Children’s Play Date Guidelines

One-on-one play dates are fun and also a great way to deepen friendships. Here are some guidelines to help your child host an enjoyable play date.

1) Decide which friend to invite

Inviting someone over says, “I’d like to take our friendship to the next level.” This means their needs to be some level of friendship to begin with. The guest should be someone that your child has enjoyed playing or chatting with at recess or during an afterschool activity, or someone who has already invited your child over. Someone who is new to town is likely to be especially open to the invitation. Some children try to invite kids they admire but don’t know, which can be awkward. These invitations are likely to be rejected. On the other hand, some children set the bar too high: they insist they can only invite children they know extremely well. This unnecessarily limits their play date options. When considering whether or not to invite someone, ask your child, “Have you had fun together in the past month?” If the answer is yes, that child could be a good candidate for a play date invitation.

2) Make the call

Sometimes last minute play dates work out, but it’ll be easier on everyone if you plan ahead. Call, or have your child call, a few days in advance. In general, children in third grade and up should be taking the lead in calling friends for play dates. Middle schoolers tend to use text messages to make plans. If your child is nervous about making the call, you may want to rehearse this a few times or even give your child a written script. Practice various scenarios, such as if a parent picks up or if the call goes to voicemail. Be clear about drop-off and pick-up times and arrangements. For instance, your child might say, “Hi, Caroline. This is Amanda. I was wondering if you wanted to come to my house on Saturday, after basketball. My mom says she can bring you back to your house afterwards, around 5:00.”

3) Set the stage

If there are some toys your child doesn’t want to share, put those away before the play date. Being allowed to keep some precious possessions off limits makes it easier for your child to be gracious about sharing other possessions. If your child has siblings, you may want to invite a friend for them to play with. Sometimes having more children over is actually less work for parents, if it means no one feels left out. Otherwise, you could get siblings involved in an activity with you, so they don’t disrupt the play date.

4) Explain the role

Before the guest arrives, explain to your child that it’s the host’s job to make sure that the guest has a good time. That means the guest gets to choose the activity, and your child should never walk off and leave the guest all alone. Help your child think about what activities and snacks the guest might enjoy. The best activities are ones that allow your child and the guest to interact. Reading, watching TV, or having the guest just sit there while your child does something on the computer are not good choices. You may also need to warn your child in advance not to fuss or delay at the end of the play date, because that leaves a bad final impression with the guest and the other parent.

5) Handle the opening moments

When the guest arrives, have your child greet the other child at the door with you. If you want to, you can also invite the other parent in for a cup of coffee and a chat. There’s often an awkward moment at the beginning of a play date when one child asks, “What do you want to do?” and the other child says, “I dunno. What do you want to do?” You can prevent this by having your child offer the guest a choice of two activities.

6) Smooth any rough patches

Give the kids room to play, but keep an ear out for difficulties that the children don’t seem to be solving on their own. Be careful not to criticize your child in front of the friend. A general comment along the lines of “Who wants a snack?” or “That game seems frustrating. Why don’t you kids play outside for awhile?” can help the children change course and get past an awkward lull or an argument. If you absolutely must correct your child’s behavior during the play date, do it privately, outside the earshot of the guest.

7) End on a high note

One and a half to two hours is generally a good length of time for a play date. It’s better to have the children part while they’re eager to spend more time together than to let the play date continue until they are tired, bored, or crabby. At the end of the play date, have your child thank the guest for coming. Let a few weeks pass before inviting the same friend over again, to give the friend a chance to reciprocate the invitation.

What difficult moments has your child faced during play dates?



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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.