In the past couple of decades or so, the concept of kids ‘hanging out’ together has been labelled a ‘play date’ indicating a more formalised arrangement than in the past.
Socialising with other children is a vital part of a child’s development. Children need to interact in a social setting and learn skills like sharing, co-operative play and taking turns. They also promote skills such as problem solving and communication.
However, what starts out as a bit of fun can turn quickly into a parent’s worst nightmare. So how do we go about making sure that these “beneficial” play dates are actually that?
From my experiences with play dates, there is often a fine line between everything going smoothly and a situation of tears, tantrums and upset kids and parents. I’ve experienced both these types of play dates and the first thing I think needs to be managed when hosting or attending play dates, is your expectations.
If we are expecting that our children are all going to play beautifully for the entire time with no issues, then we are probably in for a shock. We also need to be prepared for the fact that other parents are not always going to deal with issues in the same way that we would.
Children are learning. That’s their job. They are learning how they should act, what’s appropriate, what’s not, how to react to situations, how to solve problems, sharing, manners, etiquette, conflict resolution and so much more. Phew! It’s exhausting being a kid and it’s no wonder that play dates have the potential for problems.
You should expect that young children will more likely play around each other rather than with each other, which is fine. Just being around one another and experiencing different people, materials and locations is great. There are so many teachable moments during a play date but we need to expect that problems will arise and know how we’re going to deal with them before they happen. Hopefully this way, we can help our child’s play dates run more smoothly.
Plan for a play date
Whether you are the host or the visitor, a little bit of preparation before play time begins could make the difference between a successful play and a complete flop.
Tips for the host:
- Start with hosting small groups of children or just 1:1, keeping in mind that three young kids together is not the best combination as there is always room for someone to be left out.
- Check if your visitors have any food allergies so that you feel confident serving any food.
- Arrange for a play date of between one and two hours. The longer the play date, the more tired, grumpy and uncooperative kids tend to get. Keep it short and sweet so that everyone leaves wanting more.
- If you can, get the kids outside. The most successful play dates I’ve been to are usually ones where the kids can run around in nature’s playground.
- Put away anything precious or breakable. You’re having kids over! You can’t expect young children to know the same rules that your children know and unfortunately, things can happen. If you are inviting people into your space, it’s your responsibility to ensure that they have a safe place to play and if you have precious things that you’d insist upon having replaced if they did get damaged, it’s best to just move them out of the way before anything happens (or consider hosting at a park instead of your house).
- Talk with your child about what is happening, who is coming over and any expectations you have of them. If there are certain favourite toys of theirs that you know they will struggle to share, put them away.
- Allow for free, open-ended, child-directed play but have a few “re-direction” activities/ideas up your sleeve in case you need them. These are some toys or games that you can quickly direct children to, that could help ease any conflicts or solve the dreaded “we’re bored!” For instance, have a tub of playdough and tools out for the kids to play with, but keep some extra fun embellishments (think googly eyes, cupcake liners, plastic jewels, etc) on hand to pull out and entice them further if needed.
- Supervise. Children have to learn some things for themselves and we know that play dates are often code for, “Mummy wants to get together for a coffee and a chat with so and so,” but it’s important to keep an eye and ear out so that you are able to make the most of teachable moments, (such as conflicts) and are able to intervene where necessary before things get out of hand.
- If you are hosting older children whose parents are not staying for the play, be sure to have all contact details and important information about the child in case of emergencies.
Tips for visitors
- Explain to your child about what’s going to happen and talk with them about your expectations of their behaviour, any rules and the consequences for not meeting those expectations.
- Follow through with any consequences for poor behaviour. If you tell your child that if they hit someone again, you will take them straight home, then do it. Your child will learn the appropriate behaviour, but not if you tell them one thing and do another.
- If your child has any allergies or there are certain foods that you’d rather your child not eat, speak with the host about it first. Offer to bring a plate of snacks – in my experience, fruit platters are often a safe bet.
- If you have older children that are going on a play date without you, I think it’s important to know the family and the home situation well first. Explain to your child about when you are going to pick them up and how they can contact you if they need to be picked up any earlier.
Like anything, with practice and experience, you’ll find that play dates get easier and both kids and parents learn over time the things that work and those that don’t. Hopefully, with these tips in mind, your next play date can be one that you feel was actually a benefit and not just a mess-inducing scream fest. Good luck!
This article was writte by Deborah Alter-Rasche and originally appeared on Kidspot Australia.
Do you love or loathe playdates?