At their best, playdates are win-win events. They help toddlers and preschoolers develop social skills, even when the kids are merely playing side by side, says Jennifer Sabatini, a professor of early childhood education at Seneca College in Toronto. “And they give moms and dads a much-needed chance to socialize with other parents,” says Sabatini. Here’s how to maximize the fun for everyone.
Do put safety first If the playdate is at your house, double-check your childproofing. Young visitors may be attracted to places and objects your own child has already learned are off limits.
Don’t let it run too long One hour is usually enough for toddlers and 1½ hours for older kids (ages three to five) if they’ve played together before, says Sabatini. Any longer and the playdate can break down as kids get hungry, tired or bored with each other.
Do have realistic expectations Just because your tot is ignoring her guest and stacking blocks on her own doesn’t mean the date is a dud. “Children under 2½ don’t usually play interactively yet,” says Sabatini. “But they have to start somewhere.”
Do plan around nap and feeding schedules Children who are well fed and rested are less likely to have meltdowns, which is why morning playdates often work best. If you’re the hosting parent, be sure to have some healthy snacks on hand, especially when the get-together is close to lunch or dinnertime.
Don’t over-manage With kids younger than 2½, you should be in the room monitoring and, preferably, playing with them down at their level so you can model social skills, advises Sabatini. Three- and four-year-olds still need supervision, but you don’t want to lead the play or intervene in minor squabbles if nobody is getting hurt. Keep an eye from the sidelines and be ready to step in with playdough or a game when kids become fidgety, fretful or otherwise discontented.
Do hide favourite toys If your toddler is still struggling with sharing (most kids at this stage are), tuck away teddy and other prized possessions to avoid tugs-of-war. Put out toys you have more than one of (dolls, cars, puzzles, etc.). With older kids who have good language skills, try using a timer if both children want to play with the same doll. Let Sarah have it for five minutes and when the buzzer rings, it’s Katie’s turn. “Or let the kids come up with a solution themselves, no matter how silly it sounds,” says Sabatini. “Your ultimate goal is to help them learn to problem-solve for themselves.”
Don’t end the date abruptly To help prevent tears (or hiding) at pickup, give kids a five- or 10-minute warning. An egg or oven timer can help with this. Tell them, “We love having you and we can’t wait for you to come again, but when the bell rings your mommy will be here, and then it’s time to start tidying up.” When you give a warning, says Sabatini, make sure you stick to it. “Many children learn that Mommy says 10 minutes, but she’ll stand and talk at the door for 20. Kids will go back to playing and you have to start all over again, or else they melt down because they’re bored and ready to go.”