Play dates


It’s not quite, but a happy play date is a lovely experience, fostering sound friendships.


writes Caroline Deacon


A successful play date can give your child confidence and experience in socialising with others, as well as the prospect of a new friend! But it’s not just a matter of inviting a child over,

putting tea in front of them and then throwing them out to play. To work well, parents need to mastermind play dates to ensure they run smoothly and everyone is happy.



You may be asking yourself why you should invest time and energy in organising play dates for your children:

isn’t this just more stress? Surely children get enough time to play with each other at nursery or school? Although school and nursery can help your child socialise and make friends, for some the environment is too overwhelming to seek out a special playmate. On top of this, the day can be so structured that there is little time for making friends.




Organise your play date


Set up some toys for age appropriate play – such as bricks and construction toys for under-twos, pretend ‘props’ like kitchens, garages and shops for two-to-threes, a dressing-up box for over-threes.


Visit your local library a day or two before and select a couple of books and DVDs which neither child will have seen so they are on a level playing field.


Suggest a play date that is not too long to the other mum.


Start off with a run in the garden or a walk in the park in case they are a little overexcited or hyper after nursery or school.


Follow this with a sit down and a healthy and filling snack. They should then be happy to play on their own for a while, although younger children may need careful supervision.


If they start to flag, try a short spell in front of a calming DVD before the main meal. But don’t expect them to sit still for any length of time.


By now, it should be nearly home time for your child’ s new friend. If not, get out the books and read them a story.


The big bonus of play dates is that they are about fostering friendships. Having one or two special friends helps your child’s development in all sorts of ways. In addition to fostering social skills, friendships also help boost your child’s intellectual development. Research has shown that school children who have good friends have higher self-esteem and are better at solving academic problems, and they are less likely to be bullied.


For pre-school children too, friendships are important and useful. Psychologists are aware that pre-school children engage in more complex levels of pretend play, are more effective at sharing and taking turns, and better able to resolve conflicts, if they have a special friend. Imaginative play, which is so important for your child’s cognitive and linguistic development, does depend on

having a few good friends.


Early on, children will need lots of help making friends and playing with them, because they need to learn the skills. Parents teach children to play well together through ‘scaffolding’ which means building on current behaviour, and encouraging them to expand or develop it.


For instance, at mother and toddler group, you might

see your toddler showing an interest in another child and say: ‘See what Bethany is doing? She’s making a cup of tea for her doll. Shall we pass her some milk?’ Or ‘Tom is building a train set! Tom, can we play with you? Perhaps we can make a station and you could make a tunnel?’


Taking this further in a play date might mean putting out a box of bricks and suggesting they build a tower or a farm, and then sitting back to watch, occasionally making new suggestions or comments.


By the age of three, children mostly prefer to do their imaginative playing with their peers, and this is where play dates really come in to their own. Your role is to set out toys for acting out fantasies, like dressing-up boxes.


Double dating


Some children, particularly younger children, will not be happy coming to visit your home on their own without mum, and that’s fine. It will change the nature of the play date, though, and there is a danger that you get so busy chatting you don’t notice what the kids are up to, squabbling breaks out, and the whole thing breaks down.


Preparation is key – have a structure to the date and let the other mum know what you’ve planned. Set up the games where you can both watch, rather than in a separate room. If the children get along, you could suggest short, frequent visits, and hopefully in time the friend will be happy to be left.


Mealtime matters


It is best to go for easy, filling snacks for first play dates until you get used to what the other child likes and dislikes. Offer a selection of sandwiches, sausage rolls and fruit, for instance, and let them help themselves. Eating with fingers avoids table manner issues, and keeps the meal short. Avoid sugary snacks as this could make everyone hyper.


No matter how relaxed you make things, you are going to find that some children have very different expectations around mealtimes. It is useful for all children (including your own) to learn that different people have different standards. Relax your standards but keep a few rules for your own sanity (for example, no running around with food, wash hands first and afterwards and so on). Later on you can have a useful conversation with your child about

how everyone is different.



Katie is four-and-a-half and has two older brothers. Her mum Amanda says: ‘Katie has made a best friend at nursery. I am told they play marvellously together, but when we organised a play date at our house, Katie tried to boss Molly around and wouldn’t share.’



Katie is used to being told what to do by her brothers, so now it’s her turn! Four-year-olds understand the need for co-operation, but

it doesn’t make it easy for them. Amanda should help Katie and Molly play together and at this stage imaginative play will nurture the friendship. Prepare by setting up toys for imaginative scenarios

beforehand, for instance pretend shops. It would be good if these were new to Katie as well. Perhaps Amanda could also agree with Katie which toys she will share and put away any ‘precious’ things.



Benjamin is three, and an only child. His mum, Julia, says: ‘He is obsessed by Thomas the Tank Engine and likes to spend hours staring at Thomas DVDs, or playing with metal models of Thomas. I invited another boy round for a play date, but Benjamin virtually ignored him.’



Julia may need to coach Benjamin in imaginative play first, and it is better if she works with what he is interested in. Maybe they could create an engine shed together where the trains go to sleep: she can discuss with him what they are thinking, and over time develop more complex imaginative scenarios. Then, once she feels he is

expanding his play repertoire, she could organise a play date with another child who is also keen on Thomas the Tank Engine. During the date, she should be actively involved in their play, at least until they both get the idea.volved in their play, at least



Under 12 months


How your child will play

Solitary or spectator play: interested in watching children play but will not join in


What it means for play dates

An older child who likes babies, perhaps a daughter of a relative or friend, might want to play with your child: both will benefit, but keep it short



12 – 18 months


How your child will play

Interested in children of their own age, but not able to initiate or sustain play without adult help. May exchange toys and imitate

each other


What it means for play dates

A short play date of perhaps no longer than an hour, and you will need to be present at all times, ‘scaffolding’ and stage-managing the play



18 months – 2 years


How your child will play

‘Parallel play’, meaning they play alongside others without actually interacting, or they are onlookers watching other children.


What it means for play dates

Again a short, very structured play date will benefit both, perhaps organised round an outing they would both enjoy such as the park.

Maximum two hours – one hour best



2 – 3 years


How your child will play

Co-operative play, for example they might work together to build something. Very practical and literal


What it means for play dates

Longer play dates possible, aim for different children each time, and stay in earshot if not in the room. Set up activities and be prepared to rotate these



3 – 5 years


How your child will play

Need particular friends to engage in imaginative play and to develop play scenarios


What it means for play dates

Play dates with one or two particular friends should be organised on a regular basis. You may need to input suggestions on occasions, and intervene if conflicts arise. Can cope with half a day



5 – 8 years


How your child will play

Well-developed imaginative play with best friends


What it means for play dates

Your help is unlikely to be needed, except in providing equipment and refreshments! Don’t let the day get too long though, and sleepovers should probably wait for the time being




September/October 2011

All information is correct at time of publishing