“Mom, can I have a playdate with Tommy?” my son asks excitedly. Why do I feel ancient when I recall that playdates didn’t exist when I was a young girl? But in truth, kids were sent outside to play with their neighborhood friends or siblings and certainly, parents didn’t travel anywhere beyond their street to assist their child in connecting with friends. Our evolution to playdates represents our growing recognition of our children’s social needs.
More than ever, parents realize that play is the vocation of childhood. It’s the central vehicle for learning – a catalyst for kids’ physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. In play, a child is in control of the world he creates, his only limitation being his imagination.
Developmental Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” Children have the ability and urge to create highly advanced pretend play scenarios, both with others and on their own.
In social play, kids practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility and diversity appreciation. In solo play, children can grow their sense of identity and also practice perspective taking abilities as they pretend to be another person.
Pretend play also can serve a significant role in a children’s mental health and sense of well-being. They are able to face the most feared obstacles with the courage of a true hero whether it’s confronting monsters or villains, weapons or diseases, and even injury or death. Through play, they can conquer these fears and show their strength and resilience.
Social and solo play not only contribute to developing kids’ social and emotional life skills but they also contribute to academics. Often imaginative play will include counting (math), categorizing (science) and storytelling (language) among many other cognitive essentials for school-age children. And there is just no such thing as growing too old to play. When adults are creative or engage in any art form, there is play at work.
And if those aren’t enough benefits to convince you that playdates are valuable, here’s yet another, not to be underestimated. Playdates can provide a powerful parent support network. When my son was an infant, toddler and then, preschooler, a group of Moms formed a regular weekly playdate rotation in which Moms attended and enjoyed coffee and conversation while the little ones played. This became an invaluable source of support for our parenting as we discussed challenges, found commonalities and learned from one another differing ways each of us were addressing those challenges.
In the full schedule-laden school-age years, parents can cooperate or take shifts hosting each other for playdates on free summer days or on weekends. This offers a period of time free for the parents who are not on point to host. And when it’s your turn to host, you can create a safe, caring environment conducive to play.
In addition to the many benefits of play for your child, there are some questions that could be asked related to planning and hosting playdates. Some of these may include:
- How should a playdate be initiated? Do I wait for my child to ask or seek out friends for my child?
- If I am hosting, should I have ground rules and if so, how should I communicate them?
- What if the other child I am hosting makes poor choices? How do I handle a discipline issue with another family’s child?
- If I am sending my child to another person’s house for a playdate, are there questions I should ask in advance? How well do I need to know the friend’s family? How do I make sure it’s safe?
- Are there rules or discussions I should have with my own child before going to someone else’s house?
All of these important questions and some added tips will be responded to in the following playdate suggestions.
Follow your Child’s Lead.
Who knows why we are particularly attracted to another person and seek out their friendship? Perhaps it has to do with our developmental needs. But it’s impossible to truly predict which peers our child will gravitate toward. So follow their lead! Who does your child talk about at home? That’s a perfect place to begin.
Get to Know the Other Child and his Family.
So you want to create opportunities outside of camp, extracurriculars or school for Tommy and your son to play since he talks about him frequently? But perhaps you don’t know Tommy or his parents. Instead of scheduling a first playdate, schedule a family meet-up. “We’re going bowling this weekend, would your family like to join us?” Or it may be easier to identify a school activity – a summer festival perhaps? – where parents are invited and seek out Tommy and his family to have an initial conversation. Introduce yourselves and express a desire for a playdate. You’ve then laid the groundwork for the new relationship between your family and theirs. After all, if another family is going to trust you to care for their child, they need to get to know you – and vice versa. It absolutely takes a village!
Talk to your Child before the Playdate about Ground Rules
(including playing with one another, not on screens!)
You want to prepare your child for a fun, successful playdate and you don’t want to have to do a lot of supervising and managing during the playdate if you don’t have to. So why not discuss ahead of time the rules that make the most sense? I always begin a conversation about rules by setting the stage and asking, “I’ll bet you are excited to have Tommy over. I’m so glad! What rules do we need to think about for the time he’s here so that you both can stay safe and have a great time?” And then, let him consider or offer options. Write them down to demonstrate that it’s official and important (and to refer back to if you need to do so during the playdate). Be sure to keep rules brief and frame them in the positive. What do you want them to do versus not to do? So one might be, “Keep play safe.” Discuss what that means. Climbing on furniture or more physical play may not be safe. If tempted, then maybe a good solution would be to play outside if the weather permits. Others may include: staying in certain play areas or living spaces (and avoid others); inside voices are the best to use; or bathroom time is for one child at a time.
