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Fun Playdate Protocol

Christine Koh
Jan. 29, 2009

Expectations and activities for the best playdates.

Playdates are supposed to be fun, but if the activities and circumstances aren't age appropriate, the event can result in more stress than play. Here are some tips for enjoying fun, age-appropriate playdates with your kids.

Age-appropriate expectations
Parents often become stressed if they feel that their child isn't behaving appropriately. But in reality, behaviors such as whining, not wanting to share, making messes, and having tantrums are age appropriate for younger children. Set realistic expectations about behavior depending on the age of your child:

  • Toddlers tend to be "high maintenance." They need steady supervision since their curiosity makes them prone to injuries, messes, and swallowed objects. Also, younger toddlers (around 12-months-old) don't understand the concept of sharing and engage in parallel (playing alongside another child) rather than interactive play. Toddler playdates are thus more about the grownups getting together than toddler interest in seeing a friend.
  • Preschoolers (and older toddlers) are able to interact and play with other kids. They also understand (but aren't always thrilled about) sharing, turn taking, and negotiation. While preschoolers sometimes can resolve conflicts on their own, be prepared to negotiate periodic squabbles. Encourage their use of words instead of aggressive behaviors such as hitting or tantrums to express frustration.
  • Kindergarteners and up will be much more independent of their parents, and can engage in creative games with friends. You'll probably find that you and your fellow parent(s) find time to actually sit and chat within earshot while the kids entertain themselves.

Age-appropriate activities
Plan fun games that fit the kids' ages.

  • Toddlers have a lot of energy and curiosity. They love crafts or sensory projects, toys and stories, as well as trips to parks or tumble gyms. Select parks and tumble gyms with age-appropriate structures, such as see-saws, riding toys, and low climbing structures with small slides.
  • Preschoolers enjoy the same types of playdates as toddlers, but they are able to engage in more complex and interesting craft projects, as well as parks or indoor gyms with more challenging climbing structures. Dramatic play, such as dress up or playing housekeeping or grocery store with pretend food and cash registers, is also a big favorite at this age.
  • Kindergarteners and up will enjoy similar activities as preschoolers, with increased complexity. More intricate toys such as Playmobil or LEGO building sets??are good bets, as are science and sensory exploration projects such as nature projects and baking activities where they can practice measurement and following instructions.

Age-appropriate length of playdate
Similar to birthday parties, set time expectations such that playdate length runs about as many hours as your child's age.

  • Toddlers will probably be good for an hour or two before meltdowns become more likely.
  • Preschoolers respond well to planned activities, such as craft or science projects, and will become engrossed in projects or pretend play. Follow their lead and let them become absorbed in an activity! If you have a firm departure time, provide time warnings (e.g., 15 then 5 minutes before you need to leave) so the departure isn't a total surprise.
  • Kindergarteners and up will be similar to preschoolers; they will likely become engrossed in projects and be able to play for long stretches. Be mindful of the time and don't start a complex project too close to when you need to leave -- they'll want to finish what they have started.

If you set realistic expectations about your child's behavior and arrange playdates that are age appropriate, you will maximize enjoyment for all. And for in-home playdates, always be prepared with healthy snacks (a good distraction if things are getting out of control). Finally, be sure to help your host clean up toys and messes before you leave!

Christine Koh is a music and brain scientist turned parent and writer about parenting issues for Care.com. She is also the editor of BostonMamas.com.

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