This is not the kind of 'date' we knew about when we were growing up, but it is something we find ourselves indulging in a lot now! We're talking about a playdate - when parents of children as young as 2 to 6 years, schedule a time with other parents, to get their children together for a few hours to play.
Until children are old enough to ask a friend to come over, it helps for parents to organise playdates and give children the opportunity to make friends and learn social skills. For a lot of families, it may also be the only chance for children to learn to be away from their parents for a while, also giving the parents some much needed downtime.
Toddlers tend to indulge in parallel play, where they enjoy sitting side by side with a friend, but prefer to play by themselves. But the dynamics begin to change in the next few years, as children start becoming fiercely protective of their toys.
At a stage where children are learning social skills through trial and error, there are bound to be some common playdate squabblesinvolving sharing, taking turns, choosing activities, and winning (and losing) games.
Here are some 'tried and tested' guidelines to ensure smooth sailing during your child's playdate.
Children at all ages know who they like. Let your child take the lead and suggest who to invite. Three guests is usually a good number, so that the kids can pair off and no one feels left out.
In case space and circumstances do not permit it, call one child at a time or take them all out to the playground. If you have another child, it is a good idea to pair the sibling with his own playmate. For an older sibling, being saddled with a little brother or sister would be most frustrating, to say the least.
It makes sense to keep first time visits short - perhaps one hour start with. But go with the flow and increase or decrease their time together depending on howthe kids get along.
What do we do now?
There is no set structure to a play date. Usually children just enjoy playing on their own. But keep an eye on them so that you can gauge how they are faring. If you feel the kids are squabbling too much or seem bored, you can give them an activity such as a simple craft project and hang around to help them with it.
Take the lead from the activities your child is normally interested in and decide accordingly. TV and computer games are not recommended as they defeat the purpose of a playdate - to help kids polish their social skills. You can however use these screens as a post-playdate wind down or to fill time while waiting for parents to come and pick up the kids.
It makes sense to limit the play space, especially if you are allowing them to play with messy paints, play dough etc . If they started playing outdoors, make it clear that the game must finish there and that muddy shoes, balls, frisbees or racquets are not permitted indoors.
While you may hesitate to discipline another person's child, situations will undoubtedly arise that require you to correct your visitor's behavior. Rather than a curt scolding that may scare your guest, explain that the rules are different in each house and here, we do things this way. As far as possible, Let kids work out their own problems.
Small disagreements are sure to happen, but they seldom last long. Resist the urge to jump in and you'll often find that the kids work out their own resolution.
If, however, a conflict is escalating into verbal put-downs or physical confrontation, it's time to step in. Remain calm and firmly remind both parties that words and actions that hurt are not acceptable.
Help the kids to come up with a compromise butif the fighting continues, separate the children for a while or introduce a new activity that's less likely to cause conflict. Or better still this would be the time to take a snack break, as nothing soothes raging tempers like finger food smothered with tomato ketchup. As there is sure to be a snack or two involved, ask parents beforehand about any potential food allergies, sensitivities, or preferences.
Calling it a day:
If the kids have really enjoyed themselves, they would not want to leave - ever. It helps to give a clear and fair warning as the end of the playdate draws near. Tell them how much more time they have and perhaps involve them in a cleaning up ritual.
If they created anything tangible (drawings, crafts, cookies) you can use this time to pack it nicely to take back home with them. Kids are often so excited to share these treasures with their parents that it helps ease them out the door at the end of a playdate.
At the end of the day, it is your child's playdate. The less you interfere or rather seem to interfere, the more control your child will feel over his social world - and the more he'll gradually learn about being a gracious host. So let your child feel she is in the driver seat, with a lot of 'subtle' help from you, of course.