Reserve Screen Time for Times Other Than When Friends Are Over
Yes, screen time could take over an entire playdate. Indeed, kids will want to play video games with one another or watch a movie. But plenty of screen time takes place when kids are home without friends there. I’ve noticed that children who are used to many hours of screen time take a little longer to figure out what to play when screens aren’t available. But all of those wonderful benefits of pretend and engage in social play are not fully realized if children are on screens during their playdates. Our rule is “Friends are more important than screens.” And we put away devices before they come. If asked, we share that’s it’s our rule to promote more fun, creative playtime. We leave out costumes, art supplies, legos and other imaginative toys (see resource at the end for more ideas!). My son at ten-years-old now only requires blankets and pillows since fort-making has become his latest pastime with his pals. Create a ready environment for play together and children will forget about their need for screens and reap all of the benefits of their social play together.
Partner with your Child to Communicate Rules to his Friend.
You’ve already discussed safety rules with your child. Welcome your child’s friend in and express your happiness that he’s there to play. Get out the rules you discussed and briefly talk about them. Let the friend know that he can come to you if he’s hurt or feels unsafe or for any reason. And then send them off to have fun!
What If Poor Choices Are Made by Another Person’s Child?
If it’s a minor issue or breakage of your rules, offer first that every family has different rules. You might say to both children, “Tommy’s family likely has different rules at his house and so is just learning about our rules. At our house, we don’t play rough enough that things break. We choose to go outside. Let’s work together to clean up or repair the broken item. Then, you can choose – You can continue to play your game outside or pick a different, less-rough game inside.”
If it’s a major issue, in other words, a child is harmed, then calling the other parents makes sense. But placing blame will not build bridges with that other family so if you need to make the phone call, consider how you’ll create a safe space for discussion. Instead of saying, “Your child hit my child. Come get him.”, you might instead say, “We value Tommy’s friendship. There was some hitting today at our house. It may be a good time to just take a break and calm down since both kids are upset. Then, maybe we can try again another time. For today though, could you please come get Tommy?” In that circumstance, you’ve done your best to keep all safe while preserving the relationship. Either the other family or you can make the choice going forward whether it’s important to offer second chances and try another playdate.
Set the Stage for Sending Your Child to Another’s Home:
Ask about House Rules in Advance.
If you have a playdate set with another family, simply ask what their house rules are. If any particular rule is particularly important, they’ll communicate that to you and you’ll be able to discuss it with your child in advance.
Trust Your Gut.
Your gut is yours and your child’s very own internal safety device. Teach them to use it! Since children are learning about their feelings and developing a language to express them, they may more readily be able to identify physical signs of discomfort first. Their tummy may feel nauseous. Practice doing gut checks. If you see an image in the media that is disturbing, ask how their tummy feels. Make the connection between that icky feeling not only as a sign of discomfort but as a sign of danger and to get out of the situation. If children are taught to trust that feeling, they will become more likely to leave a high-risk circumstance. Let them know if they feel unsafe at another child’s house to find a caring adult and ask to call home. Have an easy plan at the ready so that your child knows how to get in touch with you.
If Trouble, Tell a Caring Adult.
To prevent abusive situations, it’s helpful to get to know the other family first. But also, you can coach your child to find safety in an unsafe situation. If your child feels unsafe, she needs to learn to “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers wisely advised. Abuse usually takes place when two are alone together. Though a perpetrator can and often does rationalize his behavior, there is also a clear sense that it’s not acceptable to others. So if your child knows to find a trusted, caring adult to help, they can remove themselves from the dangerous situation. This teaching is in opposition to the old “stranger danger” counsel kids used to be taught. If your child is afraid of strangers, he won’t seek the help he needs. Instead, work on finding a helper. Practice. Can you find a helper when you are at the store together? Ask your child, “Who would you go to?” Talk about it with your child when you encounter another lost child, witness a fire, or see any kind of dangerous situation. If you feel scared, look for a helper! If the person you are with is scaring you, look for a helper!
Discuss a Way to Get in Touch with You.
Send along your name and number in your child’s backpack or even pin it on their clothing so that they can get ahold of you if they need to. Practice making a phone call to you if they have not used the phone. If it’s a first playdate, keep the timeframe short as a trial run so that you gain more trust with the family and the environment.
Though it takes a bit of effort on the part of parents, children will certainly benefit from friend playtime. Look for ways you can connect with other parents too and you’ll reap some of the supportive benefits of growing relationships in your community!
Printable Playthings to Stir the Imagination (Many of Which Are Ready Household Objects)
Adapted from original article titled “All About Playdates” published March 8, 2018.