Attending or Hosting a Play Date for Toddlers

toddler boys playing with trains

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Playdates are one of those things that some moms feel incredibly passionate about. You may meet moms who talk about the "need" for a play date or elements of the perfect playdate. At the other end of the spectrum, you'll also, inevitably, meet parents who scoff at what they see as forced socialization and the orchestration of play by controlling moms and dads. All the analysis is a little silly, though.

Playdates are not evil. Nor are they indispensable. All a playdate is — or at least should be — is fun. Fun for kids and fun for their parents.

If you've been thinking about trying out a play date but aren't sure what it involves or even how to set one up, don't stress. This guide will help you get started.

Is My Child Ready for a Play Date?

Until your child is around three years old, most of his playtime with other children will be spent in parallel play. You may think that this means he isn't interested in playing with other kids, but toddlers do love socializing, even if they do it differently than older kids. Children of any age can get something out of a play date, even infants whose thrills may be found in seeing new faces, touching new toys, and getting used to "strangers."

For toddlers, especially those not in daycare or those that don't have siblings, a play date may offer one of the first opportunities to observe a peer for a long time. 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.

How to Host

If you're planning to invite a playmate for your child to your house, you might want to keep a few things in mind to ensure things go smoothly, or at least as smoothly as anything involving very small children can expect to go.

Be Specific but Flexible

You want to have a particular day (versus "come over some time") and time of day ("around 11") but take into consideration that moms can't always control nap times or last-minute meltdowns. Once you and the other parent agree on a when and where, be sure to exchange contact information so she can call if she's running late, or you can send her a message if your child gets ill and you need to cancel.

Address the Issue of Siblings Upfront

If your other children will be around, just let the playmate's mom know that. 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?"

Be Clear if Parents Should Stay

If you're okay with the toddler being dropped off for a few hours, let the mom know that, but also be respectful if she insists on staying. It may sound good to be able to give each other a break by planning drop-off playdates, but being alone in a new environment can be traumatic to may young children.

Plus, you'll have to handle diaper changes or potty time (and accidents), which means being very familiar with another parent's routine and approach to toileting

Tell Your Guests What Food You'll Serve

Let your guests know what type of refreshments will (or won't) be available. The beauty of playdates is supposed to be the casual vibe; that means you should not feel the need to cater a lunch or spend one extra minute in the kitchen.

In fact, it's probably best to avoid a time of day that would require a full meal since toddlers can be notoriously fussy about food, both what they eat and where they eat it. But it's good to plan to have at least a snack for the tots and a beverage and light munchies for moms as well. Remember to discuss known food allergies before the playdate as well.

Clean It and Leave It

You're having company, so you probably want to straighten up, but you're having the type of company that will destroy your home's order seconds after entering the house. A general recommendation is to make your house clean (think bathroom wiped down) but comfortable (think toys accessible and ready to be dumped out).

Don't spend the hour or two of a 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 be until the last few minutes when you'll encourage everyone to clean up.​

Offer Age-Appropriate Toys

If there is a precious item that you know your toddler will not want to share, pack it away, and avoid the tantrum. Otherwise, allow the kids to try and all of the items in the toy box or playroom.

Tips for Being a Good Guest

So, what if you're the one who has been invited to a playdate? Many of the same rules apply, for instance:

  • Ask what you can bring. And if she says nothing, consider bringing the hostess a fresh cup of coffee from the local coffee shop. This, personally, always endears me to a guest.
  • Clarify whether siblings are invited or will be present
  • Confirm the time but suggest to the hostess that you be flexible in case of emergencies or interruptions.
  • Don't look for the hostess to entertain you. You can tell her to go about her business if she likes, and you'll keep an eye on the kids for a while.
  • Don't overstay the welcome. An hour is long enough for a toddler play date. You may want to stretch it out to two if the kids are having a great time, and no one needs a nap, but by the end of that stretch, you'll probably have a very tired and cranky little one who will be happy to get home to her environs.
  • Reserve judgment. Moms know when another mom is sizing up their living room decor or checking the sink for dirty dishes. Let all of that go, and think about whether your kids are having a good time.

How to Handle Meltdowns

Sharing may be a foreign concept for toddlers. Even those with siblings are not likely to understand the role this new playmate has in the order of things. Expect a lot of grabbing and more than a few tears. When it happens, don’t scold your child, and if it's the playmate misbehaving, let the other mom know that you expect that sort of thing at this age and stage of development.

Rather than disciplining young children, you might take a few minutes to model appropriate behavior. Dramatically show how you share the toy with the playmate. Or give your child a gentle hug to show the other toddler how we "do nice."

In the end, keep in mind that this is just a play date. If it's stressful or no fun, you don't ever have to do it again. If it's something you and your child enjoy, though, break out the calendar and set a new date to get together with your pals.

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2 Sources
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  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 Bing Nursery. Learning From Each Other. Updated September 24, 2015.