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Not Just Child's Play for You.

Playdates for Tots—Not Just Child’s Play for You

By Elizabeth Heubeck

My mother swears that when my best childhood friend was just 2 or 3 years old, he first toddled solo over to our house from his, a few doors up the street. I must have liked what I saw, because we were inseparable for the next several years, until our peers made it abundantly clear to both of us that most pre-adolescent kids play mainly with friends of the same gender.

What stands out about this early socialization of yesterday is that it wasn’t parent-driven. It didn’t have a thing to do with how our mothers felt about each other or what they were willing to carefully coordinate. Back then, kids simply found each other—playing in the stream in the woods behind the neighborhood, riding bikes in the street, playing hopscotch in the driveway. Nowadays, spontaneous childhood friendships are rare in many communities. For the most part, both parents and children lead more complex, scripted lives than in past generations. Few young children of today have countless hours of unstructured time in which to explore friendships, and enough neighbors in their age group they can test out as friends. As a result, we have playdates.
The term playdate has become so commonplace that it spills easily and frequently, even from the tongues of toddlers, as in “Mommy, I want a playdate.”

For the unindoctrinated, a playdate is a social arrangement, usually initiated by moms, that includes a scheduled period of play between children. Children of all ages engage in playdates—yes, even toddlers. And, while some very young children are precocious and handle themselves well in social situations, most toddlers are far more interested in making sure their immediate needs are met, rather than playing cooperatively with another child.

Good Game Rules

So, before venturing into playdate territory with a toddler, a few words of caution:

Keep it short. In her own house, with her own stuff and her own routine, a toddler’s attention span is generally pretty short. Take her out of her element or add another child to the mix, and the ability for the toddler to hold it together diminishes quickly. An hour or so is probably a good length of time for a playdate, especially when you’re just testing the waters.

Hide your kid’s favorite stuff before the “date” comes over. Toddlers are simply too inherently egocentric to be expected to allow another toddler to drag their favorite stuffed animal through the house without coming completely undone. That said, it’s in everyone’s best interest to hide any beloved toys in advance of the playdate, thereby circumventing obvious reasons for blow-ups.

Expect territorial behavior with lots of screaming “mine!” Even if you have diligently hidden everything that seems important to your toddler, when another toddler intrudes on his turf, everything in the house becomes an object to protect ardently. One way to avoid this issue is, if possible, to meet on neutral territory, such as a neighborhood playground or other child-friendly destination.

Take time out for snacks—but check for food allergies first. The power of the snack during a playdate cannot be underestimated. Whether there’s a lull in activity and the children begin to get bored or agitated with one another, or things start heating up too much, snacks work wonders to re-direct and re-energize tots. But always ask the child’s parents about food allergies before offering snacks.

Recognize that the tots will tire of any activity you plan after about five minutes. Before a playdate, you may envision two budding Picassos on either side of an easel, happily painting the morning away. Or, you may have a whole string of activities planned to keep them busy. Regardless, toddlers will in all likelihood burst your bubble by exhibiting interest in a given activity for about two minutes, before wandering off in a completely unexpected direction.

If the playmate’s mom or dad stays, don’t expect to have an adult conversation. Maybe what you really want out of a playdate is a chance to talk with a friend you haven’t seen in ages and who just happens to have a child the same age as yours. If that’s the case, you’re probably better off scheduling a coffee or lunch date without the children. Like adult phone conversations, face-to-face adult exchanges rarely go uninterrupted when toddlers are nearby.

Schedule the playdate around nap time. A cranky toddler is no fun to be around. So it’s probably wise to arrange the date at a time when both children are well-rested. On the other hand, you may want to schedule it right before nap time. You’re both going to need a nap after it’s over. BC

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@ Baltimore’s Child Inc. March 2008

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