Piloting Playdates with Your Kids

Parents at the helm!
© Can Stock Photo / karelnoppe

Teaching children to get along with others, resolve conflicts easily, pick up on social cues, and understand the complex dance of human interaction is important for many parents. Indeed, there has been an ever-increasing focus on socializing children at younger and younger ages. This has resulted in a culture that does not find it peculiar to host a group of two-year-olds for a birthday party, to insist four-year-olds should master the art of sharing, and to place a high value on time spent with “friends”.

Enter the modern playdate: a scheduled event lasting an hour or more, where parents supervise, and give shape to, activities that are meant to cultivate friendships and teach social skills and conflict resolution strategies.

Unfortunately, sometimes playdates go sour even with the most easy-going of children. Somebody is pushed, a toy isn’t fairly shared, one child’s interests don’t match up with the other’s, and the whole thing begins to get a little messy. Parents step in to remind kids of rules, insist on equal time with the favorite toy, or encourage a change in activity. This lasts for a little while and then it all goes sideways again, with parents stepping in once more to run interference. The children become increasingly disenchanted with each other and invariably somebody wants to go home early.

Sound familiar?

The motivations for the playdate appear rooted in the belief that parents have to get their children started on understanding the social world early so they don’t lag behind. After all, what parent wants their child to be socially awkward or left-out? This is well-intentioned enough, but a closer look at what the science of child development has to say about all of this reveals some surprising information that may have you rethinking your vision of a playdate.

The mechanics of the playdate

Consider the following fundamentals as part of playdate planning.

The need for diverse social exposure

The human brain requires certain conditions to grow optimally. One of the most foundational of these is that it thrives when immersed in a relational world. That is, being in the presence of others is important. However, ensuring that this experience does not become too sanitized, rigid, or limited is key. I am reminded of a birthday party I once attended for a colleague’s 11-year-old son. Unlike a typical kids’ birthday party with a large group of same-aged children getting together, whole families, neighbors, and colleagues were invited. There were children of all ages, along with grown-ups, young and old. The kids loved it! A natural and diverse grouping of humans is more along the lines of what we were meant for, and is the kind of relational world that grows human brains in the best possible way.

The long road to self-regulation

Children were not meant to parent other children. When children struggle with big feelings and become dysregulated, nature has set it up so that the child’s relationship with their special big people (parents, caregivers, teachers, etc.) is what provides the calming antidote. As the big people step in during these challenging moments to soothe the child, neuroplasticity allows for their brain to eventually figure out how to calm themselves and manage impulses. And yet, with  our intense focus on socializing our children, we can sometimes push them into one another’s arms at times when we should be pulling them into ours, and they miss out on the opportunity to develop those regulatory neural connections.

Managing the mix of conflicting ideas

Renowned psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld refers to the frontal and prefrontal cortex as the “mixing bowl” of the brain. It is where two seemingly opposite ideas can coexist for the purpose of allowing insight and impulse control. For example, the idea, “I really want to play with that toy,” alongside the idea, “If I steal it away from my friend she will be sad,” prompts the child to either come up with a sharing solution or ask an adult for help. And while the brain can begin to take on this kind of thought-mixing somewhere between five and seven years old, even then it is only at lower levels of intensity that the brain will be able to manage. When the thoughts become too emotionally charged – “It is my MOST favorite toy and I REALLY want it back!” – the mix will fall apart along with any self-control. For kids younger than age five, this is out of reach for them entirely, and it is up to the adults to manage it.

Ready (or not) to engage?

Social awareness as a thing does not even exist until about age three. One- and two-year-olds engage in what is called “parallel play” and aren’t fully aware of each other’s motives within the play situation. They have little to no understanding of complex social interactions, like turn-taking and sharing. Between three and four years of age, kids start to reference each other a lot more in their play and will begin to have some incipient understanding of each other’s intentions and role in the play. Even still, they will require a lot of adult support to manage intensified interactions effectively. If the conflict comes too often or feels too big, kids will quickly become overwhelmed and the interaction will no longer be enjoyable or manageable.

This doesn’t have to mean the end of playdates! Rather, these concepts are meant to provide a solid foundation from which big people can work to create social play opportunities that are realistic for developmental stage, that nurture growth, and that keep conflict minimized and happiness maximized for everyone.

© Can Stock Photo / photography33

Playdates that run smoothly

Keep your expectations realistic and set things up for success.

Allow for parallel play

Knowing that very young kids are scarcely aware of other children, altering expectations, and rethinking a playdate as a more structured, adult-designed event can make it more enjoyable for all. Maybe this is a time for you to enjoy coffee with your parent friend while regularly checking in on the kids playing separately, rather than thinking of it as a playdate, per se. Also be aware that your child’s chronological age is not the only determinant of their developmental level. David Loyst, M. Sc. (SLP), an autism consultant, says when it comes to playdates, "it doesn’t matter how tall your child is, it’s how tall their brain is". For kids with developmental exceptionalities or big life challenges, it may be a little longer before they are able to interact with other children on the same level as those in the same age group.

