My children grew up on a block full of kids. Occasionally, they had playdates with school friends, but usually they could step outdoors and find age-mates who were ready to play. Many parents now tell me it’s gotten much harder to get their preschoolers together with friends outside of school. That’s why playdates have become essential to social life for many young children.
What’s a playdate?
It’s a time when adults arrange for two or more children to get together to play. It can happen at someone’s home or at some public spot, such as a park or playground. Preschool playdates often involve just two children, but depending on the children and the setting, playdates can work with more than two. When a sibling wants to come along, that also can work with thoughtful planning.
What goes into a successful playdate?
There’s no single right way to have playdates. But some parents say these simple tips have been useful.
- Plan ahead with the other parent or caregiver. Decide where to go. Children’s playdates can happen at a variety of places—someone’s home, a park, a mall, or fast-food restaurant play area. Make a Plan B: “If it’s too cold for the park, you can come to our place.” Decide whether you both will be present or if one of you will be “in charge.” Talk about children’s allergies or other needs. Decide whether snacks will be served.
- Plan ahead with your child. Which friend will they invite? Coach them about being a good guest or host. Ask, “What do you want to play with when Lola comes over?” “What do you think she might want to do?”
- If your child is visiting, suggest they take along a toy or book to share. Also wise: Send a change of clothes in case of spills or accidents. Need some creative play options adaptable to a playdate? Look through the list of resources at the end of this blog. They may inspire you and your child to plan something new and fun.
- Help children understand the house rules. If you’re hosting, put away anything that you consider “off limits” before the guests arrive. Inform the visitor right away: Where can they play? How loud is “too loud”? Where’s the bathroom? (That last one may be the most important, from the child’s perspective!) If your child is the guest, listen along with them when the host explains their expectations so you can be sure they hear what’s okay and what’s not.
- Set a clear time frame. Some parents think an hour is a good length for a preschool playdate, at least until the children are used to playing one-on-one together. With thoughtful planning, longer visits can work, especially if the children know each other well or if parent and child must travel a long way to get to the playdate.
- Expect to stay “tuned in.” No need to hover—just stay within earshot in case someone needs help or a new play idea. One mom I know says, “I remind my child and their guest to speak softly, because our apartment walls are thin. But if it feels too quiet, I’ll make sure they aren’t decorating the floor with toothpaste or something.” In her podcast, Dr. Seon Yeong Yu says that a playdate is also a great opportunity for you to see how your child behaves with peers. Do they seem to run out of play ideas? Are they shy? How do they handle conflict? Do they need an occasional short break from interaction? (Most preschoolers do, by the way.) Your observations can help you think about ways to support their friendships. You can find suggestions about that in some of the IEL resources listed below, such as Helping Children Learn to Get Along.
- Build in time to clean up and wind down. If you’re the host, alert the children that the visit will end soon: “Jack has to leave in 15 minutes. You can play until the timer buzzes. Then it’s time to put toys away. Then I’ll read you the book Jack brought until his dad gets here.”
Some playdates will go better than others. Afterward, talk with your child about what went well and what they’d like to do differently. The goal is for all involved to think, “Playdate? Let’s do it again!”
- Resource List: Playdates