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Playdates: How to Navigate Scheduling, Sharing and Socializing

Writer Heather Larson

Published on: June 28, 2011

Tips for planning your child's playdatesOne particularly memorable playdate for mom Lexie Tigre turned out great for her 3-year-old daughter, but left her puzzled. Although Tigre’s daughter attended preschool with her young friend and the two of them got along well, it turned out the moms had little in common. In fact, these mothers couldn’t find a thing to talk about.

“We just ate grapes at the kitchen table,” says Tigre, one of the cofounders of the Ruby Slipper Guide, which details family activities on the Eastside. “But our children did wonderfully.”

Though Tigre believes her situation was unusual, she warns other moms not to depend on playdates to connect them with their next BFF. “If both parents are compatible,” she says, “the date’s much easier.”

Playdates, a relatively modern invention, began as a way to get parents together, says Carolyn Pirak, a relationship expert and manager of partnerships at Seattle’s Talaris Institute. (Talaris supports parents and caregivers in raising socially and emotionally healthy children.) Today’s parents count on those dates to help their kids foster friendships and develop social skills.

“Children want to be social, by nature, and most of them are ready for a friend at 3 years of age,” says Pirak. “Playdates give them a chance to optimize their social and emotional development by learning regulation, how to wait their turn, manage stress and, on the whole, develop better peer relationships.”

When seeking a playdate for your 3- to 5-year-old, look for a common connection, she says. Ideally, before you arrange the get-together, the children should already be acquainted. Pirak says preschool, gym classes, “Mommy and Me” groups or day cares all provide opportunities for kids to meet up and make friends.

Once the playdate is set, you’ll need to get organized. Playdate prep includes arranging schedules (yours and your child’s) and establishing clear communications with the other child’s parent, says Pirak. Making sure the other parent understands his or her child will be safe in your care is a big part of planning a successful playdate. “Parents expect safety, that their child will be treated well and offered a variety of activities,” she says.

Tigre says, “I like to tell the other parent that nobody smokes here, we don’t own guns and we don’t have dogs.”

Picking up skills

Playdates offer learning and growing opportunities. “Your children are figuring out what it means to be polite and respectful hosts and guests,” says Lisa Conley, Kaleidoscope Play & Learn network coordinator for Seattle-based Child Care Resources.

Soon after your child’s playmate arrives, review the house rules with them. Then ask them to repeat those rules back to you, says Conley. Make sure your child takes some responsibility for her friend. For example, she can show her friend where the bathroom is and where to put her coat.

At some point, sharing will become an issue, especially with young children. Sharing isn’t a reasonable expectation for 3-year-olds, so it’s wise to offer two of the same toy, such as balls, puzzles or scooters, Pirak says.

If the kids are clearly struggling with sharing, a parent should intervene. If the issue escalates and a child becomes verbally or physically aggressive, a parent should diffuse the situation. Separating the kids for a short period of time might be the answer, says Conley.

“During playtime, be flexible and ready to try something new, especially if an activity doesn’t appeal to one or both children,” says Pirak. And don’t plan too much downtime for the kids; Conley suggests playdates be limited to 90 minutes or two hours.

Scheduling playdates for your childKeep it simple

Since the goal of a playdate is for the kids to enjoy each other’s company, there’s no need to overplan, schedule an expensive activity or embark on a fancy field trip, says Conley. Get out an old bed sheet so the friends can play parachute; let them set up a store with empty food containers and play money; give them some space and let them be creative.

Tigre says she organized a craft project once or twice for her daughter’s playdates, but found that wasn’t really necessary — the kids entertained themselves.

“The stimulation and social interaction a playdate requires takes a ton of the children’s energy,” says Pirak. “Check in halfway through and if one or both kids indicate they’re tired or want the date to end, let them end it.”

And if you don’t hit it off with the other child’s parent, don’t worry too much; time generally resolves that problem. Tigre, whose daughter is now 6, still hosts playdates. But these days, the other parent rarely sticks around.

Heather Larson is a freelance writer who lives in Tacoma.

Getting ready for a playdate
1. Plan your schedule so you’re fully available, not talking on the phone or concentrating on something else.
2. Establish rules: Tell your child what is OK and what is not OK.
3. Engage your child in the plans by asking him what he’d like to do and what he thinks his guest would like to do.
4. Ask the parent if the other child has allergies or can’t eat certain foods.
5. Tell the other parent if you plan to leave the house during the date.

Source: Carolyn Pirak

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