The Dating Game: Is Your Child Ready for Play Dates?

Zachary and Margo went on their first dates before they were six weeks old; one-year-old Mike started walking and dating at about the same time; and Chance and Campbell (my twin boys) didn’t date until they were almost two. Play dates may be all the rage (you didn’t think these kids were really dating, did you?), but knowing when your infant/toddler/preschooler is ready for a play date is still as ambiguous as determining the right age for an adolescent to start, well, dating.

What is a Play Date?

Ostensibly formed to help children develop their social skills, play dates really are just as much for parents as they are for children; but it’s important to keep the children as the focus. Playing with peers teaches children important skills such as sharing, how to take turns, standing up for their rights, and having empathy for others.

When Should I Schedule Our Play Dates?

Carren W. Joye, author of A Stay-at-Home Mom’s Complete Guide to Playgroups, says that what age to start your child on play dates depends on your reason for participating. “A mom with a two-month-old needs to get out of the house and spend time with other adults,” says Joye, who notes that infants won’t do much playing but they will benefit from exposure to different people and surroundings.

If play and friendship for your child are the motivating factors, then Joye advises waiting until your child is 18 months to two years of age. “This is a good time frame to learn about sharing and to become familiar with the other little kids in playgroup. Around this age, children begin to engage in a type of parallel play; in other words, playing beside each other but not actively playing together. By the time they’re three, they will already know each other, feel comfortable in the surroundings, know the meaning of sharing (to some extent), and begin to actually play together.”

It’s safe to presume that children have played together since the dawn of time, but it wasn’t until the last 20 years or so that the term “play date” was coined. Joye believes the rise in the need for play dates is due in part to our country’s increased mobility. “Many young moms and dads have moved great distances from their families and friends,” says Joye. “They can’t pal around with their old friends who may have children the same age. They also don’t have relatives nearby for practical help and support. Playgroups fill that gap.”

Zachary’s mom, Sarah, is a firm believer in the power of play dates and credits her monthly playgroup gathering with saving her sanity. “When you’re having a particularly bad day or week, it helps sometimes to hear stories about how other parents also face challenges,” says the mother of two. “After hearing about other parents’ difficulties, our own situations suddenly seem much more tolerable.”

Margo’s mother Johanna says play dates provide her now 15-month-old daughter with all the advantages of the social experience without the stress of separation anxiety often experienced in daycare settings. “Margo gets to play with new and different toys in different environments and really enjoys the interaction with the other kids around her.” At the same time, Johanna benefits from the opportunity to swap child-rearing war stories with other moms. To ensure all participants—parents and children—benefit from play dates, it’s best to adhere to a few ground rules.

How Do We Ensure a Fun Play Date?

1. Play the field, if necessary
Not all play dates are matches made in heaven. “The key word here is ‘date,’” says Zach’s mom, Sarah. “It isn’t much different than when you were 16. People you have admired and enjoyed talking to just may not be right for you, just like the boy you had a crush on as a teenager didn’t turn out to be Mr. Right.”

If you find yourself not connecting with people—and you’ve put forth a good effort by attending two or three dates—it’s probably best to find another playmate. Remember that like dating, it takes two to make a connection. “Take an active part in trying to fit in,” advises Joye. “Join in or start a conversation with someone. The only way to make friends is to get to know them.”

2. Set guidelines in advance
Joye suggests that parents discuss conflict situations in advance to determine how the group wants them handled. She also recommends that children be allowed, as much as possible, to resolve conflicts on their own, but admits this isn’t always feasible. “Many times a situation arises without warning and the children start hitting each other to resolve it. Then the parents of the involved children should step in.”

3. Schedule smartly
The more time spent at a play date, the greater the odds of tantrums, meltdowns, or fights, so it’s best to limit activity to no more than an hour, and schedule gatherings during a time of day when children are most likely to be well-rested and fed. If you’re holding or attending a play date that’s going to run close to lunch or dinner time, plan to have some snack foods and extra drinks on hand. How often you and your child participate in play dates is entirely your call: You can attend one every week or once a month.

4. Keep it small, but include different ages
It’s best to keep the group size small, no more than four to six kids—factoring in the parents who attend, you could have as many as 12 people at one gathering! Mixing age groups has its advantages as younger kids learn by observing the big kids in the group, and older kids feel important helping out with the little ones.

5. Remove favorites toys from the shared play area
Toddlers are just beginning to learn the concept of sharing, so one of the biggest play date battles is the toy tug-of-war. If you’re hosting the gathering, you can minimize the chances of your child having a meltdown by planning ahead and removing beloved toys from the play area. To help your child adjust to the fact that other kids will be playing with her toys, you can let her remove toys she feels strongly about. Another useful tip is to put out toys that you have more than one of, such as books, puzzles, cars, dolls, and blocks. Planned activities like coloring, Play-Doh, or simple crafts are also great.

Where Do I Find Play Date Partners?

So you think your child is ready for a play date, but you don’t know where to start? You can find play date partners just about anywhere—at your childbirth class, in the disposable diaper aisle of your local grocery store, at the park, at your pediatrician’s office, or just around the corner. Sarah joined a parenting organization that has monthly playgroups. Some parenting groups advertise play dates on library bulletin boards or in the local newspaper, Facebook Groups or any other social media communties.

As in real-life dating, play dates are filled with ups (when your son shares his toys) and downs (when he bites the kid he so generously shared with!). By keeping the focus on the things that matter most, having your child (and you) make lifelong friends, everybody wins.

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