Arranging regular playdates for your children is one of the best ways you can help them make an easy, confident transition to school reception class while, of course, showing them that making friends and playing with other children is fun.
Playdates are a vital step in this path from the ‘me’ and ‘mine’ toddler stage to becoming an increasingly independent and sociable child.
By giving your children opportunities to play with other children the same age in a familiar, non-threatening environment, you’ll be helping them become more empathetic and emotionally intelligent and giving them plenty of opportunities to practise essential social skills like taking turns and the art of compromise.
“A child equipped with emotional intelligence and social skills will have an easier path through life, starting with the transition to primary school and feeling excited about making new friends rather than anxious,” says parenting expert Liat Hughes Joshi, author of Raising Children: Everything Parents Need to Know - from Homework and Horrid Habits to Screentime and Sleepovers.
“They are an effective way to help children be more comfortable around others and improve their social interactions, particularly if they’re shy,” she concludes.
What pre-school children learn through playdates
Children will learn a whole range of essential life skills in the best way possible - through play and fun. Playdates give children opportunity to practise:
- How to take turns and share.
- How to negotiate and bounce back from occasional disappointment.
- How to express their feelings.
- How people think and feel differently from you - the starting point to developing empathy, kindness and generosity.
- And most importantly, that friendships make you happy.
Top tips for parents
1. Playdates are NOT a perfect parenting competition
It’s important to remember that each child develops at his or her own pace. Also, a child who’s used to being with other children, at a childminder’s home or regularly attends nursery may be more confident.
At first, toddlers will simply ‘parallel play’ alongside each other perfectly happily, gradually becoming more interested in each other and interacting more closely, giggling and copying each other, so don’t set your ambitions too high.
There will be days when your child throws the mother of all tantrums or when children just don’t connect. Don’t beat yourself up, don’t make comparisons between children and don’t be embarrassed. It happens to every parent.
2. Pick a good time
Arrange a time when your children have lots of energy, not too close to bed time or a nap time. Mid-morning is ideal.
3. Prep your child positively
Talk to your child about who’s coming to play, or whose home you’re going to, and about what they might do together. Explain in an upbeat way about sharing and being kind to each other. You don’t want them in a state of nerves, but you do want them to be looking forward to playing together. If you’re hosting and your child has a special comfort toy, it’s a good idea to put it away rather than risk squabbles.
4. Don’t be a food show-off
Young children feel comfortable eating pasta, fish fingers or, easiest of all, just a drink and a snack. Now is not the time to show off your cookery skills, decree that you’re going to expand their taste horizons or insist they eat up their greens. Check with the other parent what are favourite foods and for any food allergies.
5. Short is sweet
For preschoolers, especially children getting to know each other, an hour and a half is ample time for a playdate. Once they are older and relaxed in each other’s company, you can build up time.
6. Be on hand
Children of this age will want you close by for reassurance and it’s a good way to ease their social contact. For example, making suggestions when it’s time to share and praising each child when they play nicely.
“Whilst it’s tempting to slope off to the kitchen for a cuppa with the other parent, don’t. At this age the children might still need to be supervised, encouraged and refereed,” says Liat.
With age and assurance, parents can take more of a back seat - and perhaps even finish a whole sentence!
Perfect playdate toys and games
Play is what comes naturally to children, but it’s also how they develop important skills for life like creativity and communication and working together as part of a team.
Don’t be too prescriptive about what toys children play with on a playdate. The key is to give them lots of appealing options and letting them take the lead.
- Messy play with sand and water or even (and particularly if children aren’t really clicking) doing some supervised baking.
- Playing with toys that foster imagination like a dressing up box, dolls, cars and trains.
- Playing outdoors and running, jumping, climbing and playing ball games. In the warmer months it makes sense to arrange playdates in the local park or play area where children can let off steam together.
- Getting creative with paper, cardboard, coloured pens and glue sticks makes for a more sedate get-together.
Whatever your children’s choice of toys, one thing’s for sure - playdates are the perfect introduction to social play.