is a popular spot that opened in Tucson about 4 1/2 years ago on the east side of Interstate 10, north of the Miracle Mile exit. It has giant inflatable bounce castles, slides and obstacle courses.

Griffin also has been to parties at Old Pueblo Gymnastics, Peter Piper Pizza, the DeMont Family Swim School, the Tucson Children's Museum, the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club and Reid Park Zoo.

From the parents' standpoint, these birthday spots are appealing because of the activities provided. Also, a party away from home usually means less preparation and clean-up.

In addition to guest list and location, my husband and I need to decide if we'll request guests skip the gifts. Our boys have attended a couple of "no gift" birthday parties. Is it excessive for a child to bring home 12 or 15 gifts from a party? Or is it OK to follow tradition and allow the birthday boy or girl to enjoy many gifts?

Whatever Griffin's party looks like, we're sure he'll have a great time. He'll be with his family and friends, and when anyone asks him how old he is, he can proudly answer, "I'm five!"

E-mail Kelley Helfand at