Mix it up 

Multi -age groupings allow for a natural social context in which kids can hone their interactional skills, including conflict resolution. Older kids can keep an eye out for, and model social skills to, younger kids. They are also able to accommodate and flex to younger kids a bit more, which can allow for social interactions to flow more smoothly, with fewer hurt feelings. This creates a natural “zone of proximal development”, a term coined by psychologist and researcher Lev Vygosky, to demonstrate what level of learning kids are capable of stretching into when provided a little external support and guidance.

Know your child’s temperament

Not all children really love the experience of hanging around other kids. My older son loved playdates and my younger son was much happier to play by himself. Children who are sensitive will more easily be flooded out by perceived intensity in the social experience, whereas kids who are easygoing are likely to get more joy out of social situations. The higher the level of sensitivity, the more the child might struggle to settle in to a playdate, want to end it prematurely, or have difficulty managing big emotions or behaviour. Rather than stress them in such circumstances unnecessarily, it would be better to keep playdates to a minimum, provide lots of interaction with you, and when playdates are planned, really tailor them to the inclinations of the particular child.

Keep it short and sweet

It’s always better to end things on a good note, rather than to make a panicked or frustrated exit. When planning for a playdate, think about your child’s energy level in terms of what they are typically able to cope with. Have they already had a long day at school? Are they a bit run down? Has it been an especially busy week? In these cases, keeping a playdate shorter is advisable. Also, if your child is very young, sensitive, or has more demanding developmental needs, shorter will also be better. Try starting with a one-hour playdate, and gradually extend once you get a sense of what your child can manage. The ups and downs of social dynamics are to be expected. That your child will always have the reserves to cope with them is not. Plan accordingly. 

Put away special toys 

Since sharing isn’t often a thing brains younger than age five can handle, planning for a successful playdate includes allowing your child to have certain toys or belongings that are very dear to them as off-limits to playmates. Even older children might be unable to hang onto their emotions if things get too intense around a favorite item. Rather than tempt fate and have things become especially challenging, just side-step this altogether and put those special items away before the playdate begins.

Be fully present

For children under three, you will have to be very involved in the play for things to go well. Expect to be on the floor, and alongside, as these little playmates get their feet wet in the world of social interaction. As they age, you will find that they will begin to manage on their own, but they will always love your involvement in some form and to some degree. Your younger kids might like you to play a game with them or provide ideas for activities. Older kids might want you to be on hand for a drive, or to make them a snack. My 10-year-old son and his friends often want to show me something they have built and even my 14-year-old son still wants a little bit of mom-time around his friends, and I am happy to be available.

Be your child’s brain. For now 

While the brain is still growing and developing, it is not reasonable to expect it to behave in the same way a mature brain would. The rules of adult social interactions do not apply to what our children should be expected to manage. The best way to show the brain how to engage socially is to give it repeated safe experiences through parental modeling, and initiating and supporting conflict management. This is to say that conflict resolution during a playdate is actually an adult responsibility, not a children’s one. Until the brain is fully grown and can manage all of the intricacies of social interaction, you need to be the mature brain upon which your child can rely.

Make clear rules 

As little brains work their way towards the level of maturation required to be capable of self-control, the best way to set up playdates for minimal conflict is to provide boundaries and limits. Set up the rules of sharing at the start and back those up during the playdate. Come up with (and explain) little catch phrases that you can easily pepper into the situation as required. Good listening, kindness and respect, or sharing is caring are all great examples that give kids the opportunity to take a breath and attempt to solve whatever the challenge of the moment is.

No shaming and blaming

If things do get challenging during a playdate, there is absolutely no place for disparaging comments or accusation. The child is acting and behaving in this situation exactly as they need to due to the combination of the challenges of the moment and their developmental level. Period. As adults, we accept responsibility and step in to show the child a better way of resolving issues by saying things like: “I can see this is really hard right now – I am here and I will help you sort it out”, “It sounds to me like this isn’t working out. That’s no problem, I know exactly how to solve this”, or “It looks like you are having a hard time. I just finished making you a super yum snack so let's move on from this game.” In each case, the adult models conflict resolution by taking the lead, directing the situation, and by coming up with an outcome that is fair for everybody. Adults also provide structure, not punishment, by setting limits (“this needs to stop” or “those are not words we use”), and by shortening and limiting the frequency of future playdates (not as a consequence but as something that you know works better for your child). The children’s only job is to observe the adult making it happen, to experience what outcome this leads to, and in that experience, to be regulated emotionally so they might be able to navigate tricky social situations down the road on their own.

Take heart and know that playdates don’t need to be the be-all-end-all of your child’s social existence. Regular life offers many experiences that meet your child’s social needs, but happy playdates are possible if you are present, ready to intervene, and structure events for success. The most important relationship your child will have, until they emerge into adulthood, is the one they have with you. Time with you will always take precedence over time with friends, and it is in the moments of capable modelling, social experiences, and the boundless love you share with your child that will teach her the most important life lessons about human interaction.