After getting married, I thought I would never have to face the awkward world of dating again. I didn’t know about play dating.
For the uninitiated, a “play date” is scheduled, one-on-one play time for two children. Kissing is usually not involved, although germs may be exchanged. The parent of the child extending the invitation typically acts as host and chaperone. The other parent chauffeurs the “date.”
In an increasingly complicated world, play dates offer kids the opportunity to connect with peers. Children who feel lost in a large group may have an easier time one-on-one. Play dates have helped my own kids build confidence and friendships.
“When kids have relationships with other kids in their class, it makes a lot of things like separation easier, because it’s more comfortable for them,” says Oak Park parent and teacher Laurie Volz. “It can give them sort of an anchor.”
My oldest daughter started “dating” at 3. At 7, she is now an experienced play dater, as is her 5-year-old sister. I am a little wiser about my role in the process. Friends, teachers and my own mistakes have contributed to the following tips.
1 Chaperone as much as necessary. My first born was invited on her first play date by a mother I didn’t know. (Our children were preschool classmates.) Visiting a new friend’s house without Mom or Dad can be intimidating for both the child and the parent.
After a few experiences, I discovered that my daughter was comfortable in some situations and not in others. Staying as long as necessary helped both of us feel more secure. (I got over feeling socially backward.)
Set expectations with parents ahead of time: “I’ll stay awhile and see how it goes.” You can decide at the house whether you need to ask, “Do you have any firearms?”
Although it’s polite to take turns hosting play dates, some children may prefer their home turf. My daughter’s dating territory expanded as her confidence grew.
2 Let your child lead. The basis for a play date request can range from mutual love of princesses, to a desire to befriend the oldest/prettiest/funniest kid in class. Choosing friends is part of learning social skills. On behalf of my daughters, I have learned to call virtual strangers for dates. Meg Beasley, a mother of two in Wheaton, breaks the ice by using school functions to meet the parents of prospective play dates.
Kids may make good and bad choices. You can always nix a second date. “Try it out,” Volz advises. “If it works well, then you encourage it.”
3 Keep the schedule manageable. Kids may take the lead in requesting play dates, but it’s a parent’s job to make sure they don’t overdo it. “My kids liked having play dates, but not every day. They really needed to have their alone time,” says Volz.
Consider your child’s age, temperament, energy level and schedule. Planning a long morning play date before afternoon school may leave your child too drained. A play date that goes well for an hour or two may unravel in three.
4 Consult teachers/caregivers. Parent/teacher conferences can be a great way to understand how your child is socializing in the classroom. Teachers may spot potential friendships before you can or alert you to relationships that may be distracting your child. Ask your teacher for guidance and use this knowledge to guide your child’s choices.
5 Coach, but don’t control. Though scheduled, a play date provides unstructured play time. Avoid the temptation to entertain young guests with elaborate crafts or clever puppet shows. If the kids arrive at an impasse, offer suggestions, crayons or Play-Doh. “Certainly snacks,” suggests Beasley.
6 Prepare your child to host or visit. My 5-year-old daughter still struggles with sharing. Offering her the opportunity to put away her newest toys before dates arrive has helped her cope. Making it clear that play dates here do not involve bonding with cartoon characters has headed off requests for TV. Reminding her that she needs to leave a playmate’s house politely and cooperatively has made me feel better. Talk through the rules and behaviors you want to see before a date begins.
7 Plan for siblings. It’s tough for your child and a date to have one-on-one time with a younger sibling around. Many parents try to compromise, asking that brother or sister be included for part of the time. But be prepared to engage siblings with other activities when possible. (In this case, I offer up the computer.)
8 Experiment off-site. All the trouble you may have with sharing, a tag-along sibling, a shy date or short tempers can sometimes be alleviated by hosting a play date away from your home at a local playground, museum or zoo. “Where everybody is on equal ground, [and] it’s not about toys,” notes Chicago mother Jackie Kramer. “There are so many opportunities here.”
9 Double date with caution. It’s tempting to manage the sibling issue by inviting an extra playmate, but the dynamics of a group play date are different. Consider the options and personalities before undertaking a foursome.
10 Don’t take it personally. Remember those words, “I’ll call you” from your dating years? Sometimes the phone doesn’t ring for that reciprocal play date, either.
Over time and bouts of anxiety, I’ve realized there are myriad reasons. Parents get busy. Siblings get born. Children enroll in 10 new activities. If your child is feeling rejected, help him or her reach out or move on. If you feel rejected, remember, it’s not about you. Probably.
Linda Downing Miller is a writer, mother and occasional chaperone who lives in Oak Park.