By Angela Pirisi
There are two camps when it comes to play dates: Some parents welcome them while others dread them. Meagan Austin, a Halifax mom of Finn, 4, is a fan. “Even though he has all the interaction at pre-school, it’s nice that he can have one-on-one time with a friend and learn how to behave in new situations and how to compromise.” In fact, there’s much to recommend play dates. In addition to rounding off your little one’s social skills, they also foster the opportunity to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships, says Daniela O’Neill, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and director of the Centre for Child Studies. “It’s the same for adults — seeing friends at work and having simple water cooler exchanges is different than the kind of deeper interaction you get going for coffee or drinks after work.”
That’s all great, but the daunting part about play dates is ensuring that they don’t erupt into emotional meltdowns or overly excited children running amok, right? Not to worry, because love ‘em or loathe ‘em, here’s your guide to managing play dates.
Both offer perks: “Children benefit from being the host and learning to share their own toys and space, but also from learning to be a guest. By going to other houses, they learn how to fit in, in a variety of contexts with different expectations; they also learn that being away from home can be safe and fun,” says Jeanne Williams, an Edmonton-based registered psychologist and play therapist.
At this age, three or more at a play date is definitely a crowd and it’s hard to match everyone’s interests, mood and energy, says O’Neill. One to two hours is usually long enough, but O’Neill suggests feeling things out: “There may also be times when the mood just isn’t right and a play date may need to end sooner rather than later.”
Kids need to know (or be reminded) before the play date of any rules you set to make sure things don’t get out of hand. That means spelling things out to the kids at the start, such as expectations to share toys, no physical fighting, no TV or computer during the play date. “It may also be a good idea to let your child choose any prized toys that they don’t want to share, and put them out of sight ahead of time,” says Williams.
“Squabbles will come up, but don’t feel like you have to solve every problem,” says Williams. If things turn physical or one child is always dominating the other, it’s time to step in to remind them of the rules and help them talk through the problem to come up with a solution together. “Sometimes all they need is a distraction, such as a snack, outdoor play or a new game,” says Williams.
Play dates can be helpful for all kids, and some research suggests that they might be particularly helpful for reserved children. “Young, shy children are wary and nervous in new situations and in social settings. Large groups can also be intimidating for them. So having a single playmate come over to their house provides an excellent opportunity for the shy child to gain confidence and experience the benefits of peer interaction,” says Robert Coplan, a psychology professor specializing in children’s social development at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“If you’re having a new child over who may be uncomfortable, you could set out a board game or some specific toys to help get them involved. But as they get comfortable, back off and let the kids plan what to do with their time,” says Williams. “One of the great values of a play date is the process of deciding how to spend the time and entertaining themselves without adult help.”
Play dates can turn into a sugar fest or hunger strike and both scenarios can lead to fragile moods. Carla D’Andreamatteo, a Winnipeg-based dietitian and mother to a four-year-old daughter, says that hydration is really key: “If you wait until a child says “I’m thirsty,’ she is already in the early stages of dehydration.” So schedule snack breaks with healthy options such as whole grain crackers and cheese or fresh fruit slices.
Angela Pirisi is a Hamilton, Ont.-based health writer. She has a five-year-old daughter who loves both hosting and attending play dates.