6 Strategies for Playdate Success

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kids on a playdate
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When we invited my daughter’s best friend to play last week, we expected a few hours of calm — happy girls dressing up as princesses, reading books, and chattering to each other in their nonstop four-year-old way.

I had just opened my e-mail when I heard a howl from the next room and my daughter came stomping into the living room. She flung herself on the couch and announced, “I’m going to read my Supergirl book.” I tried to get her to play with her friend, who stood bewildered in the backyard. Over the next hour it went from bad to worse, with my daughter screaming and sobbing in her room while her friend ate lunch alone — not the peaceful interlude I had envisioned.

Why Playdates?

After the friend left, I wondered what went wrong. And given how much trouble this playdate was, I questioned if they were even worth the trouble. My kids are in preschool — do they really need to have playdates on the weekend?

According to child psychologist Sarah Martin, assistant professor of psychology at Simmons College, playdates do serve an important function in the lives of young children. “Playdates offer an opportunity for children to interact with someone who is developmentally similar, as opposed to the parent-child or sibling interaction.” Even if kids are interacting with other children at school, the playdate helps them build friendships. And these early friendships, Dr. Martin says, “serve as templates for later friendships and allow children to develop a sense of themselves as a good friend and teach them to expect to be treated well by others.”

Have a Game Plan

Once I recommitted to the idea of a playdate, I decided I needed a new approach. It turns out that not only had I allowed the playdate to get off on the wrong foot, I cracked down too hard on my daughter by threatening her with punishment if she didn’t put down her book and play with her friend. Instead, had I set up her friend with a fun art project, my daughter probably would have wandered over out of curiosity, and I could have avoided the conflict altogether.

With the right game plan, playdates can be fun for everyone – and help set your kids up for a lifetime of fun with friends.

The best way to keep control of a playdate is to remember that it is all about appropriate consequences, says Patti Aretz, a parent educator at the Hanna Fenichel Center. “If there is crayon on the walls, everyone grabs a brush and water and cleans it off. I don’t care who did it. Everyone is responsible. If the kids are into my jewelry box, I remind everyone that my room is off limits and show them where to return my things. I set the boundaries and remind children of them. If the kids don’t seem to be listening, I take them outside to change the scene, or create an impromptu cooking activity. If this doesn’t work, I give a ten-minute cleaning warning, which means they have ten minutes to play before its time to clean up their toys and call the other child’s mom. Remember: you have to enjoy this playdate too. Playdates are like a story: they have a beginning, middle, and end. They take practice, boundaries, and a sense of humor.”

Keys to successful playdates:

1. Start Things Off Right

You know that feeling when your guests first arrive and everything is a bit awkward? Kids experience that too, and since they can’t offer their guest a cocktail, they often lash out in strange ways or turn a cold shoulder. Start the kids off with a game or a craft – some sort of structure that lets them settle into playing together. This usually smoothes over the conflict and sets them up for a successful visit. Aretz advises that “knowing the kids really helps so you can tailor activities to fit their personalities. Start with a loose plan. An easy art activity helps break the ice. Keep your ears open for the tone of the play and the connection between the kids.” If you don’t know the kid well, pick an activity you know your child likes, and be prepared with a backup plan if the original idea flops.

2. Establish Rules

Make sure the kids know the general rules of the house. If the child has played at your house before, you don’t need to make a big fuss about it, but if it’s their first time over, let them know how things work at your house (no jumping on the couch, no slamming doors, etc.). Reviewing the rules with all the kids at the beginning sets expectations and boundaries. If you are hosting, talk with your child before his or her friend arrives and explain what hosts do. If there’s an item that your child can’t bear sharing, have her put the item away in a safe place.

Understand, however, that playdates are not a time to try to train someone else’s child, says Dr. Dathan Paterno, child psychologist and author of Desperately Seeking Parents: Why Children Need a Parent in Charge and How to Become One. The guest should be expected to be safe, have respect, and follow basic rules, but don’t use this opportunity to teach your child’s friend the finer points of table manners. If following basic rules proves too difficult for the guest and a quick discussion with the child does not help, end the playdate and discuss things with the child’s parent – with the hope that it can work another time.

3. Plan a Snack Break

Playdates can be intense for kids, especially if they don’t know how to communicate to their friend that they need a break. Sitting down to eat not only gives kids sustenance, but it’s a chance for them to rest so they’re ready for round two. Be sure to discuss the type of snacks you plan to feed the kids with the friend’s parent when arranging the playdate. Not only do you need to know about allergies or food sensitivities, it’s important to find out if the parent has strong feelings about sugar or processed food. It’s always a good idea to err on the side of healthy – not many parents would be upset to find out that their child snacked on apples, cheese, and whole-wheat crackers.

4. Practice Positive Discipline

I learned the hard way that rushing in with a time out just doesn’t work when a friend is over; it’s too upsetting for your kid to be singled out and punished in front of a guest. Instead, help your kid figure out why they need to change their behavior and how to solve the problem.

“It’s likely that the children will fight. The question of when to intervene is the toughest part of the playdate,” says Dr. Paterno. “If you can, let them work it out. Children are often wonderful at distracting themselves from conflict and don’t need any adult help. If the conflict becomes unsafe, disrespectful, or more destructive, that is the time for you to jump in and help resolve things. That is also one of the best times to start one of the structured activities you have in your repertoire.”

5. Encourage Clean-as-You-Go

I used to dread playdates because of the mess left behind, but Arentz says that children as little as 18 months can help with cleanup. “When you serve a snack, ask the children to bring their dishes into the kitchen. It sets the tone for the kind of guest you expect your child’s friend to be and your expectations for your child.”

Teaching kids to clean up before they move onto the next game takes some work, but it’s worth the effort once the kids leave. Arentz suggest building in ten minutes of clean-up time at the end of the playdate so the house isn’t trashed when the friend leaves.

6. Don’t Push the Play

It turns out my biggest mistake from our disastrous playdate was insisting that the kids play together the entire time. If I had let my daughter take some time to read her book while her friend threw the ball with my eighteen-month-old son, the afternoon might not have ended in tears.

Dr. Paterno advises to be cautious when the kids aren’t playing together and not to intervene too quickly. They may just need some time and space from each other as a way of cooling off from a conflict. Encourage the child who wants to play together to give the other child a set time (ten minutes, for example) and then ask if she would like to play again. In the meantime, give the first child something to do. It might get the one in the corner interested in playing again.

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