Sleepovers, slumber parties, overnights: Whatever you call them, hearsay suggests they’re heaven for kids and hell for parents. Overly excited or homesick kids, wet sleeping bags, nervous tummies and social conflicts can make for a rather, er, eye-opening experience. “At 4 a.m., my kid was the only one asleep,” says Linda Lee of Mississauga, Ont. “The others were practising a dance for her birthday, and were all dressed and ready to perform!”
Sweep away the Cheezie dust and fatigue-blurred memories, however, and a more positive picture begins to emerge. “Sleepovers can provide a chance for kids to practise being independent and boost social and problem-solving skills, all within a safe environment,” says Rob Stringer, a parenting and youth coach and father of two in Binbrook, Ont. So, how can you host a great sleepover without resorting to divine intervention? (OK, a little prayer couldn’t hurt...) We asked Canadian parents and experts to lay out their ground rules.
1. You shall not host a sleepover until your child is truly ready “That’s probably around seven or eight years old for a party,” says Jamie Kyle McGillian, author of Sleepover Party! Games and Giggles for a Fun Night and the mother of two daughters in Dobbs Ferry, NY. “You know the child is ready when she says she’d like to try it, when she starts packing a bag and planning games to play.” That said, kids as young as five can probably handle a small overnight visit with one or two close friends or cousins.
Another question to consider is whether your pint-sized guests are ready. If you’re unsure, a good compromise might be a “half” sleepover, in which guests wear pyjamas, have fun and then leave around 9 p.m. Or consider an opt-out policy. “We made it clear that kids were welcome to be picked up at bedtime and could call home at any time if they decided to stay or not stay,” says Vicki Delinger, a mother of an 11-year-old daughter in Edmonton.
2. You shall limit the guest list Start small — with maybe one to three guests—and build up to a larger number as you get the hang of sleepovers. But if you have more experience with kids — and two responsible adults on hand for the whole evening—jump right in and have six to 10 stay over. Delinger is one of those heartier souls. “My daughter has had sleepovers for her last four birthdays, with as many as 15 girls at each — but I’ve found they pretty much entertain themselves.”
Consider the personalities involved too. This may not be the time to introduce new pals to the crowd. “You must have a playdate with them at least once to get to know them and — let’s be honest — make sure you don’t hate them,” says Peggy Campbell,* a mother of two in Dartmouth, NS. “Hating during the day is much easier than hating at night.” Aim for an even number of kids, including the host. Three’s a crowd, as the saying goes, especially when all three are tired.
3. You shall honour your guests’ parents The success of your sleepover is directly proportional to the amount of information shared—both outgoing and incoming. “Invitations should clearly state drop-off and pickup times, whether meals are included, what kids should bring (sleeping bag, pillow), a little info about supervision and any planned activities, plus a contact number,” says Stringer.
Talk to the other parents about their child’s sleepover experience, food allergies and nighttime habits. For example, some parents may expect a phone call before bed.
If your child is the one sleeping over, don’t be coy about his nighttime-wetting issues or fear of the dark. It will come out anyway, and a prepared host parent can handle the situation positively and discreetly.
4. You shall not offer sugary treats or heavy foods an hour before bedtime Mini-pizzas, veggies and dip, fresh fruit, pretzels, popcorn and other light, nut-free foods and snacks are wise choices. “Give treats early in the evening to allow time to burn off the sugar,” says Kim Gauvin of Ottawa, mom of a nine-year-old boy. And, of course, avoid any food that might upset someone’s already nervous, away-from-home tummy. “Remember it will be you cleaning their vomit out of the grout, no one else,” says Campbell ruefully.
5. You shall relax about the activities “Encourage, but don’t force anyone to play the games and do the crafts,” suggests McGillian. “Keep lots of books and magazines on hand so that kids who don’t want to do the activity can still hang out and feel comfortable.” The best activities allow everyone to get involved — unlike a video game, say, where only one or two can play.
Good ideas include: decorating cupcakes or making sundaes; watching age-appropriate, non-scary movies; creating a dance routine or video; doing karaoke; playing board games; and making forts, if you have ample couch cushions. “I like the Love It or Hate It game — when I was a substitute teacher, kids from kindergarten through seventh grade had fun with it,” says McGillian. Form a circle and give each kid a chance to name something: the beach, fried shrimp, snowstorms. Then each person has to decide if they love it or hate it. “There is no middle ground, so it always makes people laugh,” she says.
