Attending or Hosting a Play Date for Toddlers

toddler boys playing with trains

Mieke Dalle / Getty Images

Play dates are one of those things that parents or caregivers often feel passionate about. Some believe that toddlers need play dates while others feel that kids do not need play time with other little ones until they get to preschool.

The truth is, play dates are not detrimental to toddlers, but nor are they indispensable. All a play date is—or at least should be—is fun. And not just for the kids; play dates can be fun for parents and caregivers too. Whether you're hosting or attending, do your part to ensure a successful toddler play date.

How Toddlers Play

Until they are around 3 years old, most children spend their play time in parallel play: They play alongside one another, with little interaction. It may look as though toddlers are not interested in playing with other kids, but most love socializing. They just do it differently.

Children of any age can get something out of a play date. Even infants who love seeing new faces and touching new toys can benefit from play dates.

For toddlers, especially those who are not in daycare or who do not have siblings, a play date may offer one of their first opportunities to observe a peer. Very quickly, you'll see how young children learn from each other.

Another child may show your toddler how to use a toy differently, or they may encourage your child to run faster, jump higher, and scream louder. This mimicking of each other is one of the critical ways that toddlers learn.

Benefits of Play Dates

Playing is so much more than just a fun way to spend an afternoon. It also is an opportunity for kids to learn about the world around them. Social play allows kids to learn how to take turns, compromise, and handle conflict. It also can improve their ability to regulate their emotions. Play also builds language, math, and social skills.

Because toddlers engage in parallel play rather than playing with their companions (cooperative play), they learn by observing how others interact and manipulate toys or problem-solve with a complex toy. But parallel play doesn't make the experience any less meaningful.

In fact, all types of play build a foundation for emerging social skills. Play teaches flexibility, motivation, and confidence. Play dates also expose kids to new toys and new people. And they give parents or caregivers a break from the daily routine, as well as provide them with important adult interaction.

How to Host a Toddler Play Date

If you invite a playmate to your home, take some time to prepare. You don't need a lot; a little planning can go a long way toward a successful get-together.

Be Specific But Flexible

Set a particular day and time rather than leaving the invitation open-ended with a comment like "come over any time." But also take into consideration that parents cannot always control nap times or last-minute meltdowns. So, recognize that you might have to be a little flexible on when the play date starts.

Once you and the other parent or caregiver agree on a when and where, be sure to exchange contact information. This way, they can call if they are running late or you can send a message if you need to cancel. (Try to cancel only for illness or something else unavoidable.)

Address the Issue of Siblings Upfront

If your other children will be around, let the playmate's parent or caregiver know that. Meanwhile, if your guest has brothers and sisters, you should be clear whether they are invited.

That can mean simply saying: "The other kids are more than welcome!" or asking, "Do you think you can get a sitter for your daughter so the little ones can play on their own?" Or, you could try to plan a play date for a time when older siblings are off at preschool or school.

Be Clear on Whether Parents Should Stay

If you are OK with the toddler being dropped off for a few hours, let the other parent know that. But also be understanding if they want to stay. It may sound like a good idea to give each other a break by planning drop-off play dates, but being alone in a new environment can be traumatic to many young children—and a lot of work for you.

Remember, if you host a drop-off play date, you will have to handle diaper changes or potty time (and accidents) alone. This requires that you need to be very familiar with the other family's routine and approach to potty training.

Talk About Food

Let your guests know what type of refreshments will (or won't) be available. Remember, play dates are supposed to be casual. This means you should not feel obligated to provide a meal.

In fact, it's probably best to avoid serving a meal since toddlers can be notoriously fussy about food. But it's good to plan to have at least a snack for the tots and maybe even a few munchies for the adults. Discuss known food allergies before the play date, as well, so you can provide a safe menu.

Clean It and Leave It

It is natural to want to straighten up before having guests over. But you're having the type of company that will destroy your home's order seconds after they arrive. Keep your home clean (bathroom wiped down, crumbs off the kitchen floor) but comfortable (toys accessible and ready to be dumped out).

Also, don't spend the play date trying to straighten the mess the tots are creating. What can be disorder to you is a process of exploring and learning to them. Leave the clutter until the last few minutes, when you can encourage everyone to clean up together.​

Offer Age-Appropriate Toys

Think about what toys you want to have out for the play date. Generally, if there is a precious item like a favorite stuffed animal that you know your toddler will not want to share, pack it away.

Otherwise, allow the kids to play with a wide variety of toys. And don't stress if your toy stash is not huge. Because all the toys will be new to your guests, they are sure to have a lot of fun.

How to Be a Good Guest

If you're the one who has been invited to a play date, many of the same rules apply. However, your focus should be on being a good guest. Begin by asking the person hosting what you can bring. If they don't have a request, consider arriving with fresh cup of coffee, a muffin, or a bouquet of flowers or a plant to show your gratitude.

Confirm what time you and your child should arrive and how long the play date will last. Typically, an hour is about the maximum for toddlers—although you can stretch it to two hours if the kids are having fun and there is a snack included. But do not stay longer than that, or you could run into naptime or set yourself up for other challenges.

If you have other children, clarify whether siblings are invited. You do not want to show up with your 4-year-old if the person hosting is expecting only your toddler. If your older child is not invited and you do not have another option for them, you may want to schedule the play date for when they are in preschool or have a play date of their own.

Finally, be kind and supportive during your visit. Offer to help where you can—especially when it is time to clean up—and follow your host's lead when it comes to activities and snacks. Most importantly, be observant and redirect your toddler if they are getting into something they shouldn't or are playing too rough.

How to Handle Meltdowns

Sharing is often a foreign concept for toddlers. Even those with siblings are not likely to understand the role a new playmate has in the order of things.

Expect some grabbing and occasionally a few tears. When it happens, do not scold your child. If it is the playmate misbehaving, reassure the other parent that you know this is expected at this stage of development.

Rather than disciplining a toddler, take a few minutes to model appropriate behavior. Dramatically show how you share the toy with the playmate. Or give your child a soft hug to show the other toddler a "gentle touch."

A Word From Verywell

If you are planning a first play date for toddlers, the key is to be flexible. Toddlers can be unpredictable and even the best plans can get derailed. Someone might get sick and have to cancel or there might be a few tears over toys. Keep the focus on the fact that play dates are supposed to be fun and try not to sweat the small stuff.

In the end, this is just a play date. If you don't enjoy the experience or it is more stressful than helpful, don't feel obligated to do it again. However, if it's something you and your child loved, break out the calendar and set a new date to get together with your pals again soon.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Frankel F, Mintz J. Maternal reports of play dates of clinic referred and community children. J Child Fam Stud. 2011;20(5):623-630. doi:10.1007/s10826-010-9437-9

  2. Stanford University, Bing Nursery School. Learning from each other.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. The power of play—How fun and games help children thrive.

  4. Dag NC, Turkkan E, Kacar A, Dag H. Children's only profession: Playing with toysNorth Clin Istanb. 2021;8(4):414-420. doi:10.14744/nci.2020.48243

  5. National Institutes of Health. It's a kid's job: Playing helps kids learn and grow.

Additional Reading

By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.