Sometimes, playdates can happen almost naturally. Your child made a new friend, excitedly asked you to invite them over, you called to arrange a time with their caregivers, and ta-da—a playdate was formed. But it’s not always quite so natural to know what to do on a playdate itself, for you or your little one.
Supporting your child’s socialization in instances like these is a key factor in their early development. Playing together with other children—whether on an organized playdate, or a spontaneous outdoor playdate session—gives your younger child an opportunity to practice important social skills for kids, ways to connect with others, and simply have fun.
To that end, your playdate can be as structured or unstructured as you want—but some guidance on where to start can help you and your kid craft a happy, healthy play environment.
How to Host a Playdate
So, what is a playdate and how can you host one? While hosting a successful playdate might not be as intricate as a fancy dinner, dance party, or special event, if you’re new to the experience, these tips can help you create a fun, safe place for the kids to play. Some careful steps can also help to ensure your kids feel supported in their playtime, even if they’re old enough to play independently.
Setting the Invitations
If your playdate guests haven’t yet been decided, figuring out who will come over is the first step of any planning. Will it be one-on-one or a big group? A friend your younger child knows well, or a newly acquainted buddy?
To answer this question, we recommend being mindful of your child’s comfort levels. This is important in all situations, but especially for playdates, as your child familiarizes themselves with the nuances of unstructured social interactions.
If your child tends to be shy, try to start by inviting someone they’ve met before: a neighbor, cousin, daycare mate, or classmate, for example. This way, your child can begin the playdate within their comfort zone and build their social-emotional skills with ease.
As your child becomes older and more comfortable playing with others, you can simply ask them who they want to invite—or even consider planning a group get-together.
Treating Timing with Care
When scheduling with other caregivers, consider setting a clear time for the playdate to end and communicating this with both your child and your guests. Doing so avoids conflict when it’s time for their guest(s) to go home, and gives your child the chance to prepare themselves for their friend's exit.
For little kids between the ages of one and five, it's also good practice to make sure the playdate doesn't run too long. Each child’s energy levels may vary, and if the playdate lasts too long, some might leave the experience feeling tired and overspent. Keeping it short and sweet lets everyone finish their fun on a positive note.
Putting Safety First
Child care is an important part of hosting a playdate. Even if other parents decide to stick around for the playdate, make you have the emergency contact information for the caregiver of each child in attendance. You never know if or when someone will need to step out, and in general, it's good practice to be on the safe side.
In addition, if you plan to have a snack break, talk to the other caregivers beforehand about any food allergies of any child over for a playdate. It’s also worth checking in about their comfort levels with certain playdate activities. Younger kids have different experiences when it comes to boundaries, so while some kids have no qualms about an outing to the park, others may have yet to grow into that experience.
The Parent’s Role at Playdates
As your child grows up and receives invitations to playdates from others, it can be difficult to gauge the right moment to transition from staying by their side and dropping them off. Playdates are often the first big step in a child’s burgeoning independence, and it’s important to recognize the weight of this fact.
Here are a few factors to consider when deciding if you’ll drop them off or stick around:
Adapting to Comfort Levels
If you’re not hosting, stay attuned to whether or not your child is emotionally ready to be separated from you for the duration of the playdate. Licensed counselor Erica Wiles notes, “While certain age ranges encompass particular developmental levels... not all young children will reach milestones at the same time.”1
In other words, learning how to support your child no matter what stage they’re in is essential to making them feel heard, safe, and assured.
Many parents choose to stay with their children at playdates until they’re at least three years old—but don’t be afraid to stick around even if they’re older. It’s more detrimental to leave your child feeling anxious and alone than to support them in a playdate experience where they can grow their confidence.
Additionally, staying at playdates may provide you, as a caregiver, a sense of security and comfort. If you’re scheduling playdates with a new family, there’s no shame in taking time to make sure you feel your child is safe in a new setting. This can be an exciting experience for you and your child to be a part of together.
A crucial role of the caregiver in a playdate comes before the fun even begins. No matter whether your child is playing at home or at a friend’s place, let them know what to expect. Defining boundaries together is a useful lesson in self-reliance and communication.
