22 Tips for a Successful Children’s Play Date

My children are far from perfect. But one of their behavioral strengths is that when we leave the playground, my children do not whine incessantly, refuse to leave, or run and hide. When we leave a play date, my children similarly cooperate and come home when I tell them it’s time. Many parents have asked how I do it, and my approach is really quite simple. I cannot stand delay and aggravation at the end of a long day, so I have made it clear to my children since they were toddlers that if they don’t come, they will miss out on the next available park opportunity or play date. It is hard to follow through on the consequence on a subsequent day, when the child is bursting at the seams with excitement about a park visit or play date offer, but it is essential. Remind the child- we could have gone to the park (accepted this play date invitation) today but we won’t because of what happened with going home last time. All three of my children tried my resolve on this once or twice, but that was it.

With three children, I have experienced both excellent and horrid play dates. Here are some of the strategies that I have found make for successful play dates. Some of these tips sound like simple common sense, but it is amazing how many busy parents don’t stop to think about them.

General Tips:

These general tips apply whether you are the play date host or bringing your child to someone else’s house for a play date.

Set Up a Time Limited Play Date to Meet the Children’s Needs
When you set up a play date, don’t let your child take on more than she can handle. Likewise, you should not commit to host a play date that requires more than you are prepared to handle. No apologies necessary. Establish a start and end time that works for all parties. Set the play date time based on the children’s needs. You may get home from work at 6:30 p.m. but this is not a good time to start a play date even if it is convenient for you. If one of the children can only handle a three hour play date, don’t set up an all day play date.

Discuss Important Issues
What is important to one family may not be important to another so discuss upfront with the other parents any issues of concern to you. For example, you may want to know whether there are any weapons stored in the other family’s home; you may want to know whether the other parent plans to drive the children anywhere and, if so, clarify whether your child requires a booster seat or is allowed to sit in the front seat; you may want to explain whether your child is allowed to cross streets without an adult; depending on the child’s age, you may want to explain whether it is okay to leave your child at the house without an adult if the other parent has to run an errand. You will also want to find out if there are important issues for the other family before hosting their child in your home. It is a good idea to exchange phone numbers with the other parent on the day of the play date so either of you may contact the other if anything unexpected comes up.

Feed Your Child a Meal before a Playdate
If your child is going to someone’s house to play in the morning, make sure your child eats breakfast first. If your child is going to someone’s house for the afternoon, feed your child lunch before he goes. Similarly, if the play date is scheduled for your house, feed your child before the play date guest arrives. Hungry children often become cranky children.

If your child is going to another house for a play date, remember that the host parent may not be expecting to have to serve your child a full meal. If you are so pressed for time that there is no time to serve your child a meal before a play date, your priorities need to be rearranged. If your child is simply not hungry, insist on a small meal and then alert the host parents that your child may need a snack at some point.

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Keep Irritable and Sick Children at Home
If your child is irritable or may be coming down with an illness, postpone the play date. Children on both ends are sure to be disappointed but postponement is preferable to the frustrating day that may result from sending a child who woke up on the wrong side of the bed on a play date (or having a guest come and experience that behavior at your house) or spreading a suspected illness.

Most children enjoy playing at other children’s houses. As much as your child enjoys going to another’s house for a play date, rest assured that most of her friends likewise enjoy coming to your house. Reciprocity also shares the hosting responsibility amongst the parents. 1:1 reciprocity on hosting and sending children for play dates is not necessary, but do make an effort to balance the play dates you host with those hosted by others.

Be Flexible
Be flexible about changing play date arrangements at the last moment. Sometimes, a parent’s needs will change and other times a child may announce that he prefers to stay at his own house instead of coming to yours as planned. When you can, be flexible in accommodating these changes in plan.

Tips When Your Child Is the Play Date Guest:

When your child is to be a guest in another’s home for a play date, a few simple guidelines will help make the play date successful.

Offer to Drop Off and Pick Up Your Child
When another family is hosting the play date, offer to drop off and pick up your child whenever possible. If it turns out to be more convenient for the other family to pick up your child on their way home from somewhere or drop off your child on their way out, graciously accept the offer. If the other family does pick up or drop off your child for the play date, repay the favor when it’s your turn to host.

Send No Toys or Only One Toy
When your child is a guest in someone else’s home, it is an opportunity for the the other child to share his toys with your child and for your child to play with the other child’s toys. Bringing along one favorite toy to share is not normally a problem as long as it is one your child will share. However, a bag full of toys is likely to get distributed throughout the host family’s house, creating a burden and delaying pick up. It may also disappoint the hosting child who may have activities planned for the play date.

Remind Your Child How to Behave
You know your child best, and you are likely to know what sticky issues may come up on a play date. Remind your child before leaving for the play date about his responsibility to take direction from the parent hosting the play date, to play cooperatively, to be gentle with younger siblings and to help put away toys. If there are particular issues that tend to be difficult for your child, go over your expectations before leaving your own house. Once you have arrived at the home of the family hosting the play date, your child will likely be too eager to start playing to pay careful attention.

Teach Your Child to Distinguish Different Ways of Doing Things from Dangers
Make it clear to your child what rules from home go with him when he is playing in another child’s house. Your child should know the difference between an important rule that he must never break (playing with matches) and a rule that applies in your house but not in a friend’s house (watching cartoons on a school day). Your child should know where you are and how to contact you if he should feel that something is seriously wrong. Make sure he knows to call you, for example, if he feels threatened in any way or if there are weapons or unsafe behaviors in a friend’s home.

