15 Strategies for Playdates

by Jennifer Bingham Hull

Playdates help kids learn to get along. As a mother who has hosted get-togethers successful and not so stellar, here are my best tips:

1. Let your child pick her friends. With toddlers, playdates are about getting the parents together, so it makes sense to target kids whose folks you like. When children can be dropped off, however, it’s best to consult them on playdate picks.

2. Avoid threesomes. Two’s company, three’s a crowd was never truer than with children.

3.  Invite the parent in. Your little visitor may dash in the door and not look back. But if the playdate is a first, his mom or dad will appreciate getting a lay of the land.

4. Note how to stay in touch. Get the contact number and ask whether your guest has any food allergies or special issues. Also, set a pickup time, making the playdate short and sweet, say around two hours long. Ask permission if you want to do something unusual, like take the kids swimming.

5. Corral the guest’s stuff. There’s nothing worse than racing around to search for missing shoes while the other mother waits at your door, car running, toddler crying in the back seat. Put the friend’s things aside early on.

6. Set Rules. For playdate success, tell the kids what they can and cannot do, but keep the list short. In our house there’s no playing in mom and dad’s room and no jumping on beds.

7. Butt Out. With children younger than age 4, you’ll have to supervise them closely. But let older kids play independently and come up with their own fun. Check in often, though.

8. Feed them. Popcorn, pretzels and fruit have resuscitated many an ailing playdate at our house. Low blood sugar makes for lousy relations.

9. Prepare for revolt. Your guest may act well while your own child undergoes a Jekyll-Hyde transformation. Kids like to test their powers when entertaining on home turf. Let your child stew, and engage the friend in a game. Your kid will eventually join in.

10. End on a high note. Children may argue for most of the playdate but if it ends while they’re having fun, that’s what they’ll remember. Rescue a flagging playdate by doing something silly, like making a yucky potion out of toothpaste, ketchup, vinegar and baking soda.

11. Don’t trade belongings. Especially early on, kids want to take toys home from other houses. I’ve played this game. No sooner has one child agreed to give away her precious bear, than she changes her mind and bursts into tears. Ban these little exchanges.

12. Tell all. Okay, so the playdate was a disaster. Her daughter broke your child’s favorite toy and then walked in on your husband while he was getting dressed. Let the other parent know what happened. It’s better for her to hear the straight, bad version from you than a horrifying, inaccurate one.

13. Take her up on it. The other mother picks up her child, thanks you and says she’d love to have yours over. Really? When? Set a date; it’s great when you can take turns hosting.

14. Don’t expect reciprocity. Be understanding if the other parent doesn’t offer to host the next playdate. These get-togethers don’t fit well into many families’ schedules. Don’t take it personally. Parents’ lives are so busy these days that they often don’t have time to date each other.

15. Opt out. Playdates are optional. Kids can develop social skills in all sorts of other environments. And if they play at the park, you don’t have to clean up afterwards!

Hull is author of Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life; more information at growingafamily.com