The Fine Art of “Play Dating”: 13 Tips to Create a Successful Experience
Over time I have learned that, much like the art of dating, setting up a successful playdate for children requires a bit of finesse. In order to avoid the potential pitfalls that can arise when putting young children in the same space together, it is important that the coordinating adults help structure the experience to be a successful one for everyone involved. Just as adults may give time and attention to crafting the perfect romantic outing, forethought and intentionality go a long way toward creating the ambience for children’s positive interactions as well. With that in mind, below you will find 13 ideas for how to support your child on what are sure to be their earliest of many “dates” to come:
Timing is Everything
- Start time – Be aware of the time of day when scheduling the playdate. You will want to avoid times when children are most likely to be tired or hungry, or make sure you are prepared with healthy food options if it will fall around snack or lunch time.
- Duration – While the length of a playdate may vary depending on children’s ages and abilities, try to limit it to 90 minutes so that they can feel good about the experience and end on a successful note, before meltdowns and frustrations occur. The time should be shortened further if the children involved are two and under, as children at this stage of development are typically involved in more parallel-type play (i.e., playing with similar toys nearby each other).
- Initial intake – Be sure to check with the other child’s parents to find out if they have allergies (food or environmental) or fears before inviting them over. Consider parks or other community play spaces as options if unavoidable allergens or fear triggers, such as a pet, do exist in the home.
- Teachable moments – The Jewish value of welcoming guests – hachnasat orchim – first appears in the Torah with Abraham and Sarah welcoming visitors into their tent. Playdates are a wonderful opportunity to practice with your child what it means and looks like to welcome a guest into your home (e.g., hanging up their jacket, offering them something to drink, sharing your belongings, etc.).
- Toy talk – If your child is the one hosting the playdate, ask him or her if there are any special toys that they want to put away ahead of time. This can help avoid unnecessary arguments over sharing something that is especially meaningful to them.
- Set up – Once the children are together, establish and review the rules so that they understand what is expected of them. For example, if the rule in your house is to clean up one toy before you take another toy out, be sure to let the children know that before they begin to play.
- Create a plan – It can be overwhelming for children to select an activity when so many exciting and novel toys are available. Speak with both children and create a plan of what they may want to play with “first” and then “next.” Provide two choices if they still need help in selecting something to get started.
- Be present – Since part of the fun of our children’s playdates is being able to connect with other adults, it is easy to get distracted from our role as supervisors. While we can encourage our children to build autonomy and work things out for themselves, depending on their ages, they may not have the language or coping strategies to manage their frustrations or solve a problem without adult support. That is why it is very important to make ourselves available to facilitate play and help children negotiate conflict as it arises.
- Tools – As children learn to share and wait their turn, it can be helpful to use a tool such as a timer (preferably a visual one) to show children how much time they have left until they can play with a particular toy again. This is a wonderful strategy that can help eliminate conflict over a desirable toy.
- Give notice – Help prepare children in advance by giving them a warning before you are going to ask them to stop playing, whether momentarily (e.g., to take a bathroom break), or permanently (e.g., to clean up and go home). It may be more effective to indicate an action-based stopping point (e.g., three more turns each) rather than a number of minutes, as children’s understanding of measured time is still quite vague and underdeveloped.
- Unplug – There are many games, activities and toys that children can play with during a playdate. Try to keep playdates “unplugged” from electronics (e.g., televisions, iPads, phones, video games) to encourage socialization and relationship building.
Two’s The Limit
- Three’s a crowd – There is truth in this old adage and, in fact, complications may arise when you add a third child to the mix. Inevitably someone gets left out, which leads to hurt feelings and an escalation in negative behaviors. Try to limit playdates to just two peers during the early years.
- Siblings – Brothers and sisters pose a unique challenge for playdates. Oftentimes siblings will want to tag along and follow their brother or sister, which can lead to frustration and feelings of annoyance. Again, three’s a crowd, and it is best to try to engage your other child in his or her own activity during a playdate.
Ultimately, the many decisions you will make surrounding playdates –like determining when it is okay to begin drop-off playdates, or deciding on how long they should last–all involve knowing your child, their personality, and comfort level in new situations. Playdates are a wonderful opportunity for young children to practice using their language and socializing with peers, but remember that practice makes perfect. It takes time for children to learn how to manage their frustrations, negotiate with one another, and resolve conflicts constructively. Just as many adults come to understand what works for them in relationships by going on dates with different people, with patience and experience, you and your child will learn what best suits their personal playdating style.
by Rachel Schwartz, LCSW
JCC Chicago Early Childhood Program and Social Services Manager