It’s not uncommon on a Wednesday afternoon for me to watch two boys burst into the house through the back door, run down to the basement, and emerge a few minutes later with one of them wearing a SWAT team hat and pirate shirt and the other wearing snorkeling goggles, a belt, and a foam sword. Without breaking out of character even for a moment to notice I’m there, they run back outside and continue to play in forty-five degree weather (often without coats, to my dismay), turning the four-foot-high space under our sunroom into a fort.
Since the beginning of the school year, my son has been having weekly play dates with another boy in his class. Nearly every Wednesday after preschool, we bring both kids home and they play for two to three hours together at our house.
Before school started I wouldn’t have guessed we’d be hosting another child once a week. But I had wanted to find ways for my son to have more free playtime with other kids outside of the structure of preschool. When he made fast friends with a boy in his class, we started arranging the Wednesday playtime.
It’s not always easy to commit to these get-togethers. As a work-at-home/stay-at-home mom, my plate feels pretty full most of the time already. But the type of play that happens between my son and his friend is totally different from what he gets anywhere else, and seeing it happen every week reminds me how valuable it is.
When adults play with kids, it’s hard for us not to direct and drive the playtime, and to cater to them because they’re young. When kids play apart from adults, they have to negotiate these social encounters themselves. Playing with a peer in an unstructured environment forces a child to take into consideration another person’s perspective, compromise, negotiate, make decisions, and build a friendship. And from a creative standpoint, it catapults them into imaginative places that are different from where they would go on their own or with an adult. Most of us aren’t rocking the pirate shirt and SWAT team hat, are we?
(MORE: The Case for Lazier Parenting)
As we’ve made a conscious effort to provide opportunities like this for unstructured play, here are some things that we have found make a successful play date:
1. Set Expectations With Your Child
Before you have a friend over for the first time, it helps to lay out the “ground rules” with your child. Ask him to give his friend a tour of the house so he knows where everything is. Remind him the importance of making his friend feel welcome by sharing his toys, taking turns, and asking his friend what he would like to play.
2. Make sure the house is clean and toys are organized.
In my experience, kids play better when they have space to play and know where to find the things they want to play with. We keep toys fairly organized in bins of like things so that they’re easy to get out and put away. It’s also easy to get out a new bin of toys (like a box of costumes or a box full of building blocks) if the play is starting to wane.
3. Expect conflicts to happen and intervene only when necessary.
My son and his friend have gone through several phases since we started having weekly play dates. In the beginning was the honeymoon phase, virtually conflict-free. As they became more comfortable around each other, they had a few arguments or fights for several weeks in a row. Then as they learned how to navigate conflict with each other, they had fewer arguments, and the ones they had were more low-key discussions than fights.
When conflict arises, my policy is always that I don’t intervene unless I need to because I want them to learn how to settle conflicts. Usually if I intervene, it’s because it’s clear that they aren’t going to be able to resolve it without help, or if I’m concerned the conflict is going to become physical, or if the way they are talking to each other has crossed the line somehow. Sometimes I’ll separate them for a few minutes until they cool down and then bring them back together so they can discuss in a calm way what the issue is.
4. Encourage them to include younger siblings.
Whenever my son’s friend comes over to play, my other son, who is almost two, is always excited. He doesn’t really play with them. He mostly runs around the backyard with them, excited to be a part of the action. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether I should let the older kids have space instead of having a toddler following them around, but usually they’re so wrapped up in playing that they don’t mind having a little tagalong. And the toddler gets the benefit of being around other kids too. Whenever I can, I encourage the older kids to include the little one and let them know that they’ll get some time on their own when naptime comes.
5. Be prepared to bridge the gender gap.
Like many preschoolers, my son tends to play mostly with kids of the same-gender when left to his own devices. Occasionally, however, we have had girls over to play, too. One time in particular we had my son, his friend, and one girl playing together at our house. Threesomes in general are tough, especially a mixed gender threesome, which almost guarantees someone is going to feel left out at some point. To help the three kids play together, I got out some different things they could play with that weren’t stereotypically boy or girl toys to help bridge the gap, and also helped them play a few non-competitive board games.
6. Play multiple times with the same kids.
Getting together multiple times with the same friend has really helped my son and his friend find a rhythm to their friendship, where play happens naturally without any awkwardness. One day because of a family situation, we ended up having my son’s friend over for five hours. They played well together with almost no interference from me for almost the entire duration, and both were disappointed when the playtime had to come to and end. I don’t think this could have happened without multiple play dates in advance.
Tip: Carve out time and space for kids to play with peers in an unstructured environment to get all the benefits of play.