Fun Times Ahead! (Tips for planning the perfect playdate)

At around age 2, toddlers are ready to start having short playdates with other toddlers. Although parallel play (playing next to each other, with or without similar toys) occurs until about 3-3 1/2, toddlers can still get a lot out of a playdate. They start to develop a sense of self by comparing themselves and their families to their friends and their friends’ families. Playdates can also boost their communication skills as they learn to communicate with a peer by passing toys back and forth, pointing, and gesturing. This is where they start to learn the basics of sharing (especially for firstborn children) and have a lot of fun! We love playdates around here. Sometimes we plan in advance which gives me time to have a vague idea of what we might do and think of some structured activities in case we need to trouble shoot at some point. Often times we host the last minute impromptu neighborhood playdates, which are completely unstructured and sometimes even a bit crazy but just as much fun. Liam is still young enough that he doesn’t really care who comes to play, but Riley just recently reached the stage where she is very specific about who she wants to invite (although it should be noted that she eagerly plays with ANYONE at the park). At four, she is really starting to get the hang of this friendship thing. The good news is that most of her friends have a younger sibling close enough in age to Liam to make it a double playdate. This is also nice because mixing ages can actually help kids learn different ways to interact. For instance, two year olds don’t share as well as four year olds, so the older kids have to work on patience while they wait a turn. The bad news is that 2 year olds don’t do quite as well with the completely unstructured playdates as four year olds, so I often find myself playing referee when I haven’t had time to plan. It got me thinking that a quick checklist to run through prior to a playdate (even an impromptu one) might be useful. If I take a quick minute to scan the room and remove toys that are hard to share, for instance, it might avoid a few tears. If I have some fruit cut up in advance or string cheese at the ready, I can easily give them a little snack break if hunger starts to set in. Sometimes when I have a group over last minute, I simply forget to cover the basics. Life is busy. It happens. Below are some tips to help you plan the perfect playdate (well, let’s go for close to perfect!) every time:

1. Consider timing: I have a hard time saying no, so I often agree to playdates even when I know it’s getting a little late for my kids. Try to have playdates when your kids are well rested and well fed. We know that exhaustion and hunger lead to meltdowns. Why risk it? I’m working on this one. Length of time is also important. For toddlers, an hour is plenty. Preschoolers can usually handle 1 to 1 ½ hours.
2. Prep the house: Call me crazy, but I believe in special toys. Yes, kids need to learn and hopefully master the art of sharing. But does that mean they need to share everything with everyone who comes through the house? I always give Riley a minute to decide which toys she wants me to remove. I’ve recently started to do the same with Liam. When we go to a friend’s house I prompt them to ask if they can use toys that aren’t already out for playing. Respect is a two way street. Put out some toys that are easy to share. It’s great to let them explore and decide what to do, but it can also help make sharing a little easier with things like blocks, Legos, and games (for preschoolers) out and ready for play.
3. Prepare a snack: Depending on the timing of your playdate, you might not need a snack at all. But sometimes it can help to take a little water break. It gives the kids a minute to settle down and switch gears a little. If you do provide a snack make sure to double check with the other parent just in case (Riley has a tree nut allergy and my nephew is allergic to peanuts). It’s best to stick to fruit, string cheese (provided dairy is ok), or something like pretzels or crackers. Just remember to ask first!
4. Step back: Try to step back a little and let your child decide what to do. It’s fun to explore the options before settling in to play. If sharing becomes a problem, give them a minute to work it out before helping. With younger kids it can be helpful to use a timer for sharing toys. That way they know that when the timer rings their turn is up. Preschoolers sometimes need help deciding what to play. Prompt them to work out a plan that leaves them both happy (cars for 10 minutes, Candyland after).
5. Add a little structure later: While it’s great to let kids play on their own terms, it can be helpful to provide an activity later in the playdate. If you start to sense that the kids are getting restless, shift gears. Dress up, arts and crafts, music and dancing, and homemade play doh are all great for keeping kids interested while having fun. I once bought these great people-making kits at Michael’s that are always a great playdate saver. You’ll know when it’s time to step in, I promise!
6. Know when to call it: I’m the first to admit that sometimes I really enjoy catching up with my own friends, which can make it difficult to end a playdate in a timely manner. But keeping a tired, cranky kid around other kids isn’t doing anyone any favors! Look for signs of fatigue and leave when your child is ready. Liam times out pretty quickly. He just gets over-stimulated and needs time to play alone. Consequently, we tend to keep playdates short!
7. Factor in clean up time: Learning to clean up after themselves, whether in their own home or someone else’s, is an important skill. It teaches responsibility. Sing one of those clean up songs that we all love so much and ask each child to put away three things. Make it a race or a game. Just make sure they do it!

Much like most other things in life, playdates are rarely perfect…but they can be a lot of fun. Run through your checklist, prep a little, and sit back and watch them play!

You tell me: What strategies would you add to the list?

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes freelance for Everyday Family and allParenting, and blogs for The Huffington Post. She has a rock and roll husband and two kids. Katie believes in love, lattes, and the power of play.