Zachary and Margo went on their first dates before they were six weeks old; one-year-old Mike started walking and dating at about the same time; and Chance and Campbell (my twin boys) didn’t date until they were almost two. Play dates may be all the rage (you didn’t think these kids were really dating, did you?), but knowing when your infant/toddler/preschooler is ready for a play date is still as ambiguous as determining the right age for an adolescent to start, well, dating.
What is a Play Date?
Ostensibly formed to help children develop their social skills, play dates really are just as much for parents as they are for children; but it’s important to keep the children as the focus. Playing with peers teaches children important skills such as sharing, how to take turns, standing up for their rights, and having empathy for others.
When Should I Schedule Our Play Dates?
Carren W. Joye, author of A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Complete Guide to Playgroups, says that what age to start your child on play dates depends on your reason for participating. “A mom with a two-month-old needs to get out of the house and spend time with other adults,” says Joye, who notes that infants won’t do much playing but they will benefit from exposure to different people and surroundings.
If play and friendship for your child are the motivating factors, then Joye advises waiting until your child is 18 months to two years of age. “This is a good time frame to learn about sharing and to become familiar with the other little kids in playgroup. Around this age, children begin to engage in a type of parallel play; in other words, playing beside each other but not actively playing together. By the time they’re three, they will already know each other, feel comfortable in the surroundings, know the meaning of sharing (to some extent), and begin to actually play together.”
It’s safe to presume that children have played together since the dawn of time, but it wasn’t until the last 20 years or so that the term "play date" was coined. Joye believes the rise in the need for play dates is due in part to our country’s increased mobility. “Many young moms and dads have moved great distances from their families and friends,” says Joye. “They can't pal around with their old friends who may have children the same age. They also don't have relatives nearby for practical help and support. Playgroups fill that gap.”
Zachary’s mom, Sarah, is a firm believer in the power of play dates and credits her monthly playgroup gathering with saving her sanity. “When you’re having a particularly bad day or week, it helps sometimes to hear stories about how other parents also face challenges,” says the mother of two. “After hearing about other parents' difficulties, our own situations suddenly seem much more tolerable.”
Margo’s mother Johanna says play dates provide her now 15-month-old daughter with all the advantages of the social experience without the stress of separation anxiety often experienced in daycare settings. “Margo gets to play with new and different toys in different environments and really enjoys the interaction with the other kids around her.” At the same time, Johanna benefits from the opportunity to swap child-rearing war stories with other moms. To ensure all participants—parents and children—benefit from play dates, it’s best to adhere to a few ground rules.