Keys For Unlocking Successful Playdates

Keys For Unlocking Successful Playdates

by Meredith White, M.S., Developmental Therapist

‘Tis the season for after-school playdates and fall weekend outings with friends.  The backdrop of cooler temperatures and falling leaves seems perfect for a myriad of play-date successes.  But what if you find hosting (or even attending) these playdates to be a daunting occasion for both you AND your child?  Well, you’re in good company.  Many families with typically developing children or children with social-skill deficits often find playdates to be a challenge.

What should we do? Why aren’t they playing together?  Why is sharing so hard?

Consider some of these playdate tips and ideas for your child’s next peer get-together. It’s often times the small things that make a BIG difference.

Make a PLAN

Children of all ages benefit from a “plan” or structure in order to operate most successfully within their environment.  Structure is seen at school in the form of a “classroom schedule” that’s often posted on the wall.  This same concept is also really helpful for everyday playdates. Psychologist Dr. Laura Markham reminds us in this article that “Structure and routines teach kids how to constructively control themselves and their environments.”  The plan does not need to be complicated.  In fact, it’s best when it is simple and straight forward.

  • For Preschoolers (3-5yrs):  At the beginning of the playdate, use a piece of construction paper to draw a simple picture representing each play activity.  For example: cherry tree (for Hi-Ho Cherry-o game), train (for free-play with the train table), cup and plate (for snack time), hat (for dress-up play).  Keep the plan simple and limited to 3-4 activities.  You can then refer the children back to the picture “plan” after each activity is completed.
  • For Early Elementary (6-8yrs):  Allow older children to play a more active role in making and creating the plan.  Give them choices as to the activities and ask for their input. Perhaps you allow the children to draw pictures for each intended activity or just use a simple written plan.  Ironically, “the plan” shouldn’t add extra planning or preparation for you.  But simply serve as a really helpful support for the play-date’s success.

Set clear expectations

Similar to making a plan, setting activity expectations can be the difference between an A+ or a disastrous playdate. You can easily find children in a complete meltdown simply because expectations were unclear.  

  • For Preschoolers:  Express simple rules with simple language at the beginning of each activity.  For example, while playing in a sand box in the back yard:  “We keep the sand and toys in the box.  And we clean up when we are all done.”  Preschoolers will need a reminder of these expectations during the activity, as well as for clean-up at the end.  However presenting the initial “rules” can make a significant difference.  Clean-Up Tip:  Draw a simple picture of each child’s clean-up “job”.  Present the picture at the beginning and end of the activity.
  • Early Elementary:  Express simple, general rules at the beginning of the play-date to communicate rules and boundaries.  Writing a short list of rules while soliciting the children’s input is a great place to start.  Simple rules could include:  “Friends take turns.” “Friends keep their body to themselves when playing.” “We clean-up when our activity is over.”, etc.   You can then refer the children back to these rules when a playdate activity becomes unruly or clean-up time is suddenly forgotten.

Offer choices and vary activities

For both preschoolers and school-aged children, having a variety of age-appropriate structured (board games, art projects) and free-play activities (dress up, playground) within your playdate help keep them engaged.  Offer choices within these types of play in order to have the children as active participants in the “plan."  Offering choices within the play activity gives the children ownership as well as provides opportunity for collaborative play.  “Our plan says it’s time to play dress up next.  Do you want to play doctor or firemen today?”

Additionally, here are some seasonal playdate ideas for children of all ages. 

  • Preschoolers (3-5yrs):  Pumpkin Sensory Play, Popcorn Tree Art, Leaf Matching Game
  • Early Elementary (6-8 yrs): Homemade Bird Feeders, Nature Scavenger Hunt, Acorn Snacks

P.S. Pinterest and blogs like The Artful Parent are definitely your playdate best friends.  Search key-words such as: sensory play, crafts for preschoolers, food science for kids, fall art for kids
Happy Playing!  :)
To find out more about what Meredith does in Integrated Pediatric Therapies at JCFS Chicago.