First Playdates

Context
This appeared in the print edition of Parents while I was on staff there. 

PlaydatesFirst Playdates

Toddlers don’t always play well together. But with just a little planning, you can keep the peace.

When Sawyer Margolin has a playdate with his friend Olivia Feuerman, the kids’ moms never know how much they will actually play. One minute, the 3-year-olds are inseparable; the next, they’re off in their own little worlds. Even though the two have been playdate pals for a year, “they sometimes seem sort of oblivious to each other,” says Rene Feuerman, Olivia’s mom. “Then, suddenly they’ll start playing together.” That’s typical of children this age, who are definitely starting to take an interest in one another—yet aren’t quite ready to give up parallel play. But even if your toddler doesn’t seem to spend much time interacting with his friends, it doesn’t mean that scheduling playdates for him is a waste of time. “First friendships teach kids important social skills such as sharing, manners, and cooperation,” says Annie Thiel, Ph.D., author of The Playdate Kids series. Even the inevitable squabbles provide valuable experiences in learning to compromise and make decisions. To get the most out of your toddler’s next playdate, follow these golden rules.

DO prepare ahead of time.

Avoid fights and meltdowns by scheduling playdates at times when toddlers are likely to be in a good mood, such as in the morning or the late afternoon (postnap, of course). If the playdate will be at your house, be sure to double-check your childproofing beforehand—your little guest may get into something your child knows is off-limits.

Don’t let the date drag on indefinitely.

Kids this age don’t need marathon playdates. Most will get bored and cranky after one hour—90 minutes, tops.

Do keep it small.

Try to limit get-togethers to one friend at a time, especially if the kids are playing indoors. Your toddler will have a much easier time learning to socialize with just one other child; plus, fewer kids means there’s less chance a fight will break out. It’s a rule Farrah Griffin, mom of 2½-year-old Kennedy, swears she won’t break again. “When I set up a group playdate with Kennedy and her friend and my older son and his friends, there were tons of tears and battles,” says the mom from Renton, Washington. “It’s definitely easier for toddlers to interact one on one.”

Don’t forget: Location matters.

Toddlers can get possessive when they’re on their own turf, especially when it comes to sharing their toys. Holding the playdate in neutral territory, such as a playground or the children’s room at the library, will limit the tears and cries of “Mine!”

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Fortunately, battles over toys usually don’t last very long—toddlers will quickly get interested in something else.

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Playdates2Do go over the house rules.

Tell the kids what they can and can’t do, but keep the list short and simple (“We always eat in the kitchen, and we don’t play in Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom”). The longer you lecture, the more they’ll forget.

Don’t hover.

Always stay close by to supervise, but intervene
only when you absolutely have to (such as when one kid is hitting
the other or they start calling each other names). If you step in during
every little disagreement, your child won’t learn how to work out
his problems for himself.

Do let the kids choose the agenda.

Plan a few activities you think they’ll like, but let them decide what they want to do. (Just make sure you come up with plenty of ideas, since toddlers have a notoriously short attention span.) If they simply play alongside each other at first, don’t be concerned. They’re still learning social skills by watching and mimicking each other, so there’s no need to force them to interact.

Don’t make sharing harder than it is.

Minimize meltdowns by warning your toddler ahead of time that you expect her to share her toys. However, if she has a special possession you know she’ll resist handing over, put it away until after the playdate. Set out toys that are easy to share, such as balls or blocks, or give the kids a bunch of the same type of toy, like dolls or cars, says Carren Joye, author of A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Complete Guide to Playgroups. Even better: Suggest a gear-free activity such as dancing.

Do turn off the TV and computer.

Toddlers won’t learn social skills staring at a screen. The exception: Watching a DVD or playing a computer game can help the kids wind down when their perfect playdate comes to an end.

This article was originally published in Parents Magazine. Click here to download the original article.

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