Playdating 101: Tips for Meaningful Play Dates

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By: Nina Malanay

Playdates are a great way for toddlers and preschoolers to form their first friendships and learn how to get along with other children. They provide meaningful opportunities for purposeful play and for practicing social skills like sharing, cooperating, negotiating, compromising and making fair decisions.

When the playdate goes well, parents can also get a much-needed break as the children entertain themselves. These get-togethers are also a nice way to connect with other parents your child’s age and exchange parenting insights and challenges.

Successful playdates are important for your preschooler’s socio-emotional development. These tips can help ensure that the hangout goes off without a hitch.

1. Let your child pick her friends.

With babies and toddlers, playdates are mainly about getting parents of children with similar ages to connect with each other, so it makes sense to invite parents you get along with or have similar parenting beliefs as you. With older children, it’s best to consult your child about who to invite over.

2. Set a definite date and time.

Setting a definite start and end time will help ensure that your young guests will arrive at roughly the same time. This way no one gets left out on the activities you planned and parents will know exactly what time to pick up their child.

For toddlers and small children, allot an hour or so of play time. Preschoolers and older children can easily handle two to three hours.

When planning a time for your playdate, you might run into conflicts with the kids’ varying naptimes and mealtimes. Try to find a common time that is convenient to most of your guests but don’t be disheartened if you cannot accommodate everyone’s schedules – which leads us to…

3. Choose your number wisely.

It can be tempting to invite all the neighborhood kids to your playdate, however it’s best to keep to a small, manageable number. That way you won’t feel as much pressure to entertain so many people and you will be more able to oversee a small group of curious and active youngsters. Your playdate will also have a cozier feel, giving everyone the chance to get to know each other better.

For younger children, it’s best to host a one-on-one playdate, otherwise it’s easy for one child to feel left out, especially for threesomes. Also, sharing toys with more friends can be more difficult for your child. As the kids get older, they can handle having a few more friends over. Remember, however, that the more kids you have onboard, the more involved you have to be.

4. Prepare your child.

Playdates can be a new and unfamiliar experience for your child so do your best to prepare her. Explain what will happen during the playdate so she will know what to expect. Let her understand that her friends will be playing with her toys and running through her house. The more prepared she is, the less likely she will object when she sees other kids handling her stuff.

Teach your child, too, to play the part of a gracious host. Simulate a playdate with you and your spouse, or even his stuffed animals, for practice.

5. Take note of important information.

Remember to get the contact number of the parents of your guests, especially if they are not going to be around for the duration of the playdate. Take note of any food allergies or special issues your little guests may have. Get permission if you plan to do something unusual, like take the kids swimming or bring them to a play area.

6. Set ground rules.

Tell the kids early on what they can and cannot do, as well as the areas in your home that they are allowed to play in. Remember to keep the list short, though, so they don’t feel too reined in.

7. Serve kid-friendly food.

Have different kinds of snacks on hand and readily accessible to your guests. Popcorn, pretzels, biscuits, sliced fruit and boxed or bottled drinks are good options for a playdate because kids can eat them independently. Avoid serving sugar-laden snacks and drinks to keep the kids from getting too hyperactive.

8. Oversee but don’t hover.

With toddlers and young children, you will have to supervise them closely and be on hand to referee the occasional (and inevitable) toy tug-of-war. With older children, though, let the kids play independently and give them reasonable freedom to have fun. Just be sure to check in on them regularly.

9. Have a mix of planned and free-play activities for the kids.

Allowing children the freedom to direct their own play helps them develop their creativity and gives them an opportunity to express themselves. In child-directed play, the children are in control – they create roles, stories, and scenes and play out whatever character they want. This kind of play is empowering because they are free to imagine and are free to be.

However, having a planned activity for the day can also be helpful, especially for shy and withdrawn kids who have trouble joining in because it allows them to ease into a play activity. It can also come in handy when the kids have run out of play ideas or are starting to get bored. Below are some suggestions for structured play activities that you can use for your next playdate.

Toddler Olympics – Great for active children, this themed playdate allows children to jump, hop, go through tunnels, run through an obstacle course or shoot balls. Kids can also engage in an art activity of making medals out of cardboard that they can bring home after the “awarding ceremony”.

Grocery Store Playdate – Set-up a mini-store with actual groceries and let the children take turns pretending to be the cashier, bagger or customer.

Superhero Playdate – Children can come wearing their favorite superhero costumes. They can pretend to go through superhero training by engaging in different physical activities or pretending to be superheroes on a mission. Kids can also decorate their superhero mask as part of an art activity.

Wet and Wild Playdate – Prepare bubbles for kids to blow, have them run through a sprinkler, or set-up a large basin or container of water and various odds and ends like cups, spoons, and medicine droppers that the children can play with.

Pizza Making Playdate – Purchase mini pizza crusts and lay-out an assortment of pizza toppings like ham, cheese and cut-up vegetables. Have the kids decorate their toque or chef’s hat and let them loose in the kitchen to let them create their own pizza.

Cupcake or Cookie Decorating Playdate – Bake or buy cookies and lay out different colored frosting choices and cookie embellishments like sprinkles, gummies, and candy-covered chocolate. Allot a few cookies for each child to decorate to their heart’s content. Give each child a box to decorate and bring home the cookies in.

Playdates are great, not just for kids, but for parents, too. Planning and organizing a playdate for your child and her friends does not have to be a big gala event. Stay simple. Focus on providing an hour or two of kid-friendly fun that also gives you some time to unwind and connect with other parents who are going through the same parenting challenges as you. So sit back and enjoy – it’s your playdate too!

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Nina Malanay is a mother to two rambunctious, affectionate boys, aged 7 and 4. Her husband-slash-best friend died in a tragic bombing incident in 2013. As she tries to navigate through life with her boys as a solo parent, she hopes to rediscover herself beyond the many hats she wears – mother, teacher, writer, baking enthusiast, student of life – and move boldly into her future.

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