Playdates are a wonderful way for children to learn social skills and develop meaningful friendships. Over the years I have found a few simple things that we can do as parents to ensure that our children have positive experiences.
1. Start with a conversation…
It really helps to have a conversation with your child before the playdate. I always start out by explaining to the girls that they are the hosts, which means that they will need to be flexible and listen to what their guest(s) would prefer to do while they are visiting our home. I also remind them that when guests come to our house to play, they need to be willing and able to graciously share their things.
It is helpful to ask your child to come up with a list of activities or games that they would like to share with their guest. Some children come over and instantly engage in play, while others may need to hear a number of ideas before they become intrigued. If your child has generated a list of possible play scenarios beforehand, they will be ready to deal with this situation. The goal is to give your child experience in making suggestions and engaging his or her friends independently.
This is also a good time to place your own boundaries with your child. If there are any activities that you would like to make off limits, it helps to let your child know beforehand.
You can never have this conversation too many times! Even now, after having had playdates for many years, I still find it helpful to work through these things with the girls ahead of time.
2. Feed them well…
I can’t stress how important good food is to a great playdate! The first thing that I do after everyone has said their hello’s (and I have double-checked to make sure that there are no allergies), is make a big healthy snack. I like to include a fruit, a vegetable with dip, and a healthy-salty-crunchy option (fresh popcorn is a favorite). Limiting sugary foods increases the odds that everyone’s moods will remain relatively balanced and upbeat. Nothing sets the stage better than satiated children, full of healthy food, with lots of engaging options for play.
I have also found that children are more willing to try new foods in new environments and have been pleasantly surprised when children who “won’t eat any vegetables” at home, gobble down a whole plate of carrots and cucumbers!
3. Have a project planned (but try not to use it)…
It is always helpful to have a fun project in the back of your mind that you can pull out if the need arises. I usually don’t mention that I have planned something and like to wait and see how the playdate scenario progresses. In an ideal world, your child has been able to make interesting suggestions and everyone is happily engaged. If this is the case, I try not to interrupt the flow, preferring that they continue to make their own choices on how they spend their time together.
Yet, other times there may be a bit of a lull. When you notice that your child and his or her guest are seeming a bit directionless, it is a good time to bring out the project. I have found that simply changing things up a bit and focusing their attention on a specific activity, is all it takes to pick things back up again. The less parent-lead the project is the better. Once they are engaged I try to step out and let their conversation flow. Often they will move on to something else without any need for me to step in and direct things.
The more experiences that children have in self-directed playtime with peers, the more confident and able they will become at making good decisions and genuinely engaging with the friends in their lives.