Playing away!

Prepare to diarise! If your child has started school or nursery this term it probably won’t be long before the play dates start rolling in. Whether it’s you that’s organising, or your child has been invited out, a happy play date is a lovely experience and does wonders for their sociability and self-esteem. Here’s how to make it work.


A successful play date can give your child confidence and experience in socialising with others, as well as the prospect of a new friend! But it’s not just a matter of inviting a child over, putting tea in front of them and then throwing them out to play. To work well, parents need to mastermind play dates to ensure they run smoothly and everyone is having a good time.

You may be asking yourself why you should invest time and energy in organising play dates for your children: isn’t this just more stress? Surely children get enough time to play with each other at nursery or school? Although school and nursery can help your child socialise and make friends, for some the environment is too overwhelming to seek out a special playmate. On top of this, the day can be so structured that there is little time for making friends.

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

Although school and nursery can help your child socialise and make friends, for some the environment is too overwhelming to seek out a special playmate.

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

Early on, children will need lots of help making friends and playing with them, because they need to learn the skills. Parents teach children to play well together through ‘scaffolding’ which means building on current behaviour, and encouraging children to expand or develop it.

For instance, at mother and toddler group, you might see your toddler showing an interest in another child and say: ‘See what Bethany is doing? She’s making a cup of tea for her doll. Shall we pass her some milk? Bethany, 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 they 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 should be fine. It will change the nature of the play date, though, and there is 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 the games 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.

Parents teach children to play well together through ‘scaffolding’ which means building on current behaviour, and encouraging children to expand or develop it.

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 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’re going to find that some children have very different expectations around meal times. It’s 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.


  • 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.
  • 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 or hyper.
  • 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 a calming TV programme you’ve selected beforehand 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 some books and read them a story.



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


Jemima 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’s easy for them. Elizabeth should help Jemima and Milly play together and at this stage imaginative play will nurture the friendship. Prepare by setting up toys for imaginative scenarios beforehand, for instance pretend shops or camping adventures. It would help if these were new to Jemima as well. Perhaps Elizabeth could also agree with Jemima which toys she will share and put away any ‘precious’ things.


Joe is three and an only child. His mum, Emily, says: He is obsessed by Paw Patrol and likes to spend hours staring at it on screen. I invited another boy round for a play date who I knew was very sociable, but Joe virtually ignored him.’


Emily may need to coach Joe in imaginative play first, and it is better if she works with what he is interested in. Maybe they could create a Paw Patrol adventure, acting it out using some of his toys as props. Once she feels he is expanding his play repertoire, 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.



How your child will play

What it means for play dates

Under 12 months

Solitary or spectator play: interested in watching children play but will not join in.

An older child who likes babies, perhaps daughter of a relative or friend, might want 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 nearby at all times, helping them by‘scaffolding’.

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, very structured play date will benefit both, perhaps organised round an outing they would both enjoy such as the park. Max two hours – one hour best.

2-3 years

Co-operative play, for example they would work together to build something. Very practical and literal.

Longer play dates possible, aim for different children each time, and stay in earshot if not in the room. Set up activities and be prepared to rotate them.

3-5 years

Need particular friends to engage in imaginative play and to develop play scenarios.

Play dates with one or two particular friends should be organised on a regular basis. You may need to input suggestions and intervene if conflicts arise. Can cope with half a day.

5-8 years

Well-developed imaginative play with best friends.

Your help is unlikely to be needed, except in providing equipment and refreshments! Don’t let the day get too long though, and sleepovers should probably wait for the time being


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