Play dates are the current solution in the U.S. – at least in many urban centers – to the lack of the kind of neighborhood experience in which children could gather spontaneously in back yards and play together. I am not proposing that the neighborhood situation is always ideal. In fact, I am aware of many stories of how without adult supervision children’s play can turn into bullying, exclusion, or exploitation. But that is not the rule, and it has great advantages. For one thing, children have the chance to negotiate a common agenda without the usual structure of school or even family routine, and without adult intervention. Children learn to deal with competitive conflict between and among themselves. Children also learn to manage “empty” time or boredom when usual playmates are busy, without holding their parents responsible, since typically they are in charge of initiating arrangements with playmates. Even more, “neighborhood” play often includes children of different ages, and can teach children how to accommodate differences in competency, size, and experience. Perhaps ironically, this neighborhood spontaneous play is often replicated in good institutional care, in children’s homes. At Love and Hope, it is not unusual to see a small group of children playing soccer on the roof playground, or clustering together searching for treasures in the gravel, or other similar activities. This is harder to manage in city environments, when busy streets separate families and playmates and parents juggle busy schedules, barely managing to get home in time to get food on the table before helping with homework or putting the little ones to bed.
Often playdates offer a good alternative. Playdates are especially felicitous in the case of children who have trouble making or keeping friends. That is because a parent or other caregiver is available to scaffold the play. I often coach parents on how to do this. These are my general guidelines (Remember that the main goal of the playdate is for your child to have a positive experience) :
(1) Put yourself in charge. Do not offer to take care of the other child for an indefinite period of time. That may result in your babysitting for the other child, and your child may become fatigued or need time alone while the other child is still present. One way of safeguarding the situation is to provide transportation – “Joanie would love Rachel to come over and play. I could pick up the girls at school and drop them off at your house at around 3:00.” If your child has any vulnerability at all in peer relationships, do not invite (or allow someone else to invite) two children. Three really is a crowd. It is often best to keep the playdate short, and some younger children who have a lot of difficulty sharing may do better if you get together away from home, such as at a playground or a museum.
(2) Discuss the playdate with your child ahead of time. Make it clear to your child that, whereas you are going to take his/her preferences into account, you insist on a variety of children. That will not only establish a policy of inclusion as opposed to exclusion, but it will also help stretch your child’s friendship pool; some children get stuck in one particular friendship that may not be the best to help them grow, and you want to help them move beyond that. Also talk about your “family values” regarding guests. These may include giving the friend first choice in picking an activity or a toy, for example. Such specific rules are often better than general ones such as “be kind to your guest” because young children may find it hard to apply them and they are harder to enforce. It is also wise to discuss a few potential activities with your child before the playdate. While spontaneous play is an ideal, it is often more challenging for some children, and you want to put your child and yourself at ease by being prepared. Finally, in the case of young children, help the child decide which favorite toys that the child will have a hard time sharing should be put out of sight, and in the case of older children, talk to the child about how much time – if any – is to be spent in screen time (t.v., video, or computer games).
(3) If your child has particular challenges feeling comfortable and successful in peer relationships, then – as mentioned above – prepare ahead with activities that your child enjoys and that the guest would also be expected to like, such as simple crafts or baking or a new game. Then, if your child starts to have trouble – become irritable and non-collaborative or isolate him/herself, you can suggest something different and appealing to do. Do not hesitate to move in, in as friendly and non-anxious manner as possible if the children start to fight and seem unable to resolve it themselves. Don’t scold or correct your child in the presence of his/her friend; that is shaming and will only cause things to go further down hill. Instead, just move in with a positive attitude and change the venue, the activity, something.
Remember that your first goal is to help your child have a good time with a friend. That will motivate him/her to practice the skills and capacities that make friendships possible and gratifying.