Play dates are important for both kids and their parents. They help kids build essential social skills (e.g., sharing, problem solving, and conversational skills), facilitate friendships, and improve self-esteem. Play dates can also deepen friendships among parents. However, not every kid will be a natural at play dates. You may notice that when your child is home, they seem comfortable, chatting up a storm, giggling and freely moving about. But during a play date, they may cry, cling to you, and appear generally frozen or tense.
Here are some tips to make play dates more enjoyable and successful for your child. Consider who, what, where, why and how.
Who? Let your child choose who they would like to have a play date with. Giving them choices increases their investment and perception of control in the situation. If they have difficulty selecting a peer, try to give them an option between 2 or 3 children (“Do you want to play with X or Y?”) to narrow down the choices. You can consult with your child’s teacher about classmates who they seem to gravitate towards or play with during recess. I recommend starting with one child, and once they have successful play dates with one child then you can slowly expand to having group play dates.
What? You and your child should pre-select the activities. By doing this, you are giving them some control, familiarity, and predictability with what is going to happen. Children (and adults) have increased anxiety when things are unknown and unstructured. Consider games that your child knows how to play, or activities that are of particular interest for them. Some suggestions include Uno, Guess Who, making bead bracelets, drawing, decorating cupcakes, and gardening. Discuss with them what is going to happen (e.g., your friend will come over, we will start by playing X, and then we will play Y, and then her mommy will come pick her up). You can also make a visual schedule of the activities and the children can cross them off when completed.
Where? Start at your home or another “safe” or comfortable place for your child, such as a local playground. By starting somewhere your child is comfortable, you’ll decrease the time needed for them to warm up. I recommend keeping play dates to an hour. You want it to be long enough for your child to warm up, but short enough to keep your child wanting more.
Why? Although it can be stressful and seem like you need to put in a lot of energy to prepare an hour long play date, it will be worthwhile when your child becomes more comfortable with their peers in a social setting. The more practice your child gets with having play dates, the easier it will be for them, and the less preparation it will take on your part.
How? Initially, parents should provide supervision to help structure the activities and promote comfort. Once you notice that your child has become more comfortable, you should gradually fade away from the interaction and check in as needed. Prior to the play date, you should enthusiastically discuss it with your child. After the play date, focus on the positive aspects. Prepare something fun following the play date (e.g., watching a television show, going for ice cream, or having special one on one time with parent). Most importantly, remain calm, patient, and positive!
Brittany D. Roslin, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center.