6. You shall be nearby, and have a code Keep younger kids within hearing distance on the same floor as you; with older kids in the basement or a sep-arate recreation room, check in every 15 to 30 minutes. “Better to err on the side of being a little intrusive the first time,” says Stringer. Both he and McGillian also recommend developing a code phrase that your child can say to you if things are getting out of control or a guest is having trouble. (The phrase could be as simple as “What time is it?”) That way you can step in and help, but no one feels singled out. And, of course, ensure that you have working smoke alarms wherever the kids sleep or play.
7. You shall honour the level sleeping field A circle of sleeping bags on a living room or bedroom floor, space permitting, means everyone is connected and equal. Plus, this prevents kids from falling on each other from a bed, and squelches arguments about who gets to sleep where. “Each time a new friend sleeps over, there’s a debate about who will sleep on the top bunk,” warns Gauvin, who preferred her son’s more egalitarian trundle-bed option in years past.
8. You shall make sleep possible “There is never any hope of a regular bedtime, or that sleep will come even with lights out,” says Gauvin. That said, there are a few things you can do to get the kids to sleep at 2 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. Let them know when lights out will occur and what’s expected of them. Dim the lights leading up to that time, and possibly hand out flashlights once the lights are off. If the giggling hasn’t stopped well into the wee hours, consider sleeping with them yourself or laying down the law. “A dad’s deep and scarier voice is essential at the final, final, final lights-out time,” says Campbell.
9. You shall prepare for forgotten toothbrushes and sudden exits Expect the unexpected: Have extra sleeping bags, blankets, pillows and toiletries available. Gauvin says toothbrushes are forgotten most. Almost all of the parents we talked to had also primed their guests’ parents to expect a phone call in case their child got homesick or out of control. Some even recommend having a sign-in sheet so contact numbers are easy to find at 3 a.m.
10. You shall not say, "Oh, come pick him up whenever." “Do not make the next-day pickup time any later than 10 a.m.,” warns Campbell. Even though they chattered until 3 a.m., they’ll probably still wake at 7. The bleary-eyed, chip-encrusted dawn will be difficult, but you can comfort yourself with having created some magical memories and, hopefully, an even stronger bond of friendship, for your child and her guests.
As for guest parents, follow the golden rule and do unto host parents as you would have them do unto you. That means packing every conceivable thing — including cuddle toys — that your child could need, making sure he’s well fed and rested before he arrives, not dropping him off early “because you were in the neighbourhood” and picking him up the next day on time, or even — bless you! — early. It also means you’re hosting the next slumber party!
Sleeping with the fishes...and the dinosaurs, and the airplanes
Looking to spice up your sleepovers? From museums to zoos to libraries, many facilities across Canada offer unforgettable overnight programs for kids:
Vancouver Aquarium: Take part in a behind-the-scenes marine tour, then doze off beside the beluga whales. Vancouver, (604) 659-3504, vanaqua.org
H.R. MacMillan Space Centre: Build a rocket, enjoy space travel in a flight simulator and marvel at the night sky in the planetarium theatre. Vancouver, (604) 738-7827 ext. 241, spacecentre.ca
Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology: Snooze among more than three dozen dinosaur skeletons. Drumheller, Alta., 1-888-440-4240, tyrrellmuseum.com
Toronto Zoo: Fall asleep outdoors in a bush camp to the hoots and cries of exotic animals. Toronto, (416) 392-5947, torontozoo.com
Fort Edmonton Park Spend the night as a pioneer, using lanterns for light and making bannock for breakfast. Edmonton, (780) 496-8787, fortedmontonpark.ca (Click on Programs, then Educational Programs, Group Programs.)
Saskatchewan Science Centre: Play mad scientist for a night with science activities and shows. Regina, 1-800-667-6300 ext. 3, sasksciencecentre.com
Manitoba Children’s Museum: Enjoy an after-hours mystery scavenger hunt and a late-night movie before setting up the sleeping bags. Winnipeg, (204) 924-4004, childrensmuseum.com
Canadian Aviation Museum: Steer a Cessna, take a flashlight tour of the museum, and crash out under the wings of an airplane. Ottawa, (613) 993-4264, aviation.technomuses.ca
Montréal Biodôme: Bed down with the critters inside one of the Biodôme’s live ecosystems. Montreal, (514) 868-3000, www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/biodome
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic: Explore a 100-year-old steamship, learn about life at sea and hear ghostly bedtime stories. Halifax, (902) 446-4416, http://maritimemuseum.novascotia.ca
Wolfville Memorial Library: Enjoy its annual literary sleepover with mystery guest — in 2008 it was Robert Munsch! Wolfville, NS, (902) 542-5760, valleylibrary.ca
*Name changed by request.
This article was originally published in April 2009.
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