How Do We Ensure a Fun Play Date?
1. Play the field, if necessary
Not all play dates are matches made in heaven. “The key word here is ‘date,’” says Zach’s mom, Sarah. “It isn’t much different than when you were 16. People you have admired and enjoyed talking to just may not be right for you, just like the boy you had a crush on as a teenager didn't turn out to be Mr. Right.”
If you find yourself not connecting with people—and you’ve put forth a good effort by attending two or three dates—it’s probably best to find another playmate. Remember that like dating, it takes two to make a connection. “Take an active part in trying to fit in,” advises Joye. “Join in or start a conversation with someone. The only way to make friends is to get to know them.”
2. Set guidelines in advance
Joye suggests that parents discuss conflict situations in advance to determine how the group wants them handled. She also recommends that children be allowed, as much as possible, to resolve conflicts on their own, but admits this isn’t always feasible. “Many times a situation arises without warning and the children start hitting each other to resolve it. Then the parents of the involved children should step in.”
3. Schedule smartly
The more time spent at a play date, the greater the odds of tantrums, meltdowns, or fights, so it’s best to limit activity to no more than an hour, and schedule gatherings during a time of day when children are most likely to be well-rested and fed. If you’re holding or attending a play date that’s going to run close to lunch or dinner time, plan to have some snack foods and extra drinks on hand. How often you and your child participate in play dates is entirely your call: You can attend one every week or once a month.
4. Keep it small, but include different ages
It’s best to keep the group size small, no more than four to six kids—factoring in the parents who attend, you could have as many as 12 people at one gathering! Mixing age groups has its advantages as younger kids learn by observing the big kids in the group, and older kids feel important helping out with the little ones.
5. Remove favorites toys from the shared play area
Toddlers are just beginning to learn the concept of sharing, so one of the biggest play date battles is the toy tug-of-war. If you’re hosting the gathering, you can minimize the chances of your child having a meltdown by planning ahead and removing beloved toys from the play area. To help your child adjust to the fact that other kids will be playing with her toys, you can let her remove toys she feels strongly about. Another useful tip is to put out toys that you have more than one of, such as books, puzzles, cars, dolls, and blocks. Planned activities like coloring, Play-Doh, or simple crafts are also great.
Where Do I Find Play Date Partners?
So you think your child is ready for a play date, but you don’t know where to start? You can find play date partners just about anywhere—at your childbirth class, in the disposable diaper aisle of your local grocery store, at the park, at your pediatrician’s office, or just around the corner. Sarah joined a parenting organization that has monthly playgroups. Some parenting groups advertise play dates on library bulletin boards or in the local newspaper. You can also find them online, like in our community boards.
As in real-life dating, play dates are filled with ups (when your son shares his toys) and downs (when he bites the kid he so generously shared with!). By keeping the focus on the things that matter most, having your child (and you) make lifelong friends, everybody wins.