Psychology

Play dates

A happy play date is a lovely experience for your child and does wonders for developing sociability and self-esteem. But so often, problems arise when children fall out over a favourite toy, or the food on offer doesn’t go down well with the little visitor! We have some useful tip on how to make play dates work

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A successful play date can give your child confidence and experience in socialising with others, as well as the prospect of a new friend! The big bonus of play dates is that they are all about fostering friendships. But to work well, parents need to mastermind play dates to ensure they run smoothly and everyone is happy.

You may be asking yourself why you should invest time and energy in organising play dates for your children. Surely children get enough time to play with each other at nursery or school? It’s true that school and nursery can help your child socialise and make friends. But for many children, the environment is overwhelming, making it hard to seek out a special playmate. On top of this, the day can be so structured that there is little time for making friends.

Having one or two special friends helps your child’s development in all sorts of ways. In addition to fostering social skills, friendships also help boost your child’s intellectual development. Research has shown that schoolchildren who have good friends have higher self-esteem and are better at solving academic problems, and they are less likely to be bullied.

For pre-school children too, friendships are important and useful. Psychologists are aware that pre-school children who have a special friend engage in more complex levels of pretend play, are more effective at sharing and taking turns, and better able to resolve conflicts. Imaginative play, which is so important for your child’s cognitive and linguistic development, does depends on having a few good friends.

SCAFFOLDING

Small children need to learn the skills of making friendships and these skills don’t just come naturally. Parents teach children to play well together through ‘scaffolding’ which means building on current behaviour, and encouraging them to expand or develop it.

For instance, at toddler group, you might see your toddler showing an interest in another child and say: ‘See what Emily is doing? She’s making a cup of tea for her doll. Shall we pass her some milk? Emily, would your dolly like some milk?’ Or ‘Tom is building a train set! Shall we help him? Tom, can we play with you? Perhaps we can make a station and you could make a tunnel?’

Taking this further in a play date might mean putting out a box of bricks and suggesting children build a tower or a farm, and then sitting back to watch, occasionally making new suggestions or comments.

By the age of three, children mostly prefer to do their imaginative playing with their peers, and this is where play dates really come in to their own. Your role is to set out toys for acting out fantasies, like dressing-up boxes.

DOUBLE DATING

Some children, particularly younger children, will not be happy coming to visit your home on their own without mum, and that’s understandable. It will change the nature of the play date, though, and there’s a danger that you get so busy chatting you don’t notice what the kids are up to, squabbling breaks out and the whole thing becomes a stress all round.

Preparation is key – have a structure to the date and let the other mum know what you’ve planned. Set up games in a place where you can both watch, rather than in a separate room. If the children get along, you could suggest short, frequent visits, and hopefully in time the friend will be happy to be left.

MEALTIME MATTERS

It’s best to go for easy, filling snacks for first play dates until you get used to what the other child likes and dislikes. Offer a selection of sandwiches or healthy finger snack and fruit, for instance, and let them help themselves. Eating with fingers avoids table manner issues and keeps the meal short. Avoid sugary snacks as this could make everyone hyper.

No matter how relaxed you make things, you are going to find that some children have very different expectations around meal times. It is useful for all children (including your own) to learn that different people have different standards. Relax your standards but keep a few rules for your own sanity (for example, no running around with food, wash hands first and afterwards and so on). Later on you can have a useful conversation with your child about how everyone is different.

ORGANISE YOUR PLAY DATE

  • Suggest a play date to the other mum that is not too long.
  • Start off with a run in the garden or a walk in the park in case they are a little over-excited.
  • Set up some toys for age-appropriate play – such as bricks and construction toys for under-twos, pretend ‘props’ such as kitchen, garages and shops for two-to-threes, a dressing-up box for over-threes.
  • Follow this with a sit down and a healthy and filling snack. After this, they should be happy to play on their own for a while, although younger children may need careful supervision.
  • If they start to flag, try a short spell in front of an appropriate calming TV programme before the main meal. But don’t expect them to sit still for any length of time.
  • By now, it should be nearly home-time for your child’ s new friend. If not, get out a book and read them a story.

FLASHPOINTS!

Problem

Imogen is four-and-a-half and has two older brothers. Her mum Julia says: ‘Imogen has made a best friend at nursery. I am told they play marvellously together, but when we organised a play date at our house, Imogen tried to boss Alice around and wouldn’t share.’

Solution

Imogen is used to being told what to do by her brothers, and while four-year-olds understand the need for co-operation, it doesn’t mean it is easy for them. Julia should help Imogen and Alice play together and at this stage imaginative play will nurture the friendship. Set up toys for imaginative scenarios beforehand, for instance pretend shops or camping adventures. It would be good if these were new to Imogen as well. Perhaps Julia could also agree with Imogen which toys she will share and put away any ‘precious’ things.

Problem

Zak is three and an only child. His mum, Justine, says: He is obsessed by Paw Patrol and either likes to spend hours watching it on the TV or playing with his playset and play chacacters. I invited another boy round for a play date who I knew was very sociable, but Zak virtually ignored him.’

Answer

Justine may need to coach Zak in imaginative play first, and it’s better if she works with what he is interested in. That means creating a Paw Patrol ‘story’ with him using his toys and playsets: she can discuss with him what the characters are thinking, and over time develop more complex imaginative scenarios. Once she feels Zak is ready, she could organise a play date with another child who is also keen on Paw Patrol. During the date, she should be actively involved in their play, at least until they both get the idea.

AgeHow children play
Impact on play dates
Under 12 months

At this stage, expect solitary or spectator play: your child may be interested in watching other children play but will not join in.


An older child who likes babies (perhaps a friend's child) might be keen to play with your child: both will benefit, but keep it short.


12-18 months

Interested in children of their own age, but not able to initiate or sustain play without adult help. May exchange toys and imitate each other.


A short play date of perhaps no longer than an hour, and you will need to be present at all times, 'scaffolding' to keep the play going happily.
18 months - 2 years

‘Parallel play’ meaning they play alongside others without actually interacting, or they are onlookers watching other children at play.


Again a short, structured play date will benefit both, perhaps organised round an outing such as the park. Max two hours - one hour best.
2-3 years
Now children are ready for co-operative play. They might work together to build something. They are practical in approach.
Longer play dates possible, aim for different children each time, and stay in earshot if not in the room. Set up activities in advance.
3-5 years
Friends are now very important in your child's play. They need particular friends who can help them to engage in imaginative role play and develop different play scenarios.
Play dates of up to half a day with one or two particular friends should be organised regularly. You may need to input suggestions and intervene if conflicts arise.
5-8 years
Well-developed imaginative play with best friends. They will be able to sustain play for longer periods and need less intervention from you.
Your help is unlikely to be needed, except in providing equipment and refreshment. Sleepovers should probably wait for the time being though.

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