For many parents, the words ‘play date’ can conjure up a sense of apprehension: the fights, the tantrums, the boredom. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this if you spend a bit of time planning it beforehand. The key is to keep yourself calm and remember that a play date is a way of helping your child to build their social skills. So what strategies can you employ to ensure a play date is a success every time?
To begin with, you should consult your child’s preferences, particularly when they are getting a bit older. It’s a mistake to assume you know who their good friends are or to arbitrarily pick one of their classmates to invite over because you get on well with their parents. Instead, ask your child who they would like to invite. You could also ask their teacher about whom they play best with in the classroom setting. This way, you are already getting things off to a good start because they are more likely to play well together if they have a history of doing so.
The next thing to do is talk to your child before the day in question to establish a few rules. This isn’t to take the fun out of things, but simply to avoid any confusion or upset later on. Make sure you tell them if you don’t want any jumping on the sofa, slamming doors etc so they will understand later on if you have to tell them ‘no!’. Also, talk about the importance of sharing and compromise – their friend might not always want to do the same things they do but they will have to learn to take turns.
When the friend arrives it’s important that you start things off on the right foot. It’s a good idea, therefore, to have some kind of easy game or craft with a bit of structure to it. Look at website such as www.handyhippo.co.uk to get some ideas for craft projects. This is important because some children can feel quite shy to begin with and if you don’t address this then they may just not settle into playing together. Of course you will already know what your child likes doing, but it helps if you also know what their friend enjoys so you can plan something that is likely to be a success.
You should also remember to include some snack breaks, particularly if the play date is going to be a long one. This allows the children to calm down a bit and recharge – otherwise they may start to get irritable and this almost always ends in a meltdown of some kind! Be sure to contact the friend’s parent beforehand to find out if there are any foods they are allergic to, particularly dislike or simply aren’t allowed to eat. It’s usually a good idea to find snacks that are on the healthier side, but you can arrange them in fun ways on the plate to make them more enjoyable. A plate of apples, cheese and sultanas usually goes down well.
Throughout the play date, try not to be too strict with your child. Even if they don’t behave themselves very well, it’s not always a good idea to rush in and single them out for punishment as this will simply humiliate them and make them act out even more. Think about why they might be behaving this way: remember it can be difficult to begin with to have someone else in ‘their’ territory and playing with their things, particularly if they are an only child. Therefore, instead of shouting, you should let them have a bit of time out and encourage them to join in again when they are ready. Don’t stress out about it as this can make things worse.
Finally, don’t push it: If the kids aren’t playing together then don’t immediately intervene to force them to do so. Sometimes it’s better to let them play separately in the same room and let them have a bit of space from each other. If you’re really concerned they’re not playing at all, maybe you could set a time limit for them to play separately and then suggest another joint activity again. But remember that some young children do just like to play ‘next to’ other children as opposed to ‘with’ them. This is nothing to be terribly concerned about early on.