Playdates have always been a powerful way to help children build social skills. In 2021, as we’re coming out of COVID, playdates are especially useful for helping your child make up for lost time on social development. Getting together with other families for small group playdates can allow you to manage COVID risks better, and those one-on-one or small group playdates are the single best environment for your child to learn social skills! Learn how parents can help to plan and have successful playdates.

The Benefits of Playdates

Many parents focus on the importance of academic skills for children, but relationship skills and emotional literacy are perhaps even more important for your child’s long-term happiness. Your child will learn some social skills at preschool or school, and in extracurricular classes they attend. But even if those teachers are trying to prioritize social-emotional learning, they also have to stay somewhat on task for teaching the alphabet and numbers, or how to do a somersault, or how to play an instrument, or whatever other learning goals you have for your child in that program. The social interaction in a structured class just can’t replace the essential social skill building that happens in one-on-one or small-group free play with peers.

So, when planning your child’s activities, make sure to leave plenty of room for free, unstructured play with other children. Opportunities include: play-based preschool, lots of time on playgrounds in the park, nanny shares or small home-based daycares, time with cousins or neighbor kids, and playdates. When children are allowed to just play together, without too much intervention from parents, they learn:

  • Bids for Connection: How to invite another child to play, asking to join someone’s play, how to notice that someone else is inviting them and how to join in. (This is primarily non-verbal bids for younger children, like when they hand a toy to another child, or take a toy from another child.)
  • Sharing and taking turns, advocating for themselves, making space for other’s needs.
  • Collaboration: coming to an agreement on what game to play, and what the rules are.
  • Teamwork – working together on a common goal, and re-negotiating what the goal is when conflict arises.
  • Empathy and social cues: how can you tell if they other child is having fun, or when they’re not having fun, how you can be sensitive to that and adjust your play.
  • Emotional regulation: how to stay calm when things don’t go as you wished.

At a playdate, children can work on all these skills, as they engage in whatever activity captures their attention – playing with toys, building with blocks, pretend play, playing in the playground, or digging in the sandbox.

How to Set Up a Playdate

First, find the family. You may meet possible playdate partners at preschool or school, in a class, at the park, in your neighborhood, or you may find them on social media. For younger children, like under 3, they’ll play with almost anyone and parents typically stay for the playdate, so I look for parents that I feel like I’d like to spend an hour with. That usually works out, but if the children are radically different temperaments – a super rambunctious child and a calm and meek child – it may end up not being a good long-term match.

For older children, definitely 5 and up, you need to pick kids that your kid likes – someone with a similar temperament and similar interests. Keep your eye out for who your child is connecting with, volunteer in their classroom to observe for this, or ask their teacher.

Test the waters: start a conversation with the parent to feel out whether this seems possible, and if so, issue the invitation. I live in the Seattle area, where we have a cultural phenomenon known as “the Seattle Freeze” where many people find that it’s hard to develop connections and that they get rejections and they give up. I would encourage you not to take any rejections personally – they might just be really busy, or might be shy, or new to navigating parenting just like you are. Try to feel out – are the interested in the idea in general and they were just turning down the exact details you proposed, or are they really just not interested? If they’re not interested, just move on to another family.

Other parents may reach out to you – sometimes it’s obvious, like they say “want to do a playdate?” but often they may be just testing the water and make slow approaches – tune into those… if someone regularly chats with you at preschool drop-off time, maybe they’re working up toward an invitation. It’s helpful to learn about Gottman’s idea of “bids for connection” – if someone invites you to do something, and you just say “sorry, I’m busy on Wednesdays”, that can feel like a turn against. Instead, first turn toward, and then work out logistics. “I’d love to get the kids together! Wednesdays don’t work for me – what else could we make work?”

Planning a Playdate – Tips for Success

Lots of people advise that it works better for children to do one-on-one playdates first. So, if that works for you, great! If it feels easier for you socially to have a few families get together, that’s OK too – it’s just more people’s schedules to negotiate.

Keep playdates short! For toddlers, start with 45 minutes to an hour. For preschool, an hour is plenty. Frequent short playdates with pleasant endings are better for building friendships than infrequent, long, and cranky ones. Schedule for a time of day when both children are at their best, not when one is heading toward naptime grumpiness.

