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12 Tips For Play Dates

As a kid growing up in Calgary in the 1960's, I could walk out my front door and I'd always have a playmate. Play on my block went mostly unsupervised and it was wonderfully free form. Back then, parents usually stayed out of children's play.

This isn't the case anymore. A good number of Calgary parents feel it simply isn't safe to send their young kids outside for long bouts of uninterrupted and unsupervised play. Yet, they recognize the importance of play, something Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget identified as crucial to the emotional, moral, and intellectual development of children.

Today, organized play dates have become the norm for many children in Calgary. Here are 12 tips to consider when planning play dates and providing what Dr. David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, says is crucial for modern kids, "the opportunity to play for play's sake"(pg 218, The Hurried Child):

  1. Begin to arrange play dates when your child expresses an interest in having others over. Most kids develop a desire to have playmates when they are between three and five-years-old. Don't force play dates on kids before they are ready!
  2. Ask your child's preschool, gym, or swim instructor for suggestions of kids to invite over. The adults in your youngster's life are a valuable resource. They can often spot a good match.
  3. Contact the parents of your child's intended guest and set up a play date. When my son was in preschool and kindergarten, I found an hour or so was often the best length for play dates. Offer to be the host so you can monitor the first visit. Take time to chat a bit with parents you don't know. Discuss parenting styles. If you need to intervene in kids' play and help them solve a problem, it's great to know other parents will trust and support your decisions!
  4. Find out if new playmates have medical concerns including allergies to such things as foods or pets!
  5. Protect kids from areas that have hot tubs, tools, etc. by taking appropriate safety measures.
  6. Role-play greetings and goodbyes with your child before a play date. It is hard to teach manners at your front door, as kids are often too shy or too excitable to make this time a ‘teachable moment’.
  7. Tell new guests your house rules and show them any areas you consider ‘out of bounds’.
  8. Give kids a safe place to play and allow them a chance to do just that! Check periodically and be discreet. Let them have fun and get to know each other.
  9. Learn some conflict management strategies parenting experts recommend. Using this knowledge, teach kids in your home acceptable ways to deal with occasional problems that can happen during play dates.
  10. Plan to offer a snack near the end of the visit, so it doesn't interrupt kids' play. I found that a great way to get kids to clean up is to tell them they can have a snack as soon as they have done so!
  11. Follow up with a new playmate's parents after the first visit. Be candid if there was a concern.
  12. Set aside some time to reflect with your child about his or her play dates. Build a list of playmates for future visits.

Stephen Nowiki Jr., clinical psychologist and consultant to public and private schools, does not believe "making relationships work is a simple activity that we somehow inherit the knack of doing. Making friends and keeping them is one of the most difficult and crucial tasks we face as human beings. It takes time, effort, and most importantly, knowledge and skill to do well." (pg 145, What Works With Children).

Play dates have rich potential to offer modern kids what Nowiki Jr. thinks they really need - a chance to play and to make good friends.

References Elkind, David, The Hurried Child Third Edition 2001 Perseus Publishing Cambridge, Mass. Duke, Marshall P. and Sara B, editors What Works With Children 2000 Peachtree Publishers Ltd. Altanta, Georgia.

Barb is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Calgary’s Child.

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