Many child development experts have asserted that “Play is the work of childhood”. In fact, the United Nations has named play as one of the basic human rights of childhood. Playdates are important in your child’s development of social skills, and in your development of a social support network. Hosting your first playdate can be a daunting task. Who to invite? When? How much planning is needed? I host a weekly playdate at my home for a local mother’s group and their toddlers and would like to offer some suggestions for making your playdate a success.
Who to invite
It is probably more important to limit the number of children at your playdate, than to be overly concerned with who you invite. Too many children will lead to a crowded space which will increase the chances of fighting over toys and space and may push your noise level up. I find that 4 or 5 seems to be the magic number. This allows for enough of a group to provide ample socialization for the children without overwhelming them or creating a crowd too large to be accommodated in your home.
Concerns about the behavior of certain children will have to be handled carefully and tactfully. If you are worried about the way a certain child will behave at your playdate you have the right not to invite that child. Particularly if safety is your concern. However, remember to be respectful of different parenting styles and to acknowledge the different personality traits in our children. Exposing your children to a wide variety of people has tangible benefits such as increasing their tolerance of differences. Whenever possible, try to discuss concerns with the other parent and reach an agreement. As the hostess, you are also at liberty to establish rules for your home and your playdate.
Timing is everything!
Take into account nap times and feeding schedules. You are not likely to be able to accommodate everyone’s schedule so plan based on your children’s timetable. Also consider the limited attention span of toddlers and preschoolers. A playdate that lasts an hour and a half is enough time for children to warm up to each other, play, and then wind down with a snack before heading home.
To feed or not to feed?
This is a consideration that must be made in consultation with the other moms who will be attending the playdate. We all have different ideas about what makes an acceptable snack so try to reach a consensus about when and what you will feed the children at your playdate. It is important to consider any potential food allergies. If a food allergic child will be at your playdate, simply contact the parent ahead of time to ask for a list of suggested, acceptable snacks. If this is not possible, be sure to keep all food packaging so that the parent in question can read labels to assure the food is safe for all.
Structured or unstructured?
This will depend in large part on the age of the children attending your playdate. Young toddlers will do well with unstructured play. You can simply make an a limited assortment of toys available and let them play. Limit the offerings to avoid overwhelming the children and to ensure that they devote some time to playing with each toy. Children will also get more out of the playdate if the television is turned off. Remember, the purpose of the playdate is to encourage socialization and expose children to a new environment.
Preschoolers would benefit from some structured play. This is because structured play provides an important way for children to learn about social skills such as taking turns, and school readiness skills such as following directions. Board games especially made for preschoolers would be a great choice, as would a specific arts and crafts activity. Be sure to balance your playdate by allowing children some unstructured free time after the activity.
Children of all ages benefit from spontaneous and unstructured play so never feel like you have to schedule every minute of their activity. Spontaneous play can encourage creativity, problem solving and independence. You can read The Power of Play by David Elkind, available at www.amazon.com for more information on the benefits of spontaneous play.
A sensory gym provides a safe playground space designed for children which is used by most children for playdates.