Choose a location mindfully. Many parents may feel more comfortable if your first get-togethers are in a public place rather than at one of your homes. But… also take your child’s temperament into account. Shy or anxious children may do best on their own familiar turf. If you choose a public place, be sure to choose somewhere that the children can play freely, since that’s the whole point! Choosing to meet at a coffee shop or restaurant can make it hard for the children to connect. Choose a place where there won’t be tons of other kids there – that can make it hard for your child to actually connect with the child you planned the playdate with.

Discuss expectations in advance with the other parent. First, be clear on whether the parent will drop off or stay – my assumption is that for children under 4, the parent stays and for children over 6, it’s usually drop-off, but there’s a gray area in between and other parents might have other assumptions. So, be clear! Talk about illness rules – if anyone has signs of illness you’ll re-schedule the playdate. (During COVID times, also be sure you have similar expectations about vaccination status, masking and indoors / outdoors.) Figure out what the ground rules are and how you’d like to handle discipline issues that arise. With casual acquaintances, I’ve tended to say “if the kids are having a conflict, we’ll step in and I’ll handle my child and you’ll handle yours.” So, if the discipline issues can be handled with simple positive discipline techniques like distraction or substitution, I’ll do that, but if more is needed, I leave that to the other parent.

But I’ve also had other families where we’ve agreed that we’re on “sibling and cousin rules” together – which means we’re accepting the fact that our kids might squabble and we’ll try to let them work it out on their own so they get that practice with problem-solving and conflict resolution. But that if it hits the point where an adult intervenes, we trust any of the adults to step in and handle it.

Activities for Playdates

Plan playdate activities that are engaging, are collaborative (like building a fort or playing with blocks), not competitive. If there are especially cool toys, try to have two of them so the children don’t have to fight over them. It can help to have toys with many pieces (Lego) rather than single items (trikes). If your child has a hard time sharing their possessions, you could put away their most treasured toys on the day of the playdate to minimize conflict, or you may be better off having the playdate elsewhere on neutral territory.

Have an activity idea so that if the children aren’t doing well, you have a new distraction to try: “hey – who wants to blow bubbles!” or “shall we make cookies?”

Snacks? Snacks can be a great option for shifting the mood – if kids are squabbling over a toy, sitting down for a snack together can help. But make sure you talked with the other parent in advance about what the snack plan was, and what kind of snacks work for their kid and what doesn’t (e.g. no sugar, or avoid allergens.)

Plan an ending. It’s good to think about how you’ll signal that playtime is coming to an end. Maybe that’s with a snack, or a story, or maybe just a heads up that “we’ve only got five more minutes together – what do you want to be sure to do before we’re done?

For the first few playdates, expect to be very hands-on, helping the children learn how to play with each other. As they become more independent, you can fade back. If your child is autistic or has issues with sensory processing, you may need to remain close by for longer. (I still have to keep an eye on 10 year old who is autistic, and can escalate quickly.)

What if it’s not going well?

If they start to have a conflict, don’t feel like you have to intervene the moment it begins. Small disagreements often work themselves out, and children learn through the process. So, try sitting back and seeing what happens. Sometimes, things will start to go south, and they may need help negotiating a compromise. Rather than telling them they have to share, it may be more helpful to say let’s take turns – you can have it for one more minute, then it’s their turn.

If the children are heading toward hitting or biting, step in immediately. State firmly what it not OK, and tell them what to do instead.

It may help you to think in a flow chart mode, like this discipline flow chart. You’ve tried to prevent problems with good planning. If something starts, but it’s not a big deal – pick your battle and sit this one out, or tell them what TO DO. If it starts escalating, I do an “if/then” – “if you keep fighting over the toy, then I’ll have to put it away for today. So, let’s say that A gets it for two minutes then it will be B’s turn. B, what would you like to do while A takes their turn?” Praise good interaction as soon as you see it.

When it comes to playdates with small children, it helps to go in with low expectations, and celebrate success however big or small it is. If the first playdate fails – at least you tried! And it doesn’t mean every playdate with that child will fail – we all just have rough days sometimes. So, just think “well, they’re learning new skills and they got to practice today some things that don’t work well. That’s a learning opportunity.” And you know what skills you can work on at home to help give them a better chance of success next time.

More Resources

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