Make Sure Your Child Knows When to Seek Assistance from an Adult
Some bickering on play dates is inevitable. However, there are times when children do not have the skills to work things out and need the assistance of an adult. Make sure your child knows it is okay to ask the host parent for help if he feels unhappy and cannot resolve the situation with his friend. Your child should also feel free to ask the host parent for direction when there is a household rule (usually permissive) that differs from the home rule, and he is not sure whether he should engage in the activity. The other parent may let children roam the neighborhood, play in the street, or eat a lot of candy, for example, while you may not.

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Be Clear on Pick Up Expectations
Before your child goes on a play date, make sure she is clear on what to expect when you pick her up. Pick up time often coincides with dinner preparation or departure of the host family for another activity. It is essential that your child be prepared to leave without whining or hiding or engaging in other delay tactics. Make it clear to your child that when you come for pick up, she is going to get her belongings and leave without any argument. Failure to comply with this rule should involve a consequence. One that works well is declining the next play date offered. If you have to do this, tell your child when she misbehaves that she will not be able to go on the next play date offered. Then when a play date is actually offered, explain to her that you are declining it and remind her why. If your child has difficulty with transitions, it may help to telephone before leaving your home to pick her up and tell her to get ready, you are on your way.

Remember that You Are in Charge
When you arrive to pick up your child, you, not the host family, are responsible for your child. If there are toys to be put away, insist that your child help pick up, unless the host family expresses a preference not to do so at that time. Expect to take charge to promptly take your child home. It is your responsibility, not the responsibility of the host family, to direct your child out of the house. If, despite your advance instructions, your child runs and hides, you will want to be polite and say something like, “Let me go get her,” before wandering into other rooms. However, do go get her. Host families will appreciate your initiative in taking charge of your own child.

Ask for Feedback and Work Out Any Problems
Ask the host parent how the play date went and listen carefully to the answer. Most times, things will have gone fine. However, if there is any verbal or nonverbal indication that there was a problem, this is the time to deal with it. If your child owes the host child an apology for inappropriate behavior or hurtful words, make sure one is given. If your child broke something of the host family’s, offer to pay for it.

When You Are Hosting a Play Date:

These tips will help things go smoothly when you are the play date host:

Introduce Yourself and Invite the Guest to Come to You for Help
Introduce yourself to your child’s friend. letting him know what to call you, whether that’s Ms. or Mr. X or your first name. Also, let him know that you are available if he needs something.

Gently Enforce House Rules
What seems wrong or bad to you may not be against the rules in another child’s house. So if a child opens your refrigerator and starts grabbing food or picks up toys and starts throwing them around the room, simply explain that this behavior is not permitted in your house and insist that the child put anything out of place back where it belongs. While it is best to remain calm and matter of fact when another child behaves in a way that offends you, there are situations that may call for a more serious response. If a child engages in dangerous or threatening behavior and does not respond to adult instruction, you may want to contact the child’s parent and arrange for an early end to the play date.

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Offer Snacks
When you are hosting, plan to have a few simple snacks on hand. After a few hours of play, bring out a plate of snacks and let the kids know it is available. Snacks should be simple. Try a plate of cut up apple slices or melon or some cheese crackers. It is not necessary to ask children what they want or to offer them a wide variety of foods, as long as you offer a couple of different, simple foods. Even asking kids if they are hungry will often lead to a “no” answer, but if you put out a snack, those same kids will gobble it up. As the adult, you often know the kids’ needs better than they do.

Step in to Resolve Disputes
When you are hosting a play date, step in to resolve disputes if things appear to be getting out of hand. Make sure kids use fair rules of play. If they are having difficulty agreeing on an activity, tell your child to let the guest choose an activity and she can choose the next activity. Or let them talk it out if they can. Never tolerate physical or emotional bullying. If your child gets sulky, take her aside for a moment and remind her what is expected of her as host and what the consequence will be is she continues. Not letting her have a play date the next time she asks is a reasonable consequence that works effectively.

Provide Distractions
When play dates are running off track, often a little redirection will save the day. It doesn’t take much. Ask the kids to help you rake the yard. Pull out a box of cake mix, and let them bake. Send the kids off to find some big rocks and then let them paint pictures on them. Just getting them started on some out of the ordinary but simple activity will usually result in a return to cooperative play.

Have an Exit Strategy
Whenever possible, give children a five minute warning when pick up is at hand. Try to avoid letting kids get engrossed in detailed projects near pick up time. Help them to locate shoes, clothing, or toys that need to go home and place them on their bodies or by the door. When the parent arrives, if the child is having difficulty leaving your house, step in and explain your household’s rules about losing a play date if the child is not cooperative about leaving. The other parent may well appreciate learning of this strategy, if he or she hasn’t yet figured out an effective way to deal with this situation. If he or she doesn’t take charge, you need to make your needs clear. If the child whines to her parent that she wants to stay, and the parent is negotiating or wavering, tell the child firmly, “It’s been a fun day, but I have to make dinner now, so you have to go home.” Don’t discuss or negotiate, just state what needs to be done.

To Tell or to Overlook?
At pick up time, the other parent asks how her child behaved. Most play date hosts would say things went well if the child created no major problems. Small issues can be overlooked as long as the child was generally responsive to your direction. Children are not perfect and an occasional lapse does not require reporting. You should tell another parent if her child did something dangerous or repeatedly engaged in threatening or hurtful behaviors after you asked the child not to do those things.

Remind Children about Greetings
Children rarely forget to greet an incoming guest but at the end of the day, they often need a reminder to walk the guest to the door, thank the guest for coming, and say goodbye.

These tips will help you to host successful play dates and to ensure your child is a welcome play date guest.