Graduation parties don't have to be stressful. Give your graduate (and yourself) the gift of a casual open house that guests will enjoy.
There's nothing like evoking misty feelings of nostalgia to celebrate this milestone. Line the drive with pictures of your graduate at various ages, so guests can "watch" the honoree grow up before their eyes as they approach. Similarly, create a collage of images in the shape of the graduation year on your living room wall (or on poster board which sits on an easel in the yard). Balloons in the school color (or your little one's favorite character) are a must! Adding streamers in said colors won't hurt, either.
Round out the decor with decorative flourishes such as a card box in the shape of a graduation cap.
The idea behind this open house is to allow for a casual atmosphere in which guests come and go as they please—no pressure, right? While you can grill to order if that's your thing, consider maximizing the low-key quotient by lining your dining-room table with trays of hot dishes over sternos and salads on ice. (Just restock when necessary and stir every once in a while.)
Serve your graduate's favorite foods, and, if you have it in you, place in front of every station a little note about a particular memory or association between the honoree and each particular offering. (For example, "Eggplant Parmesan: Mom loves eggplant. Sally always said she hated it. For years, she refused to try it, saying "That's disgusting!" One night while out at dinner when Sally was 9, Mom forced her to try a bite and she said, "This is delicious! Why don't you ever serve this at home?!")
For a simple dessert, make edible grad caps! Use mini peanut butter cups, chocolate squares, mini M&Ms, and frosting to make a treat that everyone will enjoy! Use peanut butter or frosting to hold all of the elements together.
You can put these delightful desserts on a stick, or use the mini-grad caps as great cupcake toppers.
Again, go for casual in all its subtle glory, and don't force activities, just make them available in various corners of your yard (space permitting). Hoist a badminton net and lay rackets and birdies on the lawn. Set up horseshoes. Whatever. Guests will take up the activities when the inclination arises. Two people will get involved, then others will join. Sometimes, the best fun (and memories) come from unforced, impromptu competition. A great, and memorable, activity that runs throughout the day is a "trivia contest" of sorts. As guests enter, ask them to fill out a questionnaire about the graduate. ("How much did Sally weigh when she was born?" "What was Sally's childhood 'woobie'?) Like a raffle, tell guests that you'll announce answers at a certain time. If they're there, great, they'll get their prize at that moment. If not, you'll call them afterward and arrange to give it to them. (The prize can be a $15 gift card to Sally's favorite restaurant… a certificate to have Sally mow the winner's lawn. The more creative, and funny, the better.)
To capitalize on the "nostalgic" factor, gift guests with mini-picture frames that include your graduate's name and the year. Don't be tempted to place a photo of her in the frame, though. Guests don't want to feel obliged to stand it on the mantle. It's a gift for them to employ as they see fit.
Another fun idea is to hand out sleeves of "Smarties" candy. Wink, wink.