The ABCs of Toddler Playdates
Jennifer Bianco knows how to make the most of a playdate. The mother of a girl and boy, ages 6 and 3 respectively, Bianco uses playdates as an important social experience both for her kids and for herself.
“Playdates are great for my kids,” Bianco says. “They learn how to interact with other kids; they learn how to share and how to get along in general. And it gives me a great opportunity to connect with other adults to talk about parentingand things totally unrelated to being a mom, which is refreshing.”
Experts agree with Bianco that playdates are loaded with opportunity for parent and child. But to be sure you get the most benefit, it’s important to understand playdate etiquette. There’s more to a playdate than just scheduling a day, time, and place to meet. You need to consider certain factors such as age, frequency, and location as well as what to expect when everyone gets together.
Age: Jenn Berman, author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids, says, “It’s never too early for a playdate for a child, even an infant. Babies are fascinated by other babies, and any new stimulation is really good for brain development. Even looking at another child, touching hands, and just being curious is really good.”
For toddlers, the age of the other children doesn’t really matter. Based on her experience with her own kids, Bianco says most kids will find some value in spending time with another child even if their ages don’t match. It’s not until they get a little older, around the age of 5, that a child begins to show preference for spending time with others closer in age.
Gender: “Playdates are a great opportunity for your child to interact with the other gender,” Berman says. “It really doesn’t matter if you arrange a playdate with a child of the opposite sex until your child says it does.” And that usually doesn’t happen, Berman says, until the child is older.
Frequency: “Twice a week is a nice number,” Berman says. But she cautions not to go overboard and to avoid the tendency to over-schedule your kids.
“I don’t like to see a child having a playdate seven days a week,” Berman says. “We live in a society that doesn’t value people spending time on their own, but that’s an important skill to learn, even for toddlers.”
Bianco, a working mom, says once every couple of weeks works for her and her family’s busy schedule. The trick is to find a balance that works for you and keeps your kids happy.
Location: It’s good to have a combination of locations for playdates; new places mean new learning experiences for your child.
Berman says, “It’s a great experience for a child to see another child’s house and see how they live. It’s also good to have someone visit your house so your child can learn to welcome his friends into his home.”
There’s also nothing wrong with neutral ground, Berman says. Parks, playgrounds, and centers that host playgroups are all good options for playdate ideas.
Length: Two hours is the magic number for Bianco and her kids. That’s just enough time to play, have a snack, take a break, and play again before wrapping things up.
Reciprocity: The correct way to handle playdates is to make sure you reciprocate with other moms.
“If you host a playdate at your house, then it’s only fair that the mom and child offer the same invitation to you and your child,” Bianco says. “We’ve had playdates with my daughter’s friend at our home but have never received an invitation in return. So my daughter keeps asking, ‘Why can’t I play over at her house?'”
This especially rings true for busy, working parents like Bianco, who rearranges her schedule to make time for a playdate and likes it when other moms reciprocate.
Playdates offer fun for all, but they’re not without their fair share of problems, sharing being one of them.
“Parents mistakenly believe that kids should share right away,” Berman says. “But kids aren’t ready to share when they’re only a year old. They come into the world with the belief that, ‘I am touching this, it’s mine and I don’t want to share.’ It’s like telling an adult to share his arm — a toy is an extension of the child.”
Parents should manage their expectations around sharing in advance of a playdate with younger toddlers. Talk with your child before the playdate to set guidelines. “Tell your child that Johnny is coming over to play and he might want to use some of your child’s toys,” Berman says. “It’s OK to put some of your child’s favorite toys away if he will feel uncomfortable sharing them. Then, the toys that are out can be shared without conflict.”
If conflict does arise, just talk it through. “Narrate what you see between the kids,” Berman says. “And give empathy. ‘We know it can be hard to share, but when Susie is done playing with the toy, you can have it back.'”
Playing with Shy Children
Another playdate problem is the anxiety a young child might feel at another child’s house. Bianco experienced a playdate where a mother left her child at Bianco’s home. Fifteen minutes after the mom had left, the child had a meltdown.
“I really believe that a parent should stay at a playdate with their kids,” Bianco says, “especially if the child is young and if he doesn’t really know the family.”.
But while parents should be there for their kids in case anxiety strikes, don’t insert yourself into the middle of the fun.
“Don’t try to orchestrate the play, which isn’t good for kids,” Kathy Harlow, program director for the North Suburban Family Network in Melrose, Mass, says. “They should explore their own creativity and use toys they way they want.”
Playdates can also be tough if you feel like your child isn’t exactly a social butterfly.
“There’s no such a thing as being too shy for a playdate,” Berman says. “It’s a terrible label that gets a child stuck in a position with a negative connotation.”
While your child might take longer to warm up on a playdate, the experience is just what he or she needs to feel more secure. If you really feel like your child will be uncomfortable, bring a “transitional object,” Berman says. For instance, bring a blanket or teddy bear that your child can turn to for help if he feels nervous.
What’s in It for Mom or Dad?
While kids are busy interacting, learning, and hopefully sharing, there is equal benefit in a playdate for parents.
“It’s nice to sit with another mom and have the ‘Me, too!’ experience,” Berman says. “‘You were up all night with the baby? Me, too!’ Or, ‘You don’t know what type of formula to use? Me, too!’
“These are important opportunities for the parent to connect with people who are going through the same things they are.”