For most kids, playdates are one of their favorite
activities, but there's more going on here than just having fun. When it comes to building social skills and forming first friendships, playdates are powerful learning tools.
Playdates help kids develop a range of interpersonal skills, including communication, cooperation, and compromise. They teach kids how to share and take turns, be tolerant of other viewpoints, and resolve disagreements peacefully.
When you think about it, that's quite a bit to ask of a young child. That's why it makes sense to structure playdates thoughtfully, giving your child—and his or her friends—every chance of success. Here's our favorite playdate secrets:
- Know your child's time limit—Kids have different play styles and tolerance levels. Figure out what works for your child, and time your playdates accordingly. Set firm start and end times. Plan on keeping visits short at first; as your child grows, so will the duration of her playdates.
- Invite your guest's parent to the first playdate—This is a great way to learn more about your visitor's family (a must if you plan to let your child go to their home). It also helps kids feel more comfortable in a new environment, so they're able to relax and play. And who knows? Maybe you'll make a new friend, too.
- Ask for guidelines—Not all families operate by the same principles, so establish some ground rules upfront. Are snacks okay? Does the child have any food allergies? Is it alright if the kids play outside or if you take them to the neighborhood park?
- Get contact information—If someone gets sick or things don't go well, it may make sense to cut a playdate short. Kids, after all, will be kids. Make sure you know how to reach the other parent if necessary.
- Prepare your child—Teach your child what it means to be a good host. Remind him before his playdate that he will be sharing his toys, cleaning them up afterward, and sticking to the agreed-upon time limit.
- Enforce your house rules—Just because someone's a guest, they don't get to make a mess or tease your pets. If certain parts of the house are off-limits, make it clear upfront. When you set boundaries, you help your visitors become good guests.
- Plan activities in advance—With your child's input, plan some appropriate playdate activities, leaving room for choice. Crafts, building sets, and games all encourage cooperative play.
- Pack away special toys—Most kids have one or two toys that they love to show off but have real trouble sharing. If you want things to go smoothly, take these treasures out of the equation.
- Use the Pick-up-as-You-Go Rule—It's amazing how much havoc two kids can wreak in a short time. Instill the rule that, before kids begin a new activity, they must clean up the last one. This helps build responsibility, while making playdates less labor intensive for you.
- Don't hover—Of course you need to monitor the children's activities, but resist the impulse to commandeer the playdate. If you continually take the lead, the kids will end up interacting with you instead of each other.
- Mediate disagreements—At the same time, it's up to you to keep the peace. For example, if your child and her pal can't agree on an activity, help them work it out. Instead of making the decision for them, encourage them to hammer out the details themselves (this is how kids learn to negotiate and compromise). But if they just can't reach an agreement, be ready to suggest a neutral alternative.
- Plan the snack—Plan a reasonably healthy snack and get your child's buy-in in advance. This way, you can manage everyone's expectations and avert attempted pantry raids before they happen.
- Wind it down gradually—Give the kids advance warning 10-15 minutes before the other parent is set to arrive. That way, kids have time to pick up, locate their shoes, etc., and transition to saying goodbye without protest.
- Manage late-arriving parents—We're all busy, but some parents are habitually late. When you set up your playdate, indicate that you have plans afterward and need the child to be picked up promptly. Or, take a tip from a smart mom we know: offer to drive the child home yourself at a fixed time, so you won't be left at their mercy.
- Teach your child to be a good guest—Being a good guest is as important as being a good host. Remind your child to listen, be respectful, and assist with toy pick-up. Coach her to say thank you when the play date is over. And ask the parent for feedback, so you can continue to work on your child's playdate etiquette.
Remember, some playdates will be spectacularly fun, and some will be spectacular flops. In the long run, your child will learn as much (if not more) from the disappointments. After a setback, review what went wrong with your child and give him strategies for doing better next time. You'll not only build more successful playdates, but important social skills, too.