You can also help your child and their guests to play together constructively by:
- Explaining that another child will be entering your child’s space and that they might take interest in your child’s toys or other belongings. If it’s the first playdate, it can be helpful to allow your child to put away their most precious toys for the time being and choose some toys they want to play with together. If your child is visiting someone else, consider bringing along some toys of their own.
- Supporting your child in setting their own boundaries and solving problems. If a child doesn’t want to share a certain toy or play a game together, don’t force it—instead, create an open dialogue to talk about how to solve the problem. If conflict comes up, ask all children involved how they feel—or, to the child who made a less-than-ideal decision, how they’d feel if they were at the receiving end.
- Tuck away any toys not meant for sharing. If your child has special or precious toys they don’t want to share, consider putting them away before the playdate starts. This can help your child feel more relaxed and open during the playdate when it comes to sharing their toys and space.
Playdate Activities to Build Connections
More than just a pastime, playdates can offer a wealth of moments to spark a connection and build on the emotional strengths of a child. And, with the help of a few fun projects, each can be more enjoyable than the last.
The best part of these playdate activities is that they rely on supplies you may already have on hand. All you need to add when creating fun is imagination.
Even though your child isn’t really a famous sailor and their newly discovered island is actually your r coffee table, their pretend persona allows them to think about social roles different from their own. Pretend play is a vital tool in learning empathy at a young age. It’s also a fun way for your child to ease into experiences they aren’t comfortable with in “real” life.2
Your little sailor might shy away from the school playground, but with a cardboard helm or a pair of binoculars in hand, they can step out of their comfort zone and test the waters of adventure.
The best part about pretend play is that many children are naturals at it, and on top of that, anything can become make-believe. Try these out next time the kids are over:
- Make puppets out of brown paper bags, decorating with kid-safe markers. Then, put on a puppet show!
- Use cardboard boxes, blankets, and pillows to build a fort fit for royalty.
- Arrange chairs or go out in nature for a “theater” session and have children imagine their own play.
The phrase “self-expression” often goes hand-in-hand with any conversation about art. And, as a caregiver, you’ve probably witnessed your child express themself in plenty of ways: how they play, what hobbies they enjoy, their curiosities and conversations.
Making art is a safe, enjoyable, and easy way to inspire children at a playdate to engage with their imagination and sense of self—all while having a blast.
You don’t need to be an artist yourself to master this playdate activity—just lay down some paper and a few finger paints. Asking the painters a few questions about their process is a thoughtful way to introduce emotional learning:
- What inspired you to make this drawing?
Make sure to keep it light and encouraging, using positive language—no one has to be Van Gogh to have a satisfying time. If you notice a child putting too much pressure on their process, consider prompting them to focus on the movement of the brush or the feeling of the paint on the paper—process over outcome.
Championing Your Child: A Playdate with Slumberkins
While there may not be such a thing as perfect playdates, the experience is ultimately about fostering your child’s connections: connections with the world around them, with other children, and with themselves. The perfect combination of friendship, freedom, fun, and safe activity, playdates build your child up and bolster a space for reflection and optimism—a mission that Slumberkins takes to heart, too.
Bringing together gentle therapeutic methods to child-aged learning and even gentler ways of teaching them, Slumberkins prioritizes inclusive ways for caregivers and children alike to better understand their emotions, big or small. Our soft Snugglers are your child’s biggest cheerleaders, imparting comfort, confidence, and meaningful moments of connection, all through an adorable and cuddly friendship.
A playdate isn’t the only way to bring social-emotional learning into your home. Slumberkins provides parents with early childhood social-emotional learning books and tools to best support all children’s development, no matter their pace.
- Leonard, Kimberlee. "What Age do Drop-Off Playdates Start?" Mom. 23 December, 2019. https://mom.com/toddler/what-age-do-drop-off-playdates-start/l1JNX-what-age-should-drop-off-playdates-begin
- Kennedy, Nicoletta. "The Power of Pretend Play." First Things First Organization. 30 October, 2017. https://www.firstthingsfirst.org/first-things/power-pretend-play/