By Laura Jean Whitcomb
It’s not like my daughter hasn’t seen another child. She’s been in child care, gone to preschool, is a student in public school, and participates in afterschool activities like dance and Girl Scouts. So when she started asking to have a play date, all I could think was, “Now I have to entertain two kids?”
But it’s not about me and my awesome child care skills; it’s about my daughter’s social skills. Play dates are an opportunity to learn how to share, practice manners, taking turns — and having some fun with a friend.
What, exactly, is a play date?
Online resource wiseGEEK.com had this definition: A play date is an organized period of time during which two or more children get together to play. Sometimes parents get together with their kids, who are all roughly the same age. “Play dates are the first beginnings of social networking that you and your child do together,” says Olivia Janna Genereaux, a Hanover, N.H., mom. “Sometimes making friends for life.”
What age should you start?
Stay-at-home moms and dads start play dates early; it’s a great way to enjoy the company of another adult while the kids are entertaining each other. “Both my girls attended ‘play dates’ since birth,” says New London, N.H., mom Kathy Snaith. “I was with them the entire time while getting to know the other parent. It developed some strong bonds of friendship and they gained the social confidence to interact with different types of personalities.”
If you’re like me — a bit late to the play date bandwagon — you’re still okay. Every kid is different. Beth Schulman, my go-to friend for mom advice, made me feel much better about the “when.”
“The age a child should have a play date depends on the child. Some children are very social and are ready to interact with each other as early as age 1,” the mom of three says. “Other children are much more shy and bonded to the parent, so they may need time to become more independent. Being at the playground around other kids to see them interacting — but having the security of the parent — is good for those children. They can drift over and parallel play with another child until they get more comfortable with the concept.”
How long should a play date last?
One to two hours is a reasonable length of time. Any longer and the kids might run out of things to do (and you might run out of patience). As one parent wisely suggested: don’t leave it open ended — set a time for pick up. She had a child picked up two hours late by grandparents who apparently needed some time away from their grandson.
Should you stay?
If it’s someplace your child has never been before, yes. If you don’t know the parents that well, yes. “One definitely has to trust the person to leave a young child,” says Genereaux. Later in your child’s play date lifecycle, you might not need to stay the whole time, exiting when the children are comfortable and playing well with each other.
If you are hosting, start off the play date by helping the kids with an activity. If things are going well, fade into the background. But stay close, perhaps an adjoining room, so you can hear what’s going on — and be on hand to help if needed.
“As they became older they needed less supervision, particularly if I was familiar with the other child and knew how they interacted with each other,” recommends Snaith. “By age 5 they should be able to do things like dress up, puzzles, etc., without constant parent attention. By age 7 and 8 they are definitely up for playing for a full hour or two without a referee, and they can find activities on their own.”
What should kids do on a play date?
Ask your child to help plan the activities. Have your child pick out three games or toys (Legos, a dollhouse or an art project) and get the materials ready. If there’s a toy that is off limits (maybe a toy that your child isn’t willing to share), put it away.
“When they were younger, I used to get a big roll of paper from an art supply store to roll across the whole floor, and the kids would draw all over them or glue stuff on,” says Schulman. “I know many parents may hate me for this, but a boy of 7 loves nerf dart guns. Even a 11 and 13 year old love nerf dart guns. They are soft, they are easy to clean up, and they play with friends for hours!”