When your child is a toddler and still learning to speak, ‘mine’ and ‘me’ are two of the first phrases they’ll ever learn. And they’ll likely use them pretty frequently. But as parents, it’s important we show our children how to socialise with other kids so they learn to share without squabbling, respect other people’s interests and tastes – not to mention have fun.
“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.
That’s where playdates come in. When another child’s name crops up in your son or daughter’s after-nursery chatter or you spot your child making a beeline for a child at drop-off, now’s the time to be brave, ‘stalk’ that child’s parent and arrange a playdate. Chances are, you’ve already spotted that mum or dad and thought she looked fun or even shared quick chats together.
“I made two of my best friends through my oldest daughter’s nursery and playdates,” says mum of three Beth Cooper. “Our children are all 18 now and off to university but that constant friendship has been a rich source of joy for all of us, parents and kids. The kids have an easy friendship, almost like cousins now, and I have two local friends I can turn to in good times and bad.”
A double playdate, when you get to know the other mum or dad, while the children play is a bonus. Not only will you potentially make a new friend who’s at the same stage of bringing up children as you and can understand, but you’re showing your children first hand the joy of friendship, laughing, chatting and sharing.
Here’s how to make it work.
1. Arrange a time when your children will still be full of beans, not too close to bedtime or a nap time
If you’re at home or it’s a weekend, a morning coffee for the grown-ups and play for the kids ticks all the boxes.
2. Prepare your child for hosting a playdate
Not so they’re bouncing off the walls with excitement and nerves on a countdown, but by talking about how you expect them to behave – to be welcoming, share their toys and be kind to each other.
3. Offer simple snacks or easy food
Young children feel comfortable eating pasta, pizza and fish fingers, licking a lollipop in the garden or sharing a chocolate treat. Now is not the time to show off your cookery skills or decree that you’re going to expand their taste horizons. My children still recall with horror the mother who told them: “Your mum says you don’t like bolognese but you haven’t tried mine yet – you’ll love it.” Not surprisingly they didn’t, despite her bossiness.
4. Make the first playdate short and sweet
For young children, an hour and a half is ample time. Once they’re relaxed in each other’s company, you can build up to longer stretches.
5. Don’t stress if your home doesn’t look show home perfect
What’s the point of cleaning your home from top to bottom if you’re just going to be collapsed in a corner from exhaustion? Chances are there’ll be an explosion of toys to tidy up afterwards anyway. Far better to be relaxed and happy and able to put everyone at ease. No one ever becomes friends because they think you’re great at cleaning, do they? It’s also important to show your child that having friends over is fun, not a trial, or an event that’s always preceded with manic home beautifying and barked orders.
6. Don’t hover
Children need to learn to play together without you helicoptering around them. Of course, you need to be close by and children love to be admired, for example, if they’re showing off new skills on a climbing frame, but give them time and space to make their own fun.
7. You don’t have to host
Why not simply suggest meeting at the local park or playground, so the children have a chance to play together while you have a natter? Once you’ve become firm friends, having a kindred spirit for you and your child makes life so much more fun - from arranging picnics to going together to a new drop-in play centre or local kids’ event.
8. You won’t become firm friends with everyone – and neither will your child. And that’s OK
You may find you have nothing much in common, that the conversation doesn’t flow or you don’t have the same shared sense of humour. Your child and theirs may have totally different interests. What’s important is to keep having friends over for playdates. You will find your parent soul mate – and your child will gain valuable experience in making friends.