Playdates give kids an opportunity to build individual friendships and practice related social skills.
- Playdates can be brief – An hour is plenty for young children or children who don’t know each other well. Older children that get along well can often handle longer stretches.
- Balance unstructured and structured time – Unstructured is open play time indoors or outdoors. Structured is set-up activities that may need direction or supervision. It’s good to prepare for both.
- Have the activities as a backup – When the unstructured play is going really well, I tend to let that take the bulk of a playdate. If kids aren’t getting along or seem bored, the structured activities can be helpful (see list below).
- Allow your child to put a few things away – Help your child by letting them put away any toys that they would have difficulty sharing.
- Everything else is to share – Prepare them that all other toys are to be shared. For young children, you may have to manage turn taking.
- One-on-one or at least four children – Two children for play is plenty. Three is definitely a crowd as one tends to get left out. If more than two, go for four or more which is more of a party than a playdate.
- Snack can help – Snack provides a short break from play and a chance for kids to just talk. You can also make snack more playful by having a picnic or playing restaurant or letting the kids participate with prep and set up. Check for allergies before the playdate.
- Okay to play separately – Sometimes kids are happy just to play near each other. One may be content with trains while the other is working on puzzles and that’s okay.
- Your house, your rules – Whatever you would expect from your children (not jumping on beds), is fine to expect from all.
- Outings can be fun – Think bowling, the playground, movies or a nature walk.
- Invite a variety of kids – For my own children, we made the effort to get to know all the other children in their classes. Of course, the majority of playdates were with the friends they choose, but it’s nice to branch out too.
- Be clear about the parent or sibling staying – It is great for the other parent to stay. It gives you a chance to get to know their family, and their child may be more comfortable. As children get a little older, it is also fine for playdates to be drop offs. It is also okay to invite siblings to attend, but it’s not necessary. If two or more of your children are hosting playdates at the same time, it may be helpful to give each pair their own space to play.
- Put pets away – Between allergies, children being scared or being rough with pets, it may be best to put them away.
- Fine to cut it short – If it isn’t going well or if children are being aggressive, it is fine to end the playdate.
Structured activities – art projects, crafts, cooking, board games, puzzles, building pillow forts, puppet shows, dance parties, water play, Playdoh or coloring
I gave a lunch hour parenting workshop on Overindulgence at the OPM today. This included a discussion about having too many toys and the benefits of rotating them. Growing up (a child of the 70s) I had a book shelf, a table for coloring, a dollhouse, a bed and a dresser in my room. Admittedly, the dollhouse was stocked, but that was it for toys. I played for hours a day over years with that dollhouse. I did this in part because that’s all that was available.
The idea of less is more is truly the case with toys. Consider the child that has a collection of Groovy Girls, Polly Pockets, American Girls, Barbies, Littlest Pet Shop and Calico Critters. Likely, she doesn’t play with anything as long or as often as I played with that dollhouse. Part of the answer if you sense your child has too much, is to pack half of it up in storage, then once a month or so, rotate half of that back in. With fewer choices, your child will likely play more often and more creatively with what is available. It also allows you to bring a few toys back into rotation each month as “new” without having to buy anything. This increases the life and interest in any particular toy. A toy that has been out of sight a few months is new, a toy sitting unused on the shelf is boring.
You might also get renewed interest just by moving toys around the house. I thought my girls had lost interest in their dollhouse that was in the playroom. No one had touched it in months. While cleaning one day, I carried it to the dining room. My daughters saw it there, it sparked their interest and they played with it often over the next month.
If you have too many toys, it can also be a golden opportunity for teaching about giving to others. Help your older children to sort through and find the toys they really don’t play with anymore. Have them help clean and box the toys that are in great condition and go with you to donate them.
It can be difficult when your child seems to need a playmate all day. If you aren’t playing with them, they complain they are bored or just wander and whine. It is a good skill in life to be able to occupy your own time. Here are several ways to encourage independent play:
- First, pinpoint any particular needy times and plan accordingly – If your child is an early riser and always in need of company at that time, or if they need to reconnect when parents first return home, don’t expect those to be times for independent play.
- Set aside specific times TO PLAY – Some children worry that they won’t get anytime with you if they don’t follow your every move and ask to play constantly. Giving them a time they can count on may aleviate this worry. It helps some if this play is the same time every day (think the needy times), but it can be different as long as it is your priority.
- Explain why you need the time – Even very young children may appreciate an explanation of what you will be doing. This can be as simple as, “mommy has a few calls to make. I need quiet for 10 minutes.”
- Set-up for play – Preschool classrooms are set-up for play. There is a reading corner with bookshelves, beanbags and puppets. There is a kitchen area with a stove, sink, fridge, table, place settings and babies in cribs. These set-up areas encourage children in to play. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just think to make the play space inviting.
- Create a space that builds on their interests – If your child is very into picture books, make a cozy reading corner that invites them in. Big beanbags, a low faceout book shelf, maybe a tape player for books on tape and a few related things like puppets. If your child loves trains, maybe a train table with lots of storage and a carpet with additional track.
- Store toys and basic art supplies in view and within reach – Toys that are out of sight tend to be out of mind. If you prefer plastic bins, pick clear ones so kids can see what’s inside without dumping them out. Basic art supplies include crayons, paper, Play-doh or clay and water paints with brushes. If you are brave, this includes markers.
- Store one type of thing per container – If you have bins or baskets, try to put just dress-up clothes in one and just balls in another. If you have a big toy box, add cardboard dividers so you have separate sections. When all kinds of toys are stored together, toys on the bottom are not played with and pieces tend to go missing more often.
- Have specific areas for stored away toys – This means have a puzzle cabinet or a board game closet. While they may be out of sight, they are organized and together. Over time, your child will know where they are stored.
- Start things with your child they can easily continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, maybe start a puzzle together and then take short trips away to “check on dinner” or, “change over the laundry.” Gradually make longer trips away. When you do come back, each time comment, “you played so nicely by yourself,” or, “look, you got four more pieces done.”
- Give your child things to do that are like what you are doing – If you are cooking, give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water, or let them “wash dishes” in the sink. If you are on the computer, give them their leap pad. They feel like they are doing something with you.
- Set aside an independent play time each day – In the beginning independent play may go better if children are expecting it and they know how long it’s expected to last.
- Provide more open ended toys – Closed ended toys have a built in end point. Open ended toys include dolls, blocks, kitchen and cooking sets, dress-up clothes and art supplies. Children use these toys in endless ways so the independent play may last longer.
- Ask them their plan for play – If they often have trouble getting started ask them their plan or what they are going to play first. It may be easier for them to start once they have made a decision and have a focus.
- Store some of your toys and then rotate – Many children have too many toys. When there are too many and toys just sit on the shelf, over time they become less interesting to children. The answer is to put half of the toys away in storage. When there are fewer choices, children tend to play longer and in deeper ways with the ones that are available. This also allows you to rotate toys which introduces toys as new without having to buy any. Rotating toys may be swapping half of what’s stored with half of what’s out every month or so.
- Avoid filling their independent play time with TV and other screens – There can be a time for screens, but when you want your children to practice independent play, avoid them. Children watching screens are being otherwise occupied and not learning to play on their own.
- Boredom is a good thing – Many parent worry about their children being bored when left to play alone. This boredom is what sparks creativity, allows children to explore their interests and leads to better quality independent play. It is good for kids to have real downtime. At a minimum think an hour a day of unstructured, just go play time. Time when they are in charge of what to do next.
- Arrange playdates (if this is helpful) – Not really independent play, but once children are a bit older, they may want a friend to help spend their time playing away from you. You may have to have several playdates to find a mix of children that can play together nicely for long stretches. For others, the playdates are never really helpful. Some need more supervision on playdates, and there is no way you’d leave them alone. For more ideas about playdates, please read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2014/09/07/all-about-playdates/.
- Give them more time – When children are bad at independent play, they often just need more practice.
Developed by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, founder of DIR/Floortime and author of many respected parenting books, Floortime offers parents a system of play to encourage language development, social skills, emotion regulation and leadership abilities. Seen as beneficial to all children, this approach to play is often incorporated into therapies for children with speech and language delays, and social and developmental concerns. Below are a few tips to get started and a link to helpful online workshops.
- By design, the child is in charge- They are the director, you are the assistant. They decide the topic, place and pace of the play. Your job is to stay engaged and support the play.
- Stay on topic- All of your questions and comments should be about the ongoing activity. Avoid introducing new ideas or taking the play in new directions. While this sounds easy, it really forces many parents to slow down. The goal is to comment or question in ways that continue the play or encourage the child to think deeper about current activity without moving them off it. You might ask open ended questions like, “what’s happening?” or, “how did you think of that?” You might describe their play or comment on the details.
- Play at their pace- If the child is often running and dumping things, and you are often trying to slow them down, for these 20 minutes you are running and dumping. The message is – how you play is spot on for you.
- There is no correction, no education- It is play. If the child decides the dog is a cow, it’s a cow while playing farm. Just go with it. Yes, you can go back later and read your farm books, but, for the time being, play.
- The goal is 20 minutes per day- Put this on the calendar, set aside the time. This is a stretch that you turn of the tv and put down the phone. Floortime requires you be fully engaged and attentive.
There are many online resources that include and teach about Floortime. For online workshops designed for parents and professionals, visit http://www.thefloortimecenter.com/, http://stanleygreenspan.com/.
Other helpful links include http://www.mindspring.com/~dgn/playther.htm and http://www.cms-kids.com/providers/early_steps/training/documents/floor_time.pdf.
Dear Dr. Rene,
My two-year-old daughter is happy, friendly and affectionate around adults, but, aside from a couple of her friends who recently moved away, she just does not seem to like other children at the moment! When I tell her that we are going somewhere to see her friend(s), she tells me that she wants just her and I to go. When we are in the company of other children, she gets upset if they come anywhere near her. While her friends want to hug, hold hands or play together, my daughter doesn’t really want anything to do with them. I stay at home with her, she does not go to school yet, but we do go to classes and meet up with friends on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this a quick passing phase, but was wondering if you have any advice on how I should handle this behavior.
I know it can be difficult to watch your child struggle as she learns to be social. I want to first latch on to that she is friendly and affectionate towards adults, and you mentioned her having a few friends that recently moved. These points highlight that she has the capacity for being social. That she’s even had one recognized friendship at this little age is a positive. I would try to figure out if there was something particular she liked about the friends that moved away and look for that in new playmates. While I wouldn’t force the hand holding or hugs, I would continue to give lots of opportunities for play with her same age peers. Attend playgroups or gym classes, go to the playgrounds and take group swim lessons. Continue to model being social by greeting others, inviting them to join you at activities and talking about concepts like taking turn and sharing. Occasionally, host others for play at your house so she can have practice at being social in more comfortable surroundings.
Many two year olds still tend to engage in parallel play, playing near other children more than with them. By three to four years old, most of them move to more interactive play. It may be that she is simply still at parallel play. She may prefer adults as they lead play easily and offer good ideas. Adults are also more reciprocal than other two year olds with turntaking and sharing and less likely to provide conflicts. It may be helpful to try playdates with a few slightly older children in the neighborhood.
When she does request to be just the two of you, agree when that was already the plan. If it wasn’t, validate her request by saying something like, “I know you want it to be just mommy, but today we are meeting Johnny and his mom at the park.” I wouldn’t ignore her request, hear her first. Then calmly let her know the plan. I would think this will be a passing phase, but it’s something to keep in mind moving forward. I am hopeful for you both that she will find same-age friends easily when a good match presents itself.
You might also read Just You and Me by McBratney and talk about how the gosling wanted to be alone with the big goose, but how nice it was they shared their space with the other animals who wanted out of the rain.