Play dates are great for kids and moms! Kids learn to share and take turns, get used to people outside of the family, and practice their vocabulary and listening skills. Moms, on the other hand, can enjoy a cup of coffee (and adult conversation!) while their little ones play. However, sometimes play dates can go horribly wrong. Kids start fighting over toys, or one child throws a tantrum and sets off a chain reaction of screams and sobs. Here are some ways to keep things under control—and organize a play date where everybody leaves happy.
1. Set time limits.
Keep it under two hours, especially if your children are below five years old. Beyond that, somebody’s bound to want a nap, grow restless, or become over-stimulated (which lead to tantrums and fights).
2. Schedule it at the “golden time.”
The “golden time” is usually right after your child’s woken up and had a light snack. Avoid late afternoon (he may already be fussy and over-stimulated from a long day).
If your friends are dropping off their kids for the afternoon, ask about their usual schedule so you can settle them down if the play date intrudes on their naptime.
3. Prepare your child.
Many toddlers or pre-schoolers are anxious about new places or people. Give them an idea of what to expect. “Tomorrow, we’re going to Andy’s house and play! You can read books and play with toys. And you can see his cute puppy?” then on the day itself, “We’re going to Andy’s house. Let’s pick a book for you to share! Do you want to bring a cookie for the puppy?”
It helps to speak of time in concrete ways. “We’ll visit Andy after your morning bath, then we’ll leave before lunch.”
4. Set simple routines and rules.
Talk to your child about what will happen and how you expect him to behave. “When Joshua comes over, show him your box of toys so you can play. No hitting okay? We use gentle hands when we play. Can we practice using gentle hands?” (Then, demonstrate.)
5. Be reasonable about sharing.
Young kids are still learning how to share. It’s probably too much to expect them to give up their favorite toys—after all, even adults get territorial about their things! You can, however, sit down with your child the night before, and pick out what to bring out to the living room. He might not be willing to share his brand new firetruck, but will be comfortable sharing his other cars.
6. Choose interactive toys.
Some toys are more fun when they’re shared! These include blocks (kids can build towers together, or set up a maze for cars and dinosaurs), balls, doctor sets, tea sets, train sets, clay and art supplies.
7. Ease transitions.
Help your child adjust to a new place, situation and people with “prompts.” For example, just before snack time: “We have 10 minutes before we stop and have cookies.” Or, when they’re about to play with the tea sets: “Oh, wow! What a pretty teapot. Let’s take turns. Who gets to use it first?”
For older kids, you can post a list of rules. Then if a fight breaks out, you can point to the poster and say, “Rule Five says we share. What can we do now to solve the problem?”
8. Set up stations.
If you’re hosting the play date, you can set up little play areas—a strategy used by many kindergarten teachers! The play areas add structure while still allowing the kids to pick what they want to do. For example, you can create an Art Area (with crayons, paper, clay), a Blocks Area, a Book Area, and a Pretend Area. If tempers flare over a toy, take away the object (nobody gets to play with it, if they don’t share) and separate the kids for about 5 minutes. “Andy, you stay first in the Blocks Area. Joshua, you stay in the Books area.”
9. Serve kid-friendly snacks.
Finger foods are best. Avoid sweets (unless you want to deal with a sugar crash) or anything that will leave a huge stain if spilled on the carpet. You can try milk and peanut butter sandwiches (make it fun by cutting the bread into different shapes—just use cookie cutters!) or a bagel with cream cheese.
Be sure to ask the other parents if their kids have any food restrictions or allergies. If you have regular playdates with a particular group, you can take turns preparing snacks, or organize a mini-potluck so even the mommies